I know confusion exists about the topic of names in academic writing because I see that confusion in the dissertations I edit. All the errors I cover in this post are problems I have seen at least once (and sometimes much more often than that).
The three topics we’ll address here are appropriate use of individuals’ personal titles, appropriate use of full names versus surname-only, and correctly attributing coauthors when a source has exactly two authors.
Titles and Propriety
The first error I see crop up sometimes, which should be easy to avoid, is referring to cited authors by personal titles such as Mr., Ms., Prof., or Dr. Name. I think this mistake appears because academic writing is probably the only genre in which it is sometimes a mistake. It’s acceptable in journalism, and of course in less formal writing you have much more flexibility to do things the way you want.
You might occasionally see personal titles in the works of eminent scholars (especially those writing a century ago or more), but they might have particular reasons for doing this that don’t apply to your work or that you don’t want to accidentally appear to be using. For instance, because it is rare, the use of personal titles in an academic work might deliver a tone of intimate familiarity or, at the other extreme, sarcasatic condescension.
Because it can convey a familiar tone, the main type of context in which a personal title can in fact be acceptable is when you’re writing about communicating with people directly. An expert source with whom you’ve had direct (e.g., phone, email, or face-to-face) contact, for instance, or an interview participant whom you’ve chosen to refer to as “Mr. X” or “Ms. Y” could be exceptions to the cautionary rule.
It is unlikely, however, that you’ll have reason to refer to a written source—even one you know personally, such as your professor—by a personal title such as “Dr.” or any of the others. In addition to affecting the tone of your writing, making it sound more familiar or more journalistic than you intend, you might risk looking as though you’re unfamiliar with the conventions of your field if you do so.
In this section, I’ll be using given name to refer to what in Western culture is a person’s first (or sometimes “Christian”) name; surname is the family name or Western last name. Full name is the combination of the two, with or without middle names or initials.
Whether or not to include given names along with your sources’ last names is a matter of style that varies across disciplines, so I cannot give too many specific rules here. What I can offer are some suggestions on what to look for in articles and books in your research area so that you can be sure you’re following suit.
I was told by a professor early in my doctoral program that in the humanities, one usually uses a cited author’s full name the first time one cites them in the text (this doesn’t apply to parenthetical citations, of course, which should not include first names); surname is sufficient thereafter. In my experience, the social sciences lean, for the most part, more surname-only. However, both of these guidelines no doubt vary quite a bit.
Another factor that will affect the full name versus surname question is how you are engaging with the author. For instance, if you are providing an in-depth overview of an author’s work, including more than one or two of their publications in the same discussion, you are much more likely to want to include their given name on first reference than if you’re running through the names of twenty authors in two paragraphs of a lit review.
Another way to think of it is as follows: The more important who this person is is to their inclusion in your paper and your discussion of their work, the more likely you’ll use their full name; in contrast, the more they’re simply a name on an article, the more likely it will be fine to use only their surname.
Take note that if you use the author’s full name at all, it’s generally only the first time the name appears in the narrative of the text. Author-date citations should be surname only, and for the most part, subsequent references to the same person should also be surname only (though there can be some variability if you’re discussing them in depth at more than one point in the same work).
Don’t forget that in some Asian cultures, names are written in the order opposite to Western practice. Make sure what you’re citing is the author's surname; you can use your favorite search engine to find the author’s publication information and find out how they’re usually referred to in citations.
And you all know this, but my sense of completion demands that I mention it: Don’t refer to written sources by their given name alone. Just don’t.
Referring to Two-Author Sources
This is the most important of this post’s three topics because it concerns formally standardized rules about properly attributing sources, rather than unwritten conventions. Fortunately, it’s also the one I see the fewest errors with. But I do still see problems sometimes, so let’s discuss.
Let’s start with the rule. Say you’re citing a 1932 article called “The Shrimp” by Dan Floral and Molliver Bardy. Here’s how it’ll look in your paper:
APA and Chicago author-date system, in run-in text: Floral and Bardy (1932)
These are the incorrect presentations I see occasionally (though not often):
Why—or How to Remember It
#1 Why we don’t replace the second author with “et al.”: In simplest terms, it’s probably because the Latin “et al.” stands for “et alia,” which means “and others” (plural), not “and other” (singular). It could also be because if you’re going to write, type, or printing-press more after the first person’s name, it might as well be the second person; you’re not really saving that much ink opting for “et al.” instead. It might also be simple respect for the second coauthor, which converges with the reason for which the other mistake is a mistake:
#2 Why we don’t drop the coauthor: Any formal citation will refer to all authors, even if some of them are referred to only indirectly as “et al.” “Et al.” is of course used in many styles when you’re omitting two or more authors’ names—not just one—so check your style guide for details. A source with many authors will usually have one (or a small number of) primary author(s), and the rest will be minor contributors. When this is the case, they’ll generally be listed in order of importance to the study. But when a source has only two authors, the two could have contributed pretty equally to the writing; instead of being listed in order of contribution, they might be in alphabetical order. It would be unfortunate for one author’s 50% contribution to a study to go unrecognized just because their surname ended in Z.
The closest you’re likely to come to an exception to this rule is if you are focusing on one particular author’s body of work, including a number of studies they’ve published with various coauthors. When you’re analyzing the researcher’s entire oeuvre—including, say, Floral and Bardy (1932), Floral, Babbitt, and Mostello (1946), and Floral, Fosby, Mills, Cash, and Chung (1981)—you might give an overarching narrative explanation of how Dan Floral’s research on the whole ties into your current project. You might even talking about how “Floral’s work on ‘The Shrimp’ was groundbreaking for its time,” for instance. But when you cite the specific works, the citations are still formal. That is, even if you’re focusing on Dan Floral, he has not suddenly become the sole author of the 1932 article “The Shrimp”; the end of the sentence will still say "(Floral and Bardy 1932)."
Many of us picked up on and internalized the conventions of academic writing while working through graduate school, but I realize that not everyone notices every minute detail on their own. There are a lot, after all. Some precocious scholars might also need (or want) to know these elements earlier than others. I hope these tips will help steer such writers toward using the forms that will produce papers and articles that best mesh with the research in their fields.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.