In April 2016, the MLA released the 8th edition of their style guide. The updates to the MLA format move toward making it much easier for students writing their research papers to cite digital sources, like YouTube videos, which were cumbersome under the earlier rules. While the MLA citations for paper bibliographies have changed quite a bit, MLA in-text citations are roughly the same. Here are the changes you should be aware of as you get your students ready for this year’s research papers.
Digital publication has changed research and documentation.
The biggest reason for the changes to MLA format is that the old way to cite sources had become cumbersome. The new system is much more digital friendly. One of the new elements in the style guide is the idea of “container.” This refers to the place where the researcher encountered the source. In earlier editions, if a researcher heard a song online, they might have to track back that song to its original album from many years earlier. But that type of citation doesn’t accurately represent the experience of the researcher. Now, the researcher documents how they encountered the source rather than its original publication.
Significant shifts in approach to documenting sources: Practice and process vs. formulaic and strict
Perhaps the most significant shift in MLA citations is the overarching philosophy: the new citation process focuses on streamlining the way all sources are cited. In previous editions, there were separate rules for each type of source. But with the continuing expansion of ways to experience digital information—tweets, YouTube videos, podcasts etc.—having a separate style for each resource that contained relevant information for the format was becoming increasingly cumbersome.
So now, the strict format-specific guidelines are out the window. Instead, you’ll have to help your students adjust to the more process-oriented system. Once they get the hang of it, they should find it’s actually more consistent and easier to use—it just requires a little more critical thinking on their part.
Writer should make decisions about sources
On Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty wrote in “Streamlining Citations” on March 31, 2016 that the MLA is now taking “more of a logic-based approach, rather than rules based. That mean[s] less feverish page flipping to locate a style and more critical thinking about scholarly attribution.” The idea is to make the works cited list more intuitive both for the researcher and the reader of the paper. It also lends the idea that source format is less important than the content in that source.
Luckily, the style guide still lends plenty of page space to evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism and using quotations, so you won’t have to worry that the equality the sources are given in works cited makes it harder for you to evaluate their legitimacy. Your students should still be evaluating them on their own—perhaps even more so than under previous guidelines since their critical thinking skills are required.
Universal approach to include basic core information
So what are the universal elements for each source? A new citation covers these elements, in order:
- Title of source
- Title of container
- Other contributors
- Publication date
In-text citations are mostly the same
It’s a lot of changes to adjust to for the works cited section, and no doubt you’ll have to spend time in your classes preparing students for this shift in thinking as they begin research projects. Luckily, the in-text citations have much smaller shifts; a YouTube video will now include a time-based citation in the text and students will use the my trans. abbreviation to note that they’ve made their own translation to a source. But the changes are, luckily, relatively small.
For a full breakdown on where to find the significant changes in the MLA Style Manual 8th Edition, visit the MLA’s official “What’s New in the Eighth Edition” article.