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Citing Government Documents

Government publications can be a great source of information for researchers of all stripes. But there is often confusion when it comes time to cite the materials. If you look up “government publications” in the index to the Bluebook, you get rule 14, for regulations, rules, administrative adjudications, and arbitrations. Table T1 lists some specific titles with particular formats, but there isn’t a clear default rule. Here’s a quick guide to the Bluebook rules that are most often involved with citing government documents, with examples drawn from this report.

  1. Books and Reports. Aside from legal resources such as cases, statutes, regulations, and legislative materials, perhaps the most widely cited format of government publication is the report. Written by all manner of agencies, task forces, commissions, or advisory boards, reports can range from one-time issuances of a couple pages, to annual publications of hundreds of pages. When in doubt, if something is issued once a year or less frequently, it’s probably governed by Rule 15 (Books, Reports and other Non Periodic Material). Rule 15 provides for one of the simpler basic citation formats: Author’s Name, Title (year).
  2. Periodicals. Government periodicals are usually non-consecutively paginated, so they fall under Rule 16.5. In that case, the basic citation format is Author’s Name, Article Title, Periodical Name, date of issue, at