Citing government documents can be difficult. Because government documents are usually not intended for commercial publication, they don't necessarily follow the well-established practices of commercial publishing houses. The information needed for a good citation may be confusingly presented, or may not be present at all. Also, government documents vary widely in purpose, style and content, and none of the standard style manuals gives examples for citing all of these materials in a consistent fashion.
Occasionally a government document will offer a suggested citation, usually on the front or back of the title page.
Some quick citation guides, such as IU's Citing U.S. Government Publications, offer sample citations you can use as models.
Citation generators and research management tools can help you format citations or maintain references for a research project, but tend to be unreliable when creating citations for government resources. The results almost always need to be adapted to meet the standards described below.
Also, you can often very easily find all of the information needed for your citation by consulting one of the standard catalogs, such as GPO’s Catalog of U.S. Government Publications or the UNT Library Catalog.
Keep in mind, however, that there is no universally accepted format for citing government documents, anymore than there is for any other source of information. The general guidelines given below should always be used in conjunction with one of the standard style manuals. On a separate page we have provided links to more specific Citation Guides and Style Manuals for Government Publications.
For information on how to cite government publications in special formats, see these related tutorials:
An archived webinar, Cite It with Style! How to Cite Government Information Resources Like a Pro, is available on the FDLP Academy Web site. It includes a video, PowerPoint slides, a transcript, and a list of resources.
The general guidelines outlined below are based on The Complete Guide to Citing Government Information Resources, 3rd Edition. The arrangement of elements, as well as the punctuation and capitalization, may need to be altered slightly to conform to the specifications of other style manuals.
Most government publications don't have personal authors, and even when they do, the official author is almost always considered to be the governmental agency or organization that has issued the publication, since government documents typically represent the issuing agency's views and policies.
For any national, local, state, or territorial document, begin with the name—this can be abbreviated—of the geographic/political entity (country, state, city, etc.) issuing the report, followed by the name(s) of the agency in hierarchical order, from highest level to lowest:
For intergovernmental (regional, international, etc.) documents, begin with the name of the issuing agency, adding a state abbreviation if the agency is within a single state):
If the agency is composed of several bureaucratic levels, you usually only need to include the umbrella department and the lowest level agency given on the document:
A sub-agency that is well-known in its own right doesn't even need to be preceded by the umbrella department's name:
If you're not sure whether or not to include something, go ahead and put it in.
If the document has a personal author or editor, or has been prepared by a private company contracted by the agency, include an appropriate by-line after the title:
A few documents, such as technical reports, do represent the personal research and viewpoint of a single person or small group. In such cases you can put the personal author's name in the author statement and mention the issuing agency somewhere else, usually as the publisher:
The title of a government document is not always obvious. For example:
- There may be more than one title.
- The graphic design or layout may make it difficult to tell where the title begins and ends.
- The document may not have a title at all.
Often the easiest way to determine the title of a document is to consult an index, such as GPO’s Catalog of U.S. Government Publications or the UNT Library Catalog. This will also increase the likelihood that your readers can find the document by the title you have listed.
If you must decide on your own what the title is, first look at the title page and choose whatever title seems most prominent. If there is no title page, look for a title on the cover. (If the title page and cover give different titles, use the title on the title page.) If the document is in microfiche, use the title on the image of the title page or cover, not what is on the microfiche header.
If you can’t find a title on the title page or the cover, cite the document as untitled or devise a descriptive title, perhaps taken from the subject matter or a phrase in the document, and enclose the made-up title in brackets (no italics):
If the document is an individually titled volume within a finite set, give the set title as the main title, then follow that up with the volume title; be sure to include any pertinent author by-lines after each title:
If it is part of an ongoing series, the series title can go in a note at the end of the citation:
Some documents, especially if they have been mentioned in the news a lot, have a popular name that might be more well-known than the official title. That also can be included in a note at the end of the citation:
A date that appears in a title is not the same as the date of publication, and they do not necessarily match. Likewise, the date of information inside the document—in a data table, for example—may be different from from the title and the publication date. If the document includes a date as part of the title, include the date in the title even if it is the same as the date of publication:
Sometimes elements are added after the title to help identify the document, tell us what sort of document it is, and distinguish it from other documents.
It is important that the reader know whether the document is in a special medium, since such documents are often stored in separate locations in libraries, may require special equipment for use, and may be indexed only in special resources.
If the document is in a medium other than the traditional print on paper (i.e., audio or video tape, audio-visual material, computer tape, motion picture, film strip, microform, slide, holograph), or if the document is a map or poster, indicate the medium in parentheses immediately following the title:
Many government documents come in publication types not typically associated with the academic world, such as brochrues, coloring books, comic books, and games. Be sure to include information about the type of publication if it is anything other than a standard paper book or journal:
If you are citing a government document obtained through a commercially produced microform collection, cite the original paper version of the document in the main part of the citation (without the format statement, if the format is clear from the note) and include a reference to the microform collection in a note at the end of the citation:
Some agencies assign an alphanumeric publication or report number to each document they issue. This number usually contains an agency acronym, and frequently appears in the upper right- or left-hand corner of a title page. If the document includes a Bibliographic Data Sheet or Technical Report Documentation Page, the report number will appear in a box labeled “report/accession number.”
