BIO 190—Scientific Communication I

Formatting a bibliography

As scientists, we are trained to focus on content, to the extent that we sometimes forget the importance of style. Style, in the sense used here, refers to the appearance or arrangement of information. This sort of style is ever-present in science, from the readouts of instruments to the order of topics in a research paper.

Imagine that I were to give you a URL that looked like this:

/~jcclark/classes/bio190/; (http); format.html;;

It looks unfamiliar and confusing, right? It contains all the information you need to get to a web page, but it is in an unfamiliar order. The expected order,, might have seemed unfamiliar to you once, too, but you learned it, because it is the format that other people (and computers) use. What we are doing is using style to facilitate communication, so that anyone familiar with the style will be able to quickly see the important information.

Style is important for bibliographic citation for the same reason. Because of the way in which libraries, universities, and scholarly societies developed, there are a number of different styles for bibliographic citation. Some of these are well-established: they have been around for years, their style manuals are easily obtained and easy to interpret, and many of them are explained in web sites created by librarians and others. These include Turabian (named for the person who created it), University of Chicago, Modern Language Association (MLA), and American Psychological Association (APA).

Unfortunately, styles for biology are not as well standardized. The Council of Biology Editors, or CBE (now the Council of Science Editors) has established basic guidelines, but a quick look at several biology journals will show that there are two basic formats, the citation-sequence system and the name-year system, each with many variations. In this course, we will use the name-year system.

Until recently, there were few on-line guides to the CBE styles, but now there are several:

Some of these expand on the basic principles listed below, and you should take a look at all of them.

Basic Principles

Remember the four elements of a bibliographic citation: author, year, title, and source. They occur exactly in that order, and each ends with a period (emphasized here so you can see it more easily):

Dobzhansky, T. 1970. Genetics of the evolutionary process. Columbia University Press, New York.

Other than at the end of certain abbreviations, periods don’t occur elsewhere. Notice that the author is listed last name first, the first name is abbreviated to an initial (the middle, too, if there were one), the title is neither italicized nor in quotes, and it has sentence capitalization rather than title capitalization (Genetics of the Evolutionary Process). Many of these features will vary in the styles used by different biological journals; for this course, I’ve chosen from among the simpler alternatives.

Here is an example of a journal article with multiple authors:

Allan, G. J., Clark, C., and Riesberg, L. H. 1997. Distribution of parental DNA markers in Encelia virginensis (Asteraceae: Heliantheae), a diploid species of putative hybrid origin. Plant Systematics and Evolution 205:205-221.

Notice that additional authors are also last name first. The title is handled in the same manner as a book title. The journal name is spelled out (I hope you remembered to write out the whole title and not just the abbreviation). The volume number is separated from the page numbers with a colon, and they are separated with a hyphen. An issue number would be in parentheses: 36(3):243-250.

Here is a chapter in a multi-author volume (see BIO 190 - Bibliographic citation for an explanation):

Raven, Peter H. 1977. The California flora. pp. 109-137 in Barbour, Michael G., and Jack Major, eds., Terrestrial vegetation of California. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Here is a web page (this one):

Clark, C. 1998. BIO 190 - Formatting a bibliography. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona,

Here is a web page (fictitious) with no author, date, or source (beyond the URL):

Anonymous. [16 August 1998]. Disease of the week web site.

In place of the year, and in square brackets, is the date at which you viewed the page.

Most journals have information about bibliographic citation in their “Instructions to Authors”, but the information is often incomplete, and authors are instructed to look at bibliographies in recent issues for guidance. Here are some on-line instructions for several journals:

Citation: Clark, Curtis. 2001. BIO 190 - Formatting a bibliography. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona,


These are official class materials of BIO 190 as taught at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, by Curtis Clark. They are subject to change without notice to anyone but students currently enrolled in the class.

Summer Quarter, 2001
© 2001 by Curtis Clark