I'm writing a research proposal with a small maximum word count. References are included in this word count. Fortunately, the citation style is not specified.

I was wondering if there is any (widely accepted) citation style that will generally produce the shortest citations. As far as I've found, MLA seems to be the shortest as it switches author names to "et al." when there's four or more authors, whereas other citation styles that I've looked at only switch with a higher number of authors. Is there any style that would consistently produce shorter citations?

  • 1
    You could number your references, which is typical in the IEEE format.
    – Adam Bosen
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 17:59
  • Actually, now MLA switches to et al. after the first one. That said, places that ask for MLA papers generally don't have ultra strict word or page limits like in the sciences. Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 1:45

4 Answers 4


As @Adam Bosen commented, you will be hard-pressed to find a more compact in-text citation format than IEEE. A single citation is written [1] and several citations [2-5].

The bibliography is then listed in numeric order.

  • 3
    Presumably, superscript numbers would be shorter (i.e., no brackets). And by citation style, you also need to think about referencing format. Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 0:24
  • Accepting this answer as it gave me the shorted bibliography of the mentioned citation styles.
    – Poelie
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 13:55

Coming back to this question when writing a grant with very strict word limit, I discovered that the most concise citation AND bibliography style must be the Science (without titles).

1.R. Hisakata, S. Nishida, A. Johnston, Curr. Biol. 26, 1911–1915 (2016).

You can find the citation-style-language csl file in the official csl styles github repository, that you can download and use in Zotero, Mendeley, RefWorks, etc.
If you're an EndNote person, see the style file in the most popular answer to this ResearchGate question


Vancouver is fairly short. See this guide. It is particularly common in medicine.

In terms of in-text citations, it is short.

  • It uses numbers as citations.
  • There are variations. But the shortest is to put the numbers as superscripts without parentheses. You can also include ranges like 1-5 for five references.

In terms of the actual references, Vancouver is also quite terse:

  • It uses journal abbreviations, so the length of each citation is often shorter
  • It doesn't require dois
  • End page numbers often omit the leading number e.g., 258-60 would indicate 258 to 260
  • It omits full stops after author initials
  • It omits comma between author surname and initial

It is worth noting that many of these features will reduce character counts and page counts but not word counts. E.g., using "J" rather than "Journal" in the journal name will not remove a word. Thus, the benefits of these tweaks in terms of giving you space to add additional content will depend on whether your constraints are defined relative to word count or page count.

As an aside, I think the ease with which you can include heaps of references using Vancouver is a major reason why medical journals have higher impact factors.


This option is hard to beat when the bibliography is also counting towards your word/page count (e.g. in a grant application).


Just in case the above page ever goes down, you can download the raw CSL from here, save it on your computer, and load it into Zotero/Mendeley.

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