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. Also, you can often very easily find all of the information needed for your citation by consulting one of the standard indexes, 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.
If you are writing for a class or for publication, your instructor or publisher is always the final authority to consult for determining which style to use as well as for determining the proper format for a specific citation.
For specific examples of how to cite some of the most commonly used types of government publications in the APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian style formats, seeCiting Government Documents (University of Nebraska-Kearney).
Most citations to government documents do not refer to personal authors. The agency that issues a government publication is always to be considered the author of the document unless you are citing a technical report or a part of a publication, in which case you should use the personal author (if given).
Often the easiest way to determine the author 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 author you have listed.
Political Entity and Issuing Agency
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:
Example: Denton, TX. Public Schools.
Example: U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs.
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):
Example: Rio Grande Compact Commission.
Example: Centre Regional Planning Commission (PA)
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:
Example: U.S. Department of Labor. Employment Standards Administration.
An agency that is well-known in its own right need not be preceded by its departmental name:
Example: U.S. Bureau of the Census
Example: U.S. Forest Service
When in doubt, include everything.
If the document has more than one issuing agency, use the first one listed.
If the document has a personal author or editor, or has been prepared by a private company contracted by the agency, include an appropriate byline after the title:
Example: , edited by John Logsdon.
Example: , prepared by National Institute of Building Sciences.
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 a phrase in the document—and enclose the made-up title in brackets:
Example: [Campgrounds of Yosemite.]
A date that appears in a title does not necessarily match 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.
Some documents include on the cover and/or title page a combination of numbers and letters called an agency report number. This number 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.”
The report number should be placed in parentheses, immediately after the title/personal author statement, and should be transcribed exactly as it appears on the document:
Example: (S.Hrg. 98-113).
Example: (DHHS Pub. No. PHS 82-1675).
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.)
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, personal author, and report number as applicable:
Example: National Urban Recreation Study: Dallas/Fort Worth (microfiche).
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:
Example: U.S. Geological Survey. Julian, Pa. (map). Photorevised 1971. Washington, USGS, 1961. (1:2500).
Place of Publication
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 the item is available from the Government Printing Office (GPO), assume that the place of publication is Washington, DC.
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. If you can’t even make a reasonable guess, use the abbreviation “n.p.” (no place).
(ERIC) is mentioned anywhere on the document as printer, publisher, or distributor, assume that that agency is the publisher. 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.
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
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”:
Example: [by 1979]
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:
Example: (Current Population Reports; P-20 Population Characteristics No. 383)
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.
A note is required if it would help your reader find exactly the same material you are citing (i.e., a microform collection number, a serial set number, or a Superintendent of Documents number) or if some aspect of the document 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).
A note is optional but recommended if it would help your reader determine the nature of the document (e.g., a poster or pamphlet) or if it would give information about the language or the size of non-print media (e.g., language, map scale, or frame size.)
Citing Parts Within a Larger Document
When citing a part of a publication (e.g., an article from a periodical, a chapter from a book, a paper from conference proceedings), 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 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.
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.
If the work is a loose-leaf, sections of which are updated separately by inserted pages, indicate the name of the part, the internal filing numbers, and the date of the part (usually printed at the top or bottom of each page). Indicate in a note at the end of the citation that the work is a loose-leaf.