Long Citations, Short Citations, or Does It Matter?

Image of workman breaking golden egg

We’ve all heard the rule: The first time we cite a source, in a reference note, we cite all details about the source. After that, each time we cite the same source, we use a short form. 

That’s the rule. But every rule has exceptions. Sometimes, rules just don’t work.

In another forum, a cautious researcher asked (and I paraphrase): ‘When I prepare a report, should I follow the rule for first and subsequent citations or can I just use full citations throughout?’

It depends.

The format we choose for footnotes in a report depends upon the nature of the report. In fact, the word “report” has contradictory meanings, even for those engaged in historical research.

  • Software reports. Some individuals use the term “report” for anything generated by their database. In that case, any database software with citation templates will usually handle the full citation vs. short citation decisions for us.
  • Research reports. Then there are those real "research reports." Those aren’t automatically generated by any software. Those are analytical reports created in the likes of Word—reports that discuss the results of a specific block of research. Research reports identify a specific problem, provide background details for the people or issue we are researching, identify all sources consulted, and present abstracts or transcripts (and sometimes images) of everything found—along with our analysis of each finding and our conclusions at the end of a project. This type of report does require us to make our own decisions about long-form vs. short-form with every citation.

That leads us back to the inquirer’s question. Are there situations in which we might not need to follow the basic long-form vs. short-form rule?

Yes. Here, we need to consider two issues:

  • Draft vs finished product
  • Readership and potential problems

As a rule, we create short citations only on a final draft. While the writing is in progress (including the rewrites and edits) we might decide to delete material or move it to a different place in our discussion. If that material is tied to the first (full) reference note and we’ve been creating short citations for everything past our first mention of the source—and then we bleep the first use—we’ll lose our full citation. If we shift passages of the report, article, etc., and the material tied to the first (full) reference note is moved to a later point in the paper, then we end up with a shortened citation coming before the full one. Logic obviously calls for waiting to the final draft and then editing to create the shortened citations.


Whether research reports will go to clients or whether we’re doing them for our personal files (where a report may still undergo revision), there are reasons to question whether we want to use shortened citations at all.

At my personal website Historic Pathways, under the “Research” tab, I have posted dozens of research reports that do not use shortened citations—and some that do. What I’ve discovered over the years, whether the report is destined for a client or for my website, many people will copy or download only a page of special interest and not the full report. If short-form citations appear on that page, then they are left with incomplete information to identify and locate the reference source. For that reason, I rarely use short citations.

On the other hand, when we prepare articles or books for press, our journal editors or publishers will expect us to follow conventions: the full citation appears only once, with repeated references being shortened citations. Under the “Articles” tab at Historic Pathways, you’ll find many examples of that as well.

As with much else in the research world, context matters.

IMAGE CREDITS: PresenterMedia (https://www.presentermedia.com/index.php?target=closeup&id=19218&categoryid=121&maincat=animsp : accessed 27 June 2018), item 19218; used under license.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Long Citations, Short Citations, or Does It Matter?" blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/quicktips/long-citations-short-citations-does-it-matter : posted 27 June 2018).