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Right Cite: Citation Issues with E-Books

You may love e-books for their convenience. A single hand-held device can carry hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers, immediately accessible at the touch of a button. But what do you do when you want to cite an e-book?

electronic book

How Are E-Books Citations Unique?

If you've ever read an e-book, you know that they have a few major differences with printed books beyond switching out a paper page for a digital screen. While a printed edition of a book will have the same text on the same page from one copy to another, this isn't the case with e-books. Therefore, when you want to cite an e-book, the biggest problem you'll encounter is the lack of fixed pages.

E-books offer you a variety of ways to look at the text on the virtual page. You can change the font size and style to what is easiest for you to read. This is a feature, but it means that the text you're citing won't appear in the same place from one reader to another; it may even be in a different place when you return to look for it.

This citation problem is further complicated when devices come in different sizes. The possible location of cited text will inherently vary from device to device, even before users start manipulating text size. While some e-book readers include page numbers as a point of reference, others don't bother. The Amazon's Kindle is the most prominent example of an e-book reader that doesn't have any page numbers.

e-book

What Do the Experts Suggest?

When you cite a source for an academic paper or other purpose, you want your readers to be able to find the cited text. This enables your readers to better understand your sources and to verify the accuracy of your paper. To combat the confusion of citing e-books, the major players in writing style have begun setting some rules. While the main goal with these rules is to make finding sources easy, a secondary goal is to keep citations from growing unwieldy.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) recommends noting the type of source from which the citation is taken while adding section and paragraph numbers, where available. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is put out by the University of Chicago Press, agrees with the MLA; additionally, the Chicago manual suggests listing the chapter name or section heading as an alternative. Though it can easily grow cumbersome, you could also cite a string of text that is then searchable, taking advantage of a feature printed books lack.

As the technology continues to gain traction, more fixed rules may evolve. However, while the technology is still young, some issues will remain. It's most useful to be aware of the most current recommendations for citations and to keep your reader in mind.

Read more about the e-book debate in our article on the pros and cons of digital textbooks.