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When Is a Footnote Needed in APA Format?


According to the sixth edition of the American Psychological Association’s publication manual, writers should use footnotes sparingly because notes increase a publisher’s printing expense. However, the manual acknowledges that there are some issues that warrant footnotes. The APA defines two types of footnotes: copyright permission notes and content notes. Both types of footnotes supplement the primary content but would disrupt the composition if they were included in the body of the text. Apart from their basic functions, content footnotes and copyright footnotes differ significantly.

Copyright Permission Footnotes

According to “Fair Use” copyright laws, writers who use a single quote that contains more than 500 words must obtain reprinting permission from the author of the quoted material. A copyright footnote states that the writer has the original author’s written permission to excerpt the work. Copyright permission notes are also necessary when reprinting visual data, such as tables, charts or graphs. The footnote contains most of the identifying information that goes into a formal reference at the end of the paper. The footnote should also contain copyright and permission statements. For example:

Note (italicized). From “Shades of Blue and Green” by J. Critic, 1988, Impressions of Impressionism (italicized), 12, p. 68-72. Copyright 1988 by J. Critic. Reprinted with permission.

The APA manual also instructs writers to attach a copy of the author’s permission letter to the end of the essay.

Content Footnotes: Definitions

Content footnotes are explanatory notes that express relevant but tangential information. Scholarly writing often includes technical terminology with which the reader may not be familiar. If understanding a term is crucial to the reader’s comprehension of the text, define it in a footnote. For example, when describing art, a writer may clarify her use of the term “pigment” in a footnote, defining it as the powdered coloring agent that mixes with a binding medium to form paint. Since many people use the term interchangeably with “color” or “hue,” it may be helpful for her to explain that she is discussing physical matter, not a quality.

Content Footnotes: Suggested References

Content footnotes may also refer a reader to supplementary references that support a statement the writer makes. For example, a writer may state that the Louvre Art Museum in Paris convened a panel of renowned art experts who voted Claude Monet the most important Impressionist painter. To demonstrate that the panel’s opinion was well-informed, the writer may include a footnote referring the reader to a source that lists the members of the panel and their credentials.

Academic Fields

APA format is used primarily in the social sciences and the arts. Although footnotes are not a required component in APA-formatted papers and may even be discouraged in some cases, they are common in history, theology, visual art and performance art texts. Any paper that contains excerpts from other works may benefit from footnotes. For example, in an essay about Claude Monet, quotes from authorities on the Impressionist movement may warrant copyright footnotes. Similarly, the definition for a technical art term used in a quotation would belong in a footnote, where it would not interrupt the forward momentum of the primary text.

Succinct Information

If a piece of supplementary information truly enhances the quality of the paper but would disrupt the narrative, discuss it briefly in a footnote. Focus on a single topic and limit the length to one or two sentences. Using a footnote is less disruptive than including tangential information in the body of the paper. But a footnote is still an interruption. It should be concise and valuable. An APA footnote should always enhance the reader’s understanding of the material or affirm the writer’s credibility.

About the Author

Grace Riley has been a writer and photographer since 2005, with work appearing in magazines and newspapers such as the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette." She has also worked as a school teacher and in public relations and polling analysis for political campaigns. Riley holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in American studies, political science and history, all from the University of Arkansas.

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