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How to cite a pdf

Since their introduction, files in PDF-format have become popular (particularly for academic papers) that there is hardly any computer user without the Adobe PDF reader software and/or other kinds of pdf-readers. In fact, our very own free app for writing & managing your research notes (Avidnote) allows you to upload PDF papers/reports and annotate them for your academic projects (find out more here).

There is really no specific citation guide for “citing a PDF”, instead, you are really citing publications that have been published in different mediums that happen to be in PDF format. This could include journal papers, books or reports that are delivered in a PDF format. Most likely, if you are searching for how to cite a PDF, you are really wondering how to cite a PDF report or document. This is covered further down on this page. For the sake of being comprehensive, we have included other popular publication types as well.

So in essence, this article examines how to cite a pdf for different publication types in the APA and MLA styles.

APA style [7th edition]

Theses and dissertations

Majority of the dissertations, theses, and undergraduate projects published on the internet are in pdf.  Below is the dissertation format.

Reference formatAuthor last name, Initials. (Year). Dissertation title [Type of Dissertation/thesis, University Name] Archive Name. URL
Reference exampleJohn, C. L. (2018). The statistical relationship between inflation and unemployment [Master’s   thesis, University of Vienna]. University Library.
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (John, 2019) Narrative: John (2019)

Books in PDF

The internet is a home for all things, including books in pdf. Books usually have a copyright page that contains publication information. Citing online pdf books is not very different from the way books are cited conventionally. But in an online pdf book citation, a URL or DOI follows all the other usual details as shown below.

Reference formatLast name, Initials. (Year). Book title. Publisher. DOI or URL
Reference exampleJohn, C. L. (2019). Web development made easy. Digital World
In-text citation exampleParenthetical: (John, 2019) Narrative: John (2019)

 Journal papers

You’ll also include all the usual components [e.g., name of the journal, volume, number, etc] when citing a journal in pdf. However, pdfs often include an e-locator in place of a page range. An e-locator starts with lowercase e and a series of numbers [e.g., e4321]. Just like a page number or page range, an e-locator is used to determine the exact location of an entry in a journal.  

Reference formatLast name, Initials. (Year). Article title. Journal Name, Volume(Issue), Page range, or e-locator. DOI or URL
Reference example with page rangeJohn, C. L.(2018). Inflation and policymaking. Journal of Economics21(7),   160–168.  making.pdf
Reference example with e-locatorJohn, C. L.(2018). Inflation and policy-making. Journal of Economics21(7),   e4321.
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (John, 2018) Narrative: John (2018)


Newspapers are rarely presented in pdf. However, when such is the case, they should be cited just like the print version in the format below.

Reference formatLast name, Initials. (Year, Month Day). Article title. Newspaper Name, pages xx.xx
Reference example with a single pageJones, E. (2018, March 4). Growing concerns about climate change. The   Washington Post, p.11.
Reference example with discontinuous pages  Jones, Courtney. (2018, March 4). Growing concerns about climate change. The Washington Post, A1, A6.
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Jones, 2018) Narrative: John (2018)

For online newspapers, just replace the page number with the website’s URL.


A report is a paper or document that contains information prepared in an organized format and meant for a particular audience and purpose. It is usually a product of thorough research or investigation. Reports are often created by organizational rather than individual authors.  Many online reports are usually in pdf-format and can be cited as follows:

Reference formatAuthor last name, Initials. (Year). Report title: Subtitle (Report No.) Publisher Name. URL
Reference examplesBradley, Silas (2017). The latest trends in data science: an analysis (Report No. EP 941).   Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.  telecommunications/research/reports/fullreports/941.pdf
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Bradley, 2017) Narrative: Bradley (2017)

Note that in some cases, the word “report” is attached to the title. Also, the report number can be omitted if not available.

White papers

A white paper is a form of report that sheds more light about a specific area of interest or topic with the aim of informing readers about the ideas and challenges that surround the topic or issue so as to enable them comprehend it better. Though it is likened to a report, a whitepaper citation slightly follows a different format. For instance, instead of report numbers, the word “White paper” in square brackets is included.

Reference formatOrganization name (Year). White paper title: Subtitle [White paper], Publisher Name. URL.
Reference exampleUnited Nations Organization. (2021). The quest for secession in South-East Nigeria:   a UN perspective [White   paper].  for-secession-in-southeast-Nigeria-PDF-1713K.pdf
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (United Nations Organization, 2017) Narrative: United Nations Organization (2017)


Brochures and pamphlets are informational documents mostly used in advertising to promote a particular product or service. PDF-brochures usually follow a citation pattern resembling those of reports as shown in the following diagram.   

Reference formatOrganization name (Year). Title [Brochure] or [Pamphlet]. Publisher. URL.
Reference examplesIHS Markit (2019). The new Eviews version 11 [Brochure].  Angle publishing    Co.
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (John, 2019) Narrative: John (2019)

Note that in a situation when the same organization is both the author and publisher of the pamphlet, then there is no need to include the publisher segment of the citation.

MLA style [9th edition]

Books in PDF

Reference formatLast name, First name. Book Title. Publisher, Year. Website/Database Name. DOI or URL. PDF file or PDF download.  
Reference exampleMohammed, Sadiq. Towards Effective Classroom Instruction. Cambridge University   Press, 1993. Cambridge  University.  books.pdf. PDF file.
In-text citations formatParenthetical: (Last name page number) Narrative: Last name: (page number)
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Mohammed 90) Narrative: Mohammed (90)

Journal articles

Reference formatLast name, First name. “Article Title.” Journal Name, vol. no., Month Year, pp., DOI or URL. PDF file or PDF download.  
Reference exampleJohn, C. L. (2001). Inflation and policy-making. Journal of Economics, vol. 21   no. 7, pp. 160–168,  making.pdf
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (John 21) Narrative: John (21)


Reference formatLast name, First name. “Article Title.” Newspaper Name, Day Month Year, pp., URL, PDF file, or PDF download.
ReferenceJones, Courtney. “Growing concerns about climate change.” The Washington Post, 7 March 2018, p.11.
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Jones 18) Narrative: Jones (18)

Note: You can include a pdf link if you think it is necessary albeit this is not compulsory.


Reference formatLast name, First name, or Organization Name. Report Name. Publisher, Year. Report no. URL, PDF file or PDF download.  
Reference examplesBradley, Silas 2017. The latest trends in data science: an analysis Report No. EP 941.   Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.   telecommunications/research/reports/fullreports/941.pdf,PDF file
In-text citation examplesParenthetical: (Bradley 17) Narrative: Bradley (17)

Note that there is no need to include the publisher segment of the citation if the publisher is the same as the organization that created the report.

Other resources

This post was produced as part of a research guide series by Avidnote which is a free web-based app that helps you to write and organize your research notes online. Click here to find out more.

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