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I am reading 'The life and letters of Charles Darwin' from Gutenberg Project ebook. I want to cite some quotes from this book in academic article. How can I cite it?

Project FAQs suggests following

No permission is needed to credit, cite or link to Project Gutenberg as the source of something you use. This applies even for commercial use.

However, I want to cite this book (maybe with page number of the quotes). Project homepage did not give any other metadata about publisher and ISBN number. This metadata is available on Amazon. I am little confused, whether I should cite without publisher and ISBN or use the one from Amazon.

I know this is not a big deal but I just want to be correct :)

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    There seems to be some disagreement so far, which means this is a great question. – 6005 Mar 16 '20 at 16:49
  • Whereas some Project Gutenberg ebooks include formats with page numbers, I noticed that this one does not. It has html, txt, epub, and kindle. The latter two will display page numbers, but the page numbers vary depending on your display size and resolution, so that is not helpful. What citation style are you using? APA 6th ed. section 6.05 covers "Direct Quotations of Online Material Without Pagination," which might cover this case. – shoover Mar 17 '20 at 0:12
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No permission is needed to credit, cite or link to Project Gutenberg as the source of something you use. This applies even for commercial use.

Firstly, I think you may have misunderstood this a bit. The text isn't saying you shouldn't cite Project Gutenberg; in fact, it's saying the opposite -- that you don't need permission to cite them.

Project Gutenberg even has explicit instructions for how you can cite them here. They give an example:

Carroll, Lewis. (2006). Alice in Wonderland. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19033.

The above assumes that Project Gutenberg is the publisher for the version you are citing. That seems valid enough to me, as many books are published in various versions anyway, and you would just be citing one of those versions. The most important thing is not the publisher, but the author and title of the work -- the rest, including the year, is just there so that someone else can find the book that you were reading.

Here is a related question about 2nd editions of books. Note the advice there: You cite the version of the text that you read, not a version that you didn't read. The problem is the quote, page number, etc. may differ in different versions, so you want to be careful. I see Project Gutenberg as an online version of a previously in-print book.

However, some caveats:

  • It is confusing that the year will be off if you cite Project Gutenberg, so it would always be good to include a parenthetical in the citation: e.g. (originally published 1865) for Alice in Wonderland.

  • Be aware that citing Project Gutenberg is a bit nontraditional; probably most people would prefer to cite a print version. But that culture may be changing, and I don't see anything particularly wrong with citing the version that you read.


If you prefer to be safe, you can choose to instead cite a print book, e.g. using an ISBN found on Amazon. In this case, if you wish to credit Project Gutenberg for their help, you can include something in the acknowledgements to your article:

Acknowledgements. The authors would like to thank Project Gutenberg for making some books referenced in this article available online.

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    The project Gutenberg year being off from the original publication date isn't actually very different from any reprint or later edition; e.g. I'm chemist, and a famous textbook of inorganic chemistry is the "Hollemann-Wiberg". I think the current edition is the 103rd, the first edition being from 1900. There have been a whole lot of updates on the way. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 16 '20 at 21:06
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I note that the Gutenberg version doesn't have page numbers so chapter is about all you can cite if you use it directly. I'll also note that the Gutenberg editions are sometimes taken from multiple editions of a work and that they modernize spellings for some works. This makes citation difficult when you need to be definitive. You are better off citing from original editions whenever possible in scientific/scholarly work.

But in this case, I'd think that a decent library (and any academic library) should be able to get you a copy of a print edition that you can use. Consider that.

While you don't need to cite Project Gutenberg, you do need to cite the work itself. Being in the public domain doesn't mean no citations are needed.

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    It seems strange that (1) the culture is to cite the version of the book you actually read, rather than the original (see here), and yet (2) citing Project Gutenberg (which is the version that OP read) is discouraged. Do you have any thoughts on that? I think in an ideal world, we would archive the original versions of books, and always cite those when possible, but APA seems to recommend citing 2nd, 3rd, 4th editions, even when that messes up the year. – 6005 Mar 16 '20 at 16:44
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    Another question: why don't you consider Project Gutenberg to be a publisher? They seem to me to be more like a publisher than a bookstore, as they make their own version of the book rather than providing someone else's. – 6005 Mar 16 '20 at 16:47
  • @6005, see the edits. – Buffy Mar 16 '20 at 17:30
  • @6005 I would argue that "cite the version of the book you actually read" is not at odd with the idea that some versions may be more preferable to cite, as long as "read" is broadly interpreted as "have verified", not "primarily used". – jnanin Mar 16 '20 at 19:26
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    I am also not entirely convinced by the argument against citing Project Gutenberg in the first paragraph of this answer. Modernizing spellings and combining versions doesn't sound like a necessarily bad thing, and in fact could be a good thing if it leads to a more standardized, canonical text. It is just the same as any other publisher; they make some decisions in terms of formatting and standardization. – 6005 Mar 16 '20 at 19:30

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