My background is in mathematics where we write papers to the style guide of the particular journal, often similar to that of the largest organizations like the AMS or the MAA. I was a little surprised to learn that (at least in the United States – I immigrated here for university and now work here) apparently many fields use the style of the APA, even if they have nothing to do with psychology. I was told by a colleague that they even have to follow the changes to that style, even though no one in their department actually belongs to the APA.

I am curious if anyone knows how or why that is the case? I imagine there is an interesting historical reason for this.

  • 11
    I always assumed that APA saw the need for a standard style and created one, and then other fields simply adopted APA's style because it was good enough and less trouble than creating their own. – Nate Eldredge May 5 at 18:38
  • @NateEldredge so then from a historical perspective, they did it first and the needs of other fields (mostly humanities and social science I guess) are a subset of the psychology literature? Do you happen to have a reference? I'm having troubling finding a definitive narrative of other fields adopting their standard – TrivialCase May 5 at 22:17
  • No, I don't have references or evidence, it's just a guess - but maybe it will help suggest what to look for. I guess it should be noted that "a field adopting APA" is not really a single action - it would consist of individual societies, journals, departments, etc, within a field deciding to follow those guidelines, until at some point it looks like a consensus. – Nate Eldredge May 5 at 23:36
  • 2
    @TrivialCase They weren't first to write a style guide - they were predated by the Chicago Manual of Style for example. However, I think they were early to focus on compact citations and objective language, which made the style useful for scientific fields mainly communicating through journal articles. – Anyon May 5 at 23:36
  • 1
    It might also be that it originates more from "adopting the author-date system" rather than "adopting the psychology's style", which may shift the question a bit. – jnanin Aug 3 at 9:05

I am posting my reply as an "answer" because of its length and detail, but credit goes to Nate Eldredge and Andy Gillett (see below).

I agree with Nate Eldredge's comment (May 5 at 18:38):

I always assumed that APA saw the need for a standard style and created one, and then other fields simply adopted APA's style because it was good enough and less trouble than creating their own.

An English professor and professional writer (Andy Gillett) published a superb blog post in 2014 that provides the most thorough history of "APA Style" I've seen. The blog post is titled, "'The Harvard System' of referencing" (September 28, 2014).

Although the post's primary subject is the so-called "Harvard System", Gillett discusses APA Style at some length. For example:

The earliest version of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association was a short, seven page guide published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1929. This was followed by a 32 page version by John E. Anderson and Willard L. Valentine in a 1944 issue of that journal. The first edition of the Publication Manual appeared as a supplement to the Bulletin in 1952 and was 61 pages in length. It was revised twice prior to the publication of the second edition (1974, with many reprintings).

Gillett also offers a nicely detailed list of the various iterations of APA Style. Here is the beginning of that list:

History of the APA Publication Manual

  1. Instructions in regard to preparation of manuscript. (1929). Psychological Bulletin, 26, 57-63.

  2. Anderson, J. E., & Valentine, W. L. (1944).The preparation of articles for publication in the journals of the American Psychological Association. Psychological Bulletin, 41, 345-376.

  3. American Psychological Association, Council of Editors. (1952). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. > Psychological Bulletin, 49(Suppl., Pt. 2), 389-449.

Although Gillett's blog post doesn't necessarily provide a complete answer to question posed by TrivialCase, it provides more history, detailed information, and references than anything else I've been able to find.

  • This is quite interesting. Makes me even more grateful to use LaTeX / BibTex that takes care of all of it for me under the hood. – Zenon Aug 3 at 2:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.