The origins of APA style (and why there are so many rules)

Today, much of the world of scientific writing and publishing revolves around making sure the standards of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (or more commonly known as “APA style”) are being met. Every undergraduate has gone through one or more courses about it, and every student pursuing a career in research sure as to know it from back to back. It can even be remarkably challenging to imagine the scientific enterprise without the existence of the Publication Manual.

APA style has come to refer to this well-developed system of writing conventions that includes guidelines on how to organize empirical reports, how to reference other published works, and how to solve a dozen other problems that arise in the preparation of a manuscript. But the reach of APA style doesn’t end in the settings in which manuscripts are prepared. Indeed, APA style has become common even in disciplines outside psychology, such as nursing, education and anthropology. Contemporary English textbooks present APA style as an established standard on a par with the revered “MLA style” (Achtert & Gibaldi, 1985).

But when something is so pervasive in a certain context we have to stop and ponder: what are the consequences of having such a fixed set of standards regulating most of scientific publishing in the social sciences?

As a result of its ubiquitous presence in the landscape of research and scientific publishing, APA style manages to codify the writing practices of a large discourse community. It has  been present all along, it evolved alongside psychology. The remote formation of this manual’s concept (or necessity as one might argue) can be traced back to a dispute between Edward B. Tichener, head of Cornell University’s psychology aboratory, and James McKeen Cattel, then editor of Science, Scientific Monthly and Psychological Review. In 1904, Tichener sent a letter to Cattell saying: “This bashing of spelling and punctuation takes out all joy of writing as aesthetics. How can you expect people to write decently when you put their treasures through a mangle and turn them out all machine-made products?” (Titchener, 1904, November 9). His complaints referred to ortographical revisions such as the placement of commas, the exchange of ‘behoves’ for ‘behooves’, ‘realize’ for ‘realise’, among others which may seem irrelevant, but sum up a long history of attempts to make the writing style used by psychologists more uniform (Morawski, 2007).

Indeed, earlier that year, Titchener had opposed Cattell’s attempts to organize and centralize activity in the discipline, arguing that “Science, and I think that Universities, must be heterogeneous if they are to be at their best (Titchener, 1904, June 17). This historical argument illustrates the all-around tension in the field between the editor’s desire for a neat, reliable, standard product and the idealist desire for particular expression and creativity among individuals.

The first set of standards were the result of a historically specific phenomenon that psychologists described as “information overload” (Blair, 2003) within their discipline. Due to this explosion in research being produced, the community of scholars could not reasonably be acquainted with all the knowledge and so, the creation of a set of guidelines to moderate and circumscribe the production of scholarly research seemed like the immaculate answer. Solutions for information overload in other fields of science date back to as early as the 16th century, which saw the production of new genres of literature, such as indexes, and bibliographical practices designed to retrieve already existing knowledge, while minimizing the time and effort required of the individual scholar (Blair, 2003).

For psychology, it was only in the 1920s, a time when the APA was experiencing the “growing pains” of professionalization (Evans, 1992) that a formal document pertaining to publication standards was drafted. Along with the dramatic increase in membership, and an ever-widening definition of the topics and methods that defined what meant to be a psychologist. Psychology was no longer just a scientific discipline confined to the laboratory and the solitude of the Ivory Tower, instead, became an applied, helping profession with more practical implications (Capshew, 1999). As a consequence of this, journal editors who previously only had to manage a handful of submissions from individuals they often knew first-hand to an overwhelming quantity (and questionable quality) of manuscripts on topics that the editors might not have been familiar with. This, now classical argument between Titchener and Cattell can be elaborated as a mutually exclusive problem. Only one of the two could be right. Was it Titchener suggesting that creativity and scientific innovation were best promoted by the author’s control over their own words, or was it Cattell, reiterating the need for a mandatory, and apparently arbitrary, set of rules and standards which every member of the scientific community needed to follow?

