How to avoid mistakes in APA Style?

Although inner qualities should play a more important role than looks, it cannot be argued that the first impression is often based on the appearance. Naturally that also goes for formatting one’s paper, even if the content of such work is often studied to great depth and less is done to analyse the layout and formalities.

Still, editors need to assess whether a certain manuscript should be reviewed and/or published or not. To set a standard for presentation of one’s work, journals only publish manuscripts that conform to the publication guidelines. JEPS, as many other journals in psychology, follows the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association’s (APA, 2009). Although the APA manual is widespread and used on almost every continent, manuscripts often fail to comply with its rules.

This post introduces suggestions to avoid the main mistakes found in the manuscripts submitted for the 3rd issue of JEPS. Given that JEPS follows APA Style, this post may be useful for anyone writing papers in that system.

Figure 1. Common Mistakes in Manuscripts submitted to JEPS

The post is structured to introduce most common mistakes first and less common ones later on. Figure 1 gives an overview of what will be under discussion. Referencing caused the majority of incompliances with the APA Style followed by troubles with formatting headings correctly. Writing abstract and keywords as well as making the tables and figures look correct each made up 12% of the mistakes. Finally, 7% of the mistakes stemmed from errors in blind review rules. Each of these will be discussed, common errors brought out and suggestions on how to avoid them given.

….seem to create a lot of difficulties – in 42% of the manuscripts submitted for JEPS this September, some kind of incompliance with the APA referencing standards were found.

Figure 2. Common Mistakes in Referencing in Manuscripts submitted to JEPS

Common mistakes
22% of the referencing errors included mistakes in presenting in-text citations. When to use et al.? Should initials of the authors also be written when citing in-text? In addition, 19% of the errors made in referencing came from difficulties with the list of references. What to do with the pages’ numbers? Should the titles be capitalised throughout? What is in italics, what is not? Also, in about 22% of the manuscripts with referencing errors, no doi numbers were marked.

The devil is in the details. Accurate referencing demands a fair deal of attention; sometimes spaces, commas and full stops make it all look wrong. Using a reference management program would help to reduce such errors. In addition, by using such programs, mistakes like a missing reference to a source cited in the text or vice versa – referencing to something that has not been mentioned in the paper – would be ruled out. For the 3rd issue, such errors constituted a fair 16% of the mistakes made in references. If you decide to do anything manually, keep your APA Manual at hand.

…are easier to grasp. Altogether, some 12% of manuscripts received were struggling with errors in that area.

Common mistakes
59% of the errors in headings included troubles with the same APA Style. This is likely to stem from the adaption of the 6th edition, whereas many students are still used to the rules set by the 5th. An additional 19% of errors came from inconsistent usage of heading levels. The final portion of errors reflected the organisation of the paper, in those 22% of cases, the headings did not comply with what was to be explained in the section below it.

Read the latest APA manual (APA, 2009)! Also, creating a template or a style sheet for the word processing program you are using will make things easier – the right title size and location is only a mouse click away. The headings should also act as a very brief summary of the paper – therefore reading the subheadings should give one an idea of what can be expected from the paper. Go through your manuscript keeping that in mind.

Tables and Figures
…are very likely to be formatted perfectly alright, however there were some repeated mistakes.

Common mistakes
The fact that APA Style does not recognise vertical lines in tables was often not taken into consideration. Also the figures and tables were not labelled correctly in some cases.

Again, creating a template to follow in your word processing program could facilitate formatting the tables and figures considerably. Also, some programs offer automatic numbering and referencing, so that following the right enumeration of your tables or figures will become much easier.

Abstract and Keywords
Common mistakes
How to summarise a whole study in 120 words? Or just in a few keywords? After having written 29 pages, it does not seem to be an easy task. Yet, it is an important one.

Use word count, choose shorter expressions, omit everything that is not relevant. Consider the role of every single word you are writing.
The trouble with keywords is just forgetting to add them. Make sure you have them underneath your abstract – they make it easy for others to find your article once it gets published.

Ensuring Blind Review
Make sure you do not only omit your name from the title page, it is equally important that the properties of the document do not contain your details. If you save the file with a new name, you might have to repeat the procedure again. JEPS Blind Review Guidelines will help you here.

Many thanks to the JEPS Editorial board and especially Oliver Arnold for the data collection and comments on this post.

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Laurent

    I’m surprised that so many are still not using modern tools in order to get rid of most of those errors :
    Zotero :
    It manages the references for you. Just go on the webpage of the article to add it to your database. With the word plugin, it will cite the right number of author and won’t make mistake in the year for instance. Creating the bibliography at the end of your manuscript will take exactly 2 seconds. You can also export to Bibtex or most bibliography formats.
    Sometimes Zotero doesn’t include perfectly some data from some website. A double check is necessary. Most mistakes will still be avoided.

    LyX :
    Why spending weeks to take care of margins, spaces, fonts, headings and all those stuff when you can simply let a software do this for you? LyX is using the LaTeX technology without that you need to know how to code in LaTeX. There’s an APA template wich is amazing. You won’t have to care what APA tells about how your titles and figures should be. You just tell LyX : this is a new section called “Methods” and it will know what to do with it. And once you’ve written your article, you can choose whether you want to see it as a normal document, manuscript submission or journal article. Your titles, line spacing and figures will automatically be in the right place.
    There’s an extension of Zotero called LyZ ( wich will let you use the power of Zotero into LyX.

    Templates :
    If you’re too afraid to switch to LyX, you can still use some APA template. You’ll still gain lots of time like this.

    One last comment : i heard quite some complaints about the APA Manual 6th edition. There are some inconsistency. Lots of journals decided to keep the 5th edition.

  • Thanks for these suggestions Laurent!
    I myself use EndNote as my uni gladly shared the license for me. Writing my thesis, I enjoyed the ease of keeping track of my references, being able to locate the right article within a few seconds as EndNote also allows connecting files on the computer to the reference’s list. So I only needed to create categories and was then able to keep track of what should I read still and what can I already use in my paper. Citing while writing is also made just a matter of a few mouse clicks.

    I hadn’t heard of LyX – this sure sounds something worth looking into. However, if it uses LaTeX can the final document be converted into .doc or .rtf, still?

  • Laurent

    Well, EndNote is nice, but extremely expensive. Everything i proposed is totally free, open-source and working with Windows, Linux and Mac. Zotero allows as well to do all those things you said, and much more. Really, check it out.

    Lyx is by default exporting to .pdf (in order to make sure it will always look the same). You can also export to dvi or postscript.

  • jim k.
  • Thank you Jim! Increasing one’s academic visibility is surely an important topic and students would benefit from the knowledge.
    I would also add publishing in Open Access journals to the list. Although not necessarily directed to a wider audience, you can be sure no-one well be stuck behind the obstacle of your home institution not ordering the specific publication.

  • Another site offering APA citation for free is

  • fabiha ali

    help me somebody in a ” A study on citing sources used in the body and the reference list of research writings.