Citing AI: When, How, and Why

Robot and Student in Library

Promoting academic integrity in the age of AI takes a multi-faceted approach. But, one simple way to make sure students are using these tools ethically and responsibly, is to teach them how to properly cite their use. Here we’ll discuss the guidelines that the MLA and APA have shared on how to cite generative AI tools, like chatbots, in accordance with their formats. Regardless of whether your school requires the use of one of these citation standards, understanding these policies can help you guide students towards responsible AI use.

What the MLA says

Under MLA rules, anytime an AI tool is quoted, paraphrased, or its content is incorporated into your work, it must be cited using in-text citations and in the bibliography. It also says that you must acknowledge any functional use of the tool, such as for translating or editing. This can be done by describing the use of the tool in your text, or using a note to indicate its usage.

The MLA also recommends not treating the AI tool as an author in the citation. Instead, put the prompt used to obtain the output in the “author” section of the citation, and an abbreviated version of the prompt in the in-text citation.

Lastly, the MLA recommends carefully vetting any secondary sources obtained from an AI source and citing an external source directly if the AI tool was simply used to search for sources on a topic.

To summarize the MLA’s AI citation guidelines breakdown as followed:

  • Cite the generative AI tool whenever paraphrasing, quoting, or incorporating its content into your work.
  • Acknowledge all functional uses of the tool, such as editing your prose or translating words, in a note, your text, or another suitable location.
  • Vet the secondary sources cited by the AI tool.
  • Do not treat the AI tool as an author.

In-text citation:

  • Format: Include abbreviated version of the prompt used to obtain the information in quotation marks in parenthetical citations.
  • Example: The themes of injustice in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird can be understood as falling into several categories, including racial injustice, social injustice, moral injustice, and legal injustice (”Summarize the themes”).

Reference list:

  • Format: “Author” title of source. Title of Container, version, publisher, date accessed, location.
  • Example: “Summarize the themes of injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird” prompt. ChatGPT, 17 Nov. version, Open AI, 6 Nov. 2023, chat.openai.com/chat

To learn more, check out the MLA Handbook’s website here.

What the APA says

Under APA rules, you must also cite any idea that is not your own, and that includes any idea obtained from a chatbot. The APA recommends citing generative AI as an “algorithm’s output”. This means that unlike the MLA, the APA says that the company who developed the AI tool should be cited as the author. For parenthetical in-text citations, put the company name and the year accessed, and include a full citation in the reference list (see format below).

The APA guidelines also recommend briefly explaining the prompt used to obtain the AI-generated information and if the conversation with a chatbot is particularly relevant to the paper, include the entire conversation as an appendix.

To summarize the APA’s AI citation guidelines breakdown as followed:

  • Cite AI sources as you would an algorithm’s output, with both parenthetical citations in the text and full citations in the reference list.
  • Use the company that built the AI as the author and the name of the AI as the title of the source.
  • If information from an AI chat is used for a research paper, it needs to be cited just like other sources.
  • If the chat was particularly relevant to the content of the paper, include a transcript of the conversation as an appendix.

In-text citations:

  • Use (Company, year) after an idea obtained from the source. If you include the company name in the text, simply include the year in parenthesis
  • Example: The themes of injustice in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird can be understood as falling into several categories, including racial injustice, social injustice, moral injustice, and legal injustice (Open AI, 2023).
  • Example: When asked to summarize the themes of injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird, Open AI’s Chat GPT concludes that “explores various forms of injustice, particularly racial and social injustices, and calls attention to the moral responsibility of individuals to confront and challenge these injustices” (2023).

Reference list:

  • Forrmat: Company. (Year). AI Name (version) [Descriptor]. URL
  • Example: OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (Nov 6 version) [Large language model]. https://chat.openai.com/chat

To learn more, check out this post.

Reflecting on these guidelines

When using AI chatbots in academic settings, proper citations are just one part of the conversation about fair and responsible use. Understanding the limitations of these tools is also important for deciding when and how to use them. Chatbots, while increasingly sophisticated, are not primary sources nor do they undergo the rigorous peer-review process typical of scholarly research. They synthesize and present information based on their programming and training data, which, though extensive, lacks the depth and reliability of scholarly research and fact-checked news sources. Therefore, we caution against encouraging students to quote directly from chatbot outputs. Not only could it lessen the credibility of their writing, it can also lead them to overestimate the reliability of AI as a source of information.

This is not to say that chatbots don’t have a place in learning; they can be excellent tools for exploring ideas, prompting further research, or even aiding in understanding complex concepts. And several of the suggestions made by the citation formats above speak to these uses. The MLA’s suggestion not to treat AI as an author and the APA’s suggestion to include transcripts of relevant conversations are helpful. Likewise, the requirements to note functional uses of the tools are great for encouraging transparent use of AI. Thus, while it’s technically possible to quote or paraphrase chatbot outputs, it’s crucial to consider whether doing so adheres to the standards of academic integrity and scholarly thoroughness expected in educational and professional environments. Chatbots are valuable as learning partners and aids, but they should not be mistaken for authoritative or definitive sources of information.

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