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Citing Twitter in Academic Papers

I re-tweeted Alex Madrigal‘s post on the MLA’s new guidelines for citing a tweet an academic paper Friday but neglected to blog on it. Since people are still re-tweeting it, I presume there’s still some interest in the matter and some who haven’t seen it.

Begin the entry in the works-cited list with the author’s real name and, in parentheses, user name, if both are known and they differ. If only the user name is known, give it alone.

Next provide the entire text of the tweet in quotation marks, without changing the capitalization. Conclude the entry with the date and time of the message and the medium of publication (Tweet). For example:

Athar, Sohaib (ReallyVirtual). “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” 1 May 2011, 3:58 p.m. Tweet.

The date and time of a message on Twitter reflect the reader’s time zone. Readers in different time zones see different times and, possibly, dates on the same tweet. The date and time that were in effect for the writer of the tweet when it was transmitted are normally not known. Thus, the date and time displayed on Twitter are only approximate guides to the timing of a tweet. However, they allow a researcher to precisely compare the timing of tweets as long as the tweets are all read in a single time zone.

So, yes, the footnote is quite literally longer than the thing being cited. Go figure.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I guess I’d be interested in why one would be citing a Tweet in an academic paper. I mean, unless you’re cataloging the social habits of Justin Beiber fans or something.

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  2. Thanks for this. Isn’t it also necessary to add the time zone of the reader as well? Part of academic research is the retrieval of cited sources. Unless I know the time zone of the tweet reader, I’d have no way of finding it myself (or related ones by the same user) without the time zone.

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  3. sam says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I guess I’d be interested in why one would be citing a Tweet in an academic paper.

    If you’re writing a paper on what transpired in a certain place at a certain time, something like this:

    Athar, Sohaib (ReallyVirtual). “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” 1 May 2011, 3:58 p.m. Tweet.

    offered as eye-witness testimony would be on point, I’d think,

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  4. What Sam said.

    It could also be useful in terms of a quotation from a given individual or an observation about a given event. (Indeed, I can think of an example of a Tweet I will likely use in a paper I am working on–a report of a statement by one of the candidates in this election cycle).

    Imagine if one was doing work on the Arab Spring in Cairo: tweets could be very useful.

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  5. Fair point guys. Of course, this whole citation matter is made slightly difficult by the fact that Twitter does not, at present, make all Tweets publicly available for all time. My understanding is that an individual would only be able to access the last 3,500 tweets in their account. So, at some point, that Tweet from Abbottobad would be inaccessible, unless Twitter offers some kind of archive feature in the future.

    So, how does it affect academic research if one is sighting source material that is inaccessible?

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  6. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “So, at some point, that Tweet from Abbottobad would be inaccessible, ”

    Not really inaccessible. Once published, always published. That tweet in particular was retweeted and acknowledged by so many other sources it won’t be lost. Other tweets might not fare so well, but those tweets are probably not the ones being cited in papers. Still, maybe a Tweet archive should exist…

    Or maybe not.

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  7. @Herb:

    I’m guessing this guy would vote “no” on the Twitter Archive question.

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  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Is there a Manual of Style standard for tweets? My goodness who’d have thunk it?

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  9. @Doug Mataconis:

    Did you not see the example of why you would use one? That’s the tweet that signalled the beginning of the raid on what was later to be revealed to be OBL’s compound. Seems to me that’d be a significant primary source for anyone studying that raid.

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  10. @Doug Mataconis:

    So, how does it affect academic research if one is sighting source material that is inaccessible?

    Do scholars have to stop citing a particular book if it’s no longer in print?

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  11. @Stormy Dragon:

    Fair point. Although a book that isn’t in print would still, most likely, be in the catalog of at least some libraries.

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  12. @Doug Mataconis: Were I to use a tweet I would take a screencap for archival purposes and either be willing to share it with anyone who asked plus be willing to post it online.

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