Common mistakes made in APA style

What’s the most difficult part of the APA style for students? Continuing the practice from 2010, I’ll demonstrate the typical mistakes found in the manuscripts submitted for the 4th issue of the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS). Given that JEPS requires submitted manuscripts to follow APA style, this post may be useful for anyone writing papers according to these regulations.

This post will also refer to any material that would provide more information on how to avoid the incompatibility with the APA style.

The Method

Manuscripts submitted to JEPS go through what we call a technical review, which means we’ll check if they agree with our submission guidelines and APA Style. We give authors feedback on changes to be made, and the data presented here is based on this feedback. As it can be assumed the students submitting to JEPS tend to be more knowledgeable about the APA formatting rules than an average student, I’d therefore urge readers not to apply this data on all psychology students. This merely shows what should students pay most attention to when formatting their work according to the guidelines provided by the American Psychological Association.

The Results

Figure 1. Mistakes made in JEPS submissions for the 4th issue. 2011.

There are several ways to quantify the number of mistakes made. In the following analyses, the number of mistakes has not been taken into account, just the area of making them. Therefore, the data offers a proportional overview of mistakes made in the named categories across manuscripts. The data however does not reflect the number of mistakes made in total.
Compared to last year, two new categories are introduced as they gained a considerable proportion of mistakes compared to previous analysis. Figure 1 illustrates the most common mistakes in APA style in JEPS submissions. The results will be explained and dissected below with references given to avoid the errors.


Figure 2. Most common mistakes made in referencing. JEPS submissions for the 4th issue, 2011.

Thirty seven per cent of manuscripts submitted to JEPS this year had had some difficulty with referencing. In fact, when the two new categories are excluded, referencing errors would constitute again 51% of all mistakes made, like they did in the 2010 analysis. Referencing then clearly poses a major problem for students submitting to JEPS. At the same time, the referencing errors differ in their character (see Figure 2) which also illustrates the complexity of this category.

The devil is still in the details (as it was last year).  The issue with referencing cannot be underestimated–a failure to appropriately indicate the sources used, could lead to allegations of plagiarism. Correct referencing requires vast amounts of time, patience, and attention to detail when doing it manually. However, using a reference management program would solve each of these problems within a few clicks (those needed to download the citation to the program and those needed to insert the citation to the proper place in the text). The JEPS Bulletin will soon publish a post on using such programs, so stay tuned!

Other formatting

Seventeen per cent of manuscripts contained errors made in the running head, pagination numbers, title page and font. JEPS submission guidelines do not specifically state how these should be formatted but lets APA manual guide the area. It could be assumed a number of students have either not consulted with the book or have not found the formatting of these not significant enough to follow.

Psychologists know that first impression does matter. Those formatting issues  in question here constitute the first thing one notices in a paper. Better make the paper look good! Still, formatting the title page, running head etc. are often regulated differently in submission guidelines for journals or manuals for course papers and theses at universities. Students should then pay attention to how the institution for which they are writing their work, wants to see the piece formatted. Should it not be defined in specifics, however, you can’t go wrong following APA style as a psychology student.

Abstract and Keywords

Summarising their work in only a few words constitutes a difficulty authors of 14% of the manuscripts could not overcome. In some cases, the problem was wordiness—120 words is a strict limit, others had troubles finding keywords or formatting them accurately.

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 on the other hand is just forgetting to add them. Make sure you have them underneath your abstract, centered – they make it easy for others to find your article once it gets published.

See more in JEPS Bulletin:
How to write a brilliant abstract?

Grammar and Style

The fact that only 10% of the manuscripts had difficulties with English is remarkable given that JEPS receives manuscripts from most corners of the continent. Correct use of English however cannot be underestimated—not only does good grammar improve the readability of the paper, proper style also assures the text doesn’t offer any possibilities for ambiguity of the content.

The JEPS Bulletin hast tackled the issue on a number of occasions:
The core features of the scientific writing style
The core features of the scientific writing style II
How to make (scientific) texts sound professional?
Lost in translating?


…only caused problems in 9% of the manuscripts. Some of them can perhaps be explained by the change in the APA manual compared to its older (5th) version.

My suggestion remains the same from last year: read the latest APA manual (APA, 2009) and create a template or a style sheet for the text editing program you are using. This will ease your efforts considerably. You can then select the correct formatting of the heading according to its level from the menu.  Compatibility with APA style will be guaranteed. The headings provide an overview of your paper, something a reader can skim through quickly to know what will be written. Go through your manuscript keeping that in mind – will the formatting (and wording) of your headings aid reader in gaining a quick understanding of what would await them should they decide to read your paper?

Tables and Figures

Only a small proportion of manuscripts (7%) did not agree with the APA manual in this regard. Of course, not all submitted manuscripts had tables or figures in them, so the proportion of the mistakes made could be higher. Most common mistakes emerge from the details—authors forget to omit vertical lines, introduce headings to all columns or forget to make sure the figures/tables are correctly labelled. In some cases, the numbering of tables or figures did not match with what was indicated in the text.

Again, creating a template to follow in your text editing program could facilitate formatting the tables and figures considerably. There are also tools and programs which offer automatic numbering and referencing (MS Word, for example, has this feature already in it).
For table formatting, you may find this JEPS Bulletin post useful: Table formatting according to APA.

Ensuring Blind Review

Six per cent of the manuscripts violated the rules for blind review. Although the requirement is not always there (i.e., professors usually do like to know the authors of the course papers they are going to assess). Still, JEPS insists on keeping it a secret.

When submitting to JEPS or any other journal that has the same policy, 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. JEPS Blind Review Guidelines will give more specific instructions.


Many thanks to the JEPS editorial board for providing the authors with the feedback  on APA style and allowing me to use the data.


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