The result of following such a rigid set of criteria is the standardization of form and style much as a production in an assembly line (influenced by the industrial rationale of the 1920s culture). Consequently creating a stream line of mass-produced goods like those at a supermarket shelf rather than the product of craft, which in turn replaces scientists with bureaucrats and managers an thus leading to  what some critics to describe as a citation style obsessed pedagogy which actually stifles the author’s expression and ability to truly engage with information (Schick, 2011). Furthermore, Bazerman (1988) argued that through the stringent structure prescribed by the Publication Manual, authors become automata – merely checking off requirements rather than devoting conscious thought to their importance. Likewise, previous critical approaches to these historical discussions have condemned these stylistic recommendations for their minimal reliance upon direct quotations, the avoidance of distinctive metaphors and colorful word choices, and the lack of personal pronouns (Madigan, Johnson & Linton, 1995).

Indeed, one of the characteristics of APA style is the absence of colorful language, metaphors or other attention-grabbing elements. Dillon (1991) described this phenomenon as a “rhetoric of objectivity”. In short, it makes sure that the impression of neutrality and impersonal detachment is visible and evident throughout the literature. This practice, common in the empirical disciplines, is far from what the reality of conducting research really is. Gilbert and Mulkay (1984) reported interviews with scientists in a variety of empirical disciplines who commented on the contrast between the rational, impersonal portrayal of the published study and the more complex human story that actually took place. As Madigan, Johnson and Linton (1995) put it: what appears in print is a sanctioned, rationalized account of the research that conforms it to the standard and linear story schema.

By analyzing the historical circumstances that frame the conception and growth of APA publication standards, it becomes apparent that the pursuit for efficiency revealed to be larger than behaviorism, cognitivism or any other psychological theory in introducing and promoting such forms of unification of form and style. As a result of the exponential increase in the number of scholars doing research, the psychologists involved in the birth of these standards crafted what they viewed as a tool for managing information overload in terms of the quantity of articles being written and the variability of their subject. The editors simply could not afford to account for the idiosyncrasies of authors’ writing style. Their goal was to make the ever-increasing journals more financially secure as well as to render the reader a more efficient and fluid experience. To sum up, the original standards can be seen as a tribute to the editorial board’s belief in the institution of a set of mechanical and well-structured rules to facilitate communication and trust among professionals. Although, this view stood in blatant inconsistency with the desires and opinions of many psychologists of the time who felt that such rules would only stiffle the life of their rising discipline. Almost a century later, this debate seems as imperative and vital as before. But were they right?


Achtert, W. S., & Gibaldi, J. (1985). The MLA style manual. New York: Modern Language Association.

Bazerman, C. (1988). Shaping written knowledge: The genre and activity of the experimental article in science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Blair, A. (2003). Reading strategies for coping with information overload ca. 1550-1700. Journal of the History of Ideas, 64, 11-28. doi:10.1353/jhi.2003.0014

Capshew, J. H. (1999). Psychologists on the march: Science, practice, and professional identity in America, 1929-1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dillon, G. L. (1991) Contending rhetorics: Writing in academic disciplines. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Evans, R. B. (1992). Growing pains: The APA from 1903 to 1920. In Evans, R. B., Sexton, V. S., & Cadwallader, T. C. (Eds.), The American Psychological Association: A historical perspective. Washington, DC: APA.

Gilbert, G. N., & Mulkay, M. (1984). Opening Pandora’s box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse. Cambridge: England: Cambridge University Press.

Madigan, R., Johnson, S., & Linton, P. (1995): «The language of psychology: APA style as epistemology». American Psychologist, 50 (6): 428-436.

Morawski, J. (2007). Scientific selves: Discerning subjects and experimenters in experimental psychology in the United States, 1900-1935. In Ash, M. G., & Sturm, T. (Eds.), Psychology’s territories. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schick, K. (2011, October 30). Citation obsession? Get over it! Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Titchener, E. B. (1904, June 17). Letter to J. M. Cattell, JMC: “Letters”, Box 42.

Titchener, E. B. (1904, November 9). Letter to J. M. Cattell, JMC: “Letters”, Box 42.

Pedro Almeida

Pedro Almeida

Pedro Almeida is a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. His main research interests are evolutionary psychology and the intersection between marketing and psychology. Previously, he worked as an Editor for the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS).

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