Be sure not to confuse a report number with the call number added to a document by a library. Also, be sure not to confuse it with a contract number or grant number, which is not unique to a document, but is applied to every document resulting from that particular contract or grant. Grant and contract numbers are usually clearly indicated as such on the document.
The report number should be placed in parentheses, immediately after the title and medium, and should be transcribed exactly as it appears on the document:
Sometimes a document may be reissued with the same content, or may be revised and reissued with differing content. Since the content may differ, the reader should be informed of which edition you have used.
Include the edition statement after the title data. If the edition is mentioned in the title proper or in a report number, you need not repeat it after the title data.
Often a map is reissued with changes superimposed upon the original design and is therefore referred to as photorevised. This should also be indicated after the title statement. Note that the photorevision date will always be later than the publication date:
The place of publication can usually be found on the front or back of the title page. Sometimes it appears on the bottom of the last page of the text.
If no place of publication is indicated, and the document is not distributed by the GPO, look for a mailing address on the back of the document, in a preface, or in a letter of transmittal.
For local documents you can omit the place of publication unless it is different from the community in which the document was issued.
If you’re not sure of the place of publication, but you can make a reasonable guess, enclose your guess in brackets and add a question mark. If you can’t even make a reasonable guess, use the abbreviation “n.p.” (no place):
If the document names a specific publishing office of the organization, give that as the publisher.
If the document is published for the organization by a commercial or university press, or if it mentions a specific private printing or distribution firm, give that as the publisher. (If the work comes from UNESCO in Paris and looks like a commercial book, it is probably from UNESCO Press. To distinguish it from other UNESCO publications which are not from UNESCO Press, use the Press as the publisher.)
Sometimes the agency itself may be the source of the document and can therefore be assumed to be the publisher. This may be indicated on a mailing label, in a letter of transmittal, or on a bibliographic data sheet. In such cases, you may abbreviate the name of the agency (or refer to it as “The Agency,” “The Department,” etc.) if it has already been named as the author in an earlier part of your citation:
If you cannot determine the publisher, just give the place and date of publication:
The date of publication might be found in a number of places:
- On the front or back of the title page
- In a preface or letter of transmittal
- At the bottom of the last page
- Embedded in a report number
The date may be in the form of a year, a month, or a specific date, or it may consist of an issue date and year (e.g., May 1989 or Fall 1992). Use whichever format appears on the document and will make it easiest to find.
If no date can be found, but the receipt date of the item was stamped on the document, use that date, in brackets, with a “by”:
If you can't find any date, use “n.d.” (no date).
A series is a group of publications that has one group title as well as distinct titles for the individual publications. Individual titles may or may not be numbered. Be sure to include a series title in your citation if applicable, since it is often a shortcut to locating the document, and if an index does not distinguish individual titles in a series, the series name may be the only way to find the document.
The full series name and the number of the document should come in parentheses after the imprint information and before any notes. If the series number has already been given in the report number, you don't need to repeat it in the series statement.
If citing a series within a series, give both series names:
If the document is contained in a large set of microform such as the ERIC microfiche or Readex microcard sets, include a microform set statement in the notes field with the document’s set number:
Sometimes you may want to include significant information that doesn’t fit in other segments of the citation. This information may be included in parenthesis at the end of the citation.
Some notes may indicate aspects of the document that would affect the reader’s ability to find or use the information source (i.e., FOIA-obtained documents, unpublished papers, mimeographed or photocopied items, distribution data, loose-leaf materials):
Other notes might clarify the nature of the document (e.g., a poster or brochure) or give information about the language or the size of non-print media (e.g., language, map scale, or frame size):
When citing a part of a publication (e.g., an article from a periodical; a chapter from a book; a statistical table from a periodical, book, or database), include both the title of the part and the title of the whole, so that a reader will be able to locate your source as well as the specific item within that source.
A citation to a part of any non-periodical publication (e.g., a chapter in a book, or a single essay in an anthology) is the same as a citation to the whole publication, except that it is preceded by the part’s personal author (if given), title (usually in quotes), and page numbers, followed by the word “in” to show that the part is in the larger work.
A typical citation to an article in a periodical includes the personal author(s) of the article, the article’s title (usually in quotes), the title of the periodical (usually underlined or in italics), volume and issue numbers, date, and page numbers. Consult a style manual for the specific format.
To cite a dynamically-generated dataset display, such as a table, map, or graph, include the following information:
- A descriptive title for the dataset
- The name of the person who generated the dataset
- The name of the software package used to generate the data
- The issuing agency responsible for the database
- The URL of the main page of the database
- The date the data was accessed
You may wish to explain in your text what steps were taken to create the dataset, but these steps do not need to be included in the citation: