Help:Citing sources

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"Citing sources" provides help for editing and/or navigating OpenCongress. For more help see the main help page or contact one of the managing editors.

OpenCongress is strictly referenced. This means that every piece of information in an article should be accompanied by a link to an authoritative source for that information. There are two ways to insert a link: the default way and an alternative for new editors looking for an easier (but less useful) way. (See below.)


Referencing guidelines

Summary (how summaries work)
  • Reference links should point directly to the relevant page on the referenced website.
  • It is best to provide full reference details, including author, title of the article, publication, date of publication, etc.
  • You should consider the authoritativeness of the external website when giving a citation.
  • Including inadequate or incomplete sources may result in heavy edits to your contribution, or removal of the material completely.
Main article: Meta:References

How to add a reference

The standard method

The latest standard for citing sources uses the " <ref> " tag to format things nicely and better keep track of sources. When in edit mode, you place the reference just after the information you're sourcing, but in display mode the reference is shown in a numbered list at the bottom of the page under the "Sources" section in the "Articles and resources" section.

To reference a source, you'll first need to collect these bits of information about your source:

  1. Author
  2. Title - Use the title of the post for blogs.
  3. Publication - Use the name of the blog for blogs (e.g. the name of this blog is "Eschaton". For books, use the book title for the publication and skip the "title."
  4. Date of publication - Using the format of "January 2, 2007".
  5. Url - the full internet address of the webpage. The url of this page is

Now format your source so that the title of the piece is in quotes and is a link and the publication is italicized, like this:

An example of using the <ref> tag
What you put in What you get
This is the sentence I'm sourcing. <ref>Paul Hutcheon, [ "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood,"] ''Sunday Herald'', January 22, 2006.</ref> This is the sentence I'm sourcing. [1]

Your source should show up as a nice numbered footnote. Make sure to click it after saving to see how the source is displayed and to make sure you formatted it correctly. Remember that the reference information is stored in the body text, so if you want to go back and change it, go back up to the section that contains the information you were sourcing and click "[edit]" there.

But wait! I don't see my source at the bottom of the page!
If you click the numbered footnote but nothing happens and you don't see the source near the bottom of the article, chances are the article has not yet been set-up to display them. This can happen because an article hasn't had its references cleaned up for the latest format or it's a new article that hasn't been properly set up yet. If you run across this problem, you can help by setting it up. See the instructions below on "setting up a properly-formatted 'Articles and references' section."

Note: For a cheatsheet on how to insert references, see the Quick guide to editing.

Using {{cite}} tags

Using {{cite}} template tags can make things a little easier when entering references. The {{cite}} templates also help give references a consistent look. Here's an example:

An example of using the {{cite}} tag
What you put in What you get
{{cite news | author = Paul Hutcheon | url = | title = Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood | publisher = Sunday Herald | date = January 22, 2006 }} Paul Hutcheon (January 22, 2006). "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood", Sunday Herald. 

If you are referencing a news publication, the template tag should begin with "{{cite news." If you are referencing some other type of web page, it should begin with "{{cite web."

You can use {{cite}} template tags in combination with <ref> tags. Example:

An example of using the <ref> tag in combination with a {{cite}} template:
What you put in What you get
This is the sentence I'm sourcing. <ref>{{cite news | author = Paul Hutcheon | url = | title = Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood | publisher = Sunday Herald | date = January 22, 2006 }}</ref> This is the sentence I'm sourcing. [2]

You can also use {{cite}} templates to format references that appear as part of the "External links" section at the bottom of articles.

The beginner's method

The easiest way to cite a source is to put a link between single brackets. The system will auto-number the sources for you. However, this method does clutter the pages up a bit and makes them inconsistent. In addition, as discussed on the referencing guidelines page, these types of sources are harder to fix if the linked-to Web site disappears. The OpenCongress community of citizen and paid editors tries to welcome new editors and make them as comfortable as possible, so they'll likely come in behind you and clean up your references (isn't that nice of them!). However, once you've gotten a little comfortable using OpenCongress, try the "standard method" above.

The easiest way to cite a source
What you put in What you get
[] [1]
An example:
What you put in What you get
This is the sentence I am sourcing.[] This is the sentence I am sourcing.[2]

Cleaning up references

The original referencing format used in Congresspedia (before it was merged with OpenCongress) was to add a link between single brackets in the body text of an article (see "the beginner's method" above) and then to add a citation to the "External articles" section like this:

The OpenCongress Wiki uses MediaWiki software that has been upgraded and now allows the type of referencing described above under "the standard method". It uses the <ref> tag to allow the source information to be stored in the body text of the article, but it displays it in a numbered list near the bottom of the article.

You can tell which system is being used because a reference in the old system will look like this: [3] where a reference using the new, standard system will look like this: [3]

Because not all articles have been converted to the new system and beginning editors still sometimes use the old method, the cleanup of references is often needed. You can help by cleaning up outdated reference sections. Instructions are below.

How to cleanup a reference made using the beginner method

Follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the article is set up for using the " <ref> " tag: To use the tag, an article must have one " <references/> " tag in it. This tag is only visible when editing the article and can generally be found under a section called "Sources" in the "Articles and resources" section near the bottom of the article. One quick way to tell if it is inserted is to look at the bottom of the article and see if there is a list of numbered sources with "up" arrows. For example, click this numbered reference: [4] and you'll be taken to the "Sources" section at the bottom of this article. Because this article has a " <references/> " tag in it, you'll see at least one source under "References". Click the "up" arrow and you'll come right back here. If the article is not yet set-up for the new system, you can help by setting it up - see the section below on "Adding or cleaning up an 'Articles and resources' format".
  2. Get the information needed to cite a source: To properly cite the source you're going to need the author, title, source, date of publication and url (website address) of the source. Open the link of the existing simple reference in a new window and take a look. Then look in the OpenCongress article's "Articles and resources" section because the source may already have been listed as a bullet item at the bottom by an editor using the old method.
    • If the source is already listed: Simply go to that section, click "[edit]" and copy and remove the entire bullet item making sure to delete - not copy - the asterisk (you're not using bullets anymore so you don't need the asterisk, which creates a bullet point). Then go and delete the old reference (the link between single brackets) and simply paste the information in between a <ref> and a </ref> wherever you want the footnote to go.
    • If it's not: Go and gather the information from the source and then insert the reference using the "standard method" described above. Don't forget to delete the old reference (the link between single brackets).
  3. Check to make sure it's formatted correctly: Because you only see the number of the reference in the body text of the article now, make sure to click the number and check the displayed resource under "Sources" to see that you formatted it correctly.

Adding or cleaning up an "Articles and resources" section

The two things to look for in a properly formatted "Articles and resources" section are:

  1. A <references/> tag in the "Sources" section: In order for the "standard method" of referencing sources to work, a " <references/> " tag must be inserted where you want the footnotes to be displayed. Usually this goes in the "Sources" section of a standard "Articles and resources" hierarchy. (See below, including an example)
  2. A standard hierarchy Every OpenCongress article should have an "Articles and resources" section at the very bottom of the article. This is where the sources for the article are displayed as well as links to any additional external articles or resources and any related OpenCongress articles. The general format is at the bottom of this article, but please note that this is only a guideline - in some cases an editor may modify it slightly in order to better organize a large collection of links. Remember the ground rule to play nice and give the editors who have been working on the article some leeway if they want it.

For more help and explicit instructions, see How to add an articles and resources section.

What to do if the link to a source has gone dead

If you come across a dead link used either in a reference or the 'external links' section, there are a few options other than deleting the link.

1. Do a search (for example on the article title and/or author) and see if alternative links are available. Remember, different search engines often yield different results. So don't simply delete a reference link because you couldn't find an alternative link from one search engine. Sometimes pages have been archived in the Internet archive, which you can only search by using the url. See the Wayback Machine at

2. If a Web search turns up nothing, in some cases it may be better to leave the reference on the page but remove the old url. In this case it is also worth posting a brief note with the old url to the 'talk' page, (accessed by clicking the 'discussion' tab) in case another editor can find it online. Leaving it on the article page without a url enables researchers that have access to subscriber only databases of news archives (such as Nexis etc), to see if they can track it down.

3. Conduct a websearch using a unique phrase from within the cited article. This often yields a new, working link. Articles are also often picked up by news aggregators, cross-posted, or contained—complete or in part—within other articles or blog citations, which may contain an alternative active link.

Are there any tips and tricks with the new system?

Yes. There are two things that may happen if you don't quite get the coding right.

  • If you add the opening < ref > tag but don't include the / in the < /ref > second one, when you preview or save the rest of the text on the page after the ref tag will disappear. Don't panic. Just add the / in the second ref tag and all will be restored.
  • If, when creating the new "Sources" section at the foot of the page, you omit the / from the < references/ > command you will get the following error message

"Cite error 5; Invalid < references > tag; no input is allowed, use < references />"

Again, you just need to go back and add the missing / and all will be fixed.

What if I need to use the same reference on a number of occasions?

You could simply duplicate the < ref > same ref < ref /> on each occasion. The downside of this, especially in long articles, is that the list of references can become unnecessarily long.

The alternative is to, at the location where you first use the reference, you give it a name such as < ref name="fred nurk" > "Fred Nurk" on the Fred Nurk & Associates website, accessed September 2007.< /ref > (Note (minus the spaces before the < and after the final >)

Then in each subsequent location where you want to use the same citation you simply add the < ref name="fred nurk" />

This will then display only one full reference but with the markers as < sup > 1.1< sup > etc

Style guidelines and tips

Referencing newspapers

Citations for newspaper articles should use the following format:

Some online resources require a subscription (especially trade journals). If so, make this clear in the citation:

Bear in mind that even the more reliable news outlets make mistakes. Sometimes they append corrections at the head or foot of online stories or link to them. Sometimes points in an article are contested in a letter to the editor. Take care to see if there was a response or correction to an article before relying on it.

