Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Citing eBooks

The use of eBook readers is growing (See the Pew Internet and American Life Project). However, the format for citing eBook readers is still developing. The main problem is that eBook readers either don’t have consistent page numbers or don’t have page numbers at all. This is not a problem if you are referring to an idea but is a problem if you are making a direct quote. Advice differs at this point but the main principle is that someone else needs to be able to find what you are quoting. Turabian (2007) includes some basic advice in 17.1.10 “Online and other electronic books.” However, her advice only covers some situations.

Here are some general guidelines for citing eBooks:

  • Some newer eBooks will tell you the page number of the corresponding print edition of the book. If this feature is available then you can just cite the book as your would the print edition. NOTE: the page number listed at the bottom of the eBook is usually dynamically generated based on the amount of the text on the current page. As such it will change with variables such as device used, font chosen and margin spacing. Do not use this number to cite the text.
  • If your eBook reader provides you with the percentage through the book (e.g., 67%) you can estimate the page number based on the total number of pages. However, this approach is inexact and should only be used as a last resort.
  • If a source has paragraph numbers (as Turabian does) cite using those numbers.
  • If there are no page or paragraph numbers you should cite chapter, section and then count the paragraphs to arrive at a number.
  • Finally, you could see if the book is available on Google books or as an Amazon preview and try to find the page number of the print edition that way.

Given all that work you might just want to use the print edition. Your reference list should indicate both the standard reference information and the version of the eBook you are using. For example, 

(Turabian 2007)
Turabian, Kate L. 2007. A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations : Chicago style for students and researchers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Kindle Edition).

(Hammond 1998, section: How to do it: Create the questions;” location 230-235)
Hammond, Sue Annis. 1998. The thin book of appreciative inquiry. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing Company. Kindle eBook.

(Arbinger 2010, ch. 8 para 5; location 1159-1166)
Arbinger Institute. 2010. The anatomy of peace: Resolving the heart of conflict. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler. Kindle eBook.

My thanks to Dr. Paul Bramer for discussion related to this issue and for supplying the citation and reference list examples.


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4 thoughts on “Citing eBooks

  1. Many eBooks don’t handle page numbers in their indexes very well either. I bought Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam for my KOBO reader a few months back. The endnotes were conveniently hyperlinked, but the subject and Scripture indexes only gave the page numbers from the dead tree edition. Kind of frustrating, especially since hyperlinking could have made the indexes even better than a paper copy.

    • Very sad. There was a day when publishers hired book designers to deal with these kinds of things. I suspect a lot of the eBooks created are automatically generated. That said, it does not sound that hard to make the index cross link to the appropriate section of the book.

      • At least there’s a search function. I have to wonder if publishers are assuming search makes indexes obsolete. Which is too bad – I think you need both: one to catalogue the stuff the author felt was important enough to index, the other to look up what the author missed.

  2. At least in the past that was the case. Authors, or whoever they hired, would carefully design indexes to highlight what was important and to make sure readers knew which concepts or terms were related. It appears that many modern indexes are just computer generated lists of all the nouns in the book.

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