However, some subscription-only articles can be found elsewhere on the web. A simple way to check for this is to search Google for the article's title, or a phrase from the article text. If so, provide a link:

Where the name of the publication is not well known or where there are a number of publications in different countries with the same title, consider adding where the publication you are referring to is published. For example, Independent (UK) to distinguish it from other publications with the same title elsewhere.

Earlier newspaper articles that are not readily available online for general users can still be cited. However, it is best to state the publication title and date either in the text of the paragraph or in brackets at the end of the paragraph. In the External links section add the full citation details, including the page reference and, if appropriate, the edition it was from. (Edition details matter - often a story will be included in one edition of the same day's publication while clippings and microfiche might only have clips from an edition the story is not included in).

Tips for finding permanent links to news sources

  • CongressDaily stories: CongressDaily is a valuable source of detailed information about the actions of the U.S. Congress. However, it is also very expensive and its articles are generally behind a paywall, preventing most citizen editors from being able to read the full article. Government Executive, however, often reprints articles on its website, which is not behind a paywall. Before linking to CongressDaily as a source, check the Government Executive site for a link to a copy of the story.
  • Yahoo! News stories: Yahoo! news links expire quickly—months, weeks or even days after being posted—leaving articles to which they are attached orphaned, particularly if only the article's URL is posted as a source. When Yahoo! links are included in the External Links section accompanied by an article title, that also often ends in futility later to locate another active link for the reference. Yahoo!, as do others using wire service reports, frequently slightly or greatly alters the original article title, making it most often impossible to locate a replacement source for the article.
    • Often, blogs follow the same practice of posting the Yahoo! news links within cited material. Linking to a blog which has as its sole source a Yahoo! news link will also result in an inactive link in the future, rendering the quoted material without a source and unreliable, as well.
    • Although the Wayback Machine at and other archive sources are valuable tools, they cannot locate expired Yahoo! links. Once the article disappears from Yahoo!'s cache, neither a Yahoo! or a Google search will be able to find the link.
  • The New York Times stories: Links to New York Times stories generally go behind a paywall after a few weeks and are only accessible at that time if accessed is purchased. Its local news feeds also often expire (or are archived for $$$) within a very short time.
    • There's hope: However, you can use the New York Times link generator to find permanent, non-pay links for older New York Times stories. Many of the same articles are also posted in the New York Times are cross-posted at the more reliable International Herald Tribune.
  • Significant article links are often buried several pages deep, however, and searching beyond the first five, ten, twenty or more pages of search results may be necessary to arrive at a "gem".
  • Breitbart: Breitbart provides links to breaking news
  • BuzzFlash: BuzzFlash provides links to current headline news and blog articles, as well as its own articles and provides a news alert service.
  • Ice Rocket: The Ice Rocket search engine accesses blogs, the web, MySpace, and news links. A word of caution is necessary, though, regarding blogs: unless you are familiar with a particular blog, tread carefully, as spyware, adware, malware and trojans may be lurking there. The same applies to MySpace pages.

Referencing news agencies / wire services

The Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters, All Headline News, BusinessWire, ChristianNewsWire, Agence France Presse (AFP), PR Newswire, U.S. Newswire, Market Wire, etc., are wire services. They are not publications although each has its own news website. Articles may be written by a wire service reporter but when an article is used by a publication, that reporter's name may or may not remain attached. Additionally, often a wire service is not referenced at the top of an article but reference to it as the or one of the sources for an article is often located at the end of or below an article.

The original wire service author's name may not appear anywhere in the article itself or it may be mentioned in the credit line at the bottom or below the article. This is frequently the case for wire service articles cited by online news journals, international publications and blog and forum entries, especially where no other attribution has been noted.

Referencing books

When citing passages from a book, especially one not searchable online via Google books, reference it as for a newspaper article that is not available online.

It is worth stressing that when citing a page number check whether there was more than one edition of the book and, if so, state which edition you are citing. Page numbering differs between editions for a range of reasons including revisions in later editions, deletions for legal reasons in one country or printing on slightly different format paper in one country. If a book was published in both softback and hardback it is worth identifying which one you are citing.

Saving copies of the original article

Often link addresses will change. Sometimes media releases will be removed from a website because of content that was later considered embarrassing. Sometimes entire sites will be removed. If a reference is critical to an article and you think there is a chance it might be removed later, it is worth saving a copy of the original page to your hard drive. (For example, you could save it as an Acrobat pdf file complete with the original web address and the date that you saved it). While there are Internet archives, they don't catch everything.

Articles and resources

See also


  1. Paul Hutcheon, "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood", Sunday Herald, January 22, 2006.
  2. Paul Hutcheon (January 22, 2006). "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood", Sunday Herald. 
  3. Paul Hutcheon, "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood", Sunday Herald, January 22, 2006.
  4. Paul Hutcheon, "Sleaze probe into nuclear lobbying at Holyrood", Sunday Herald, January 22, 2006.

External resources

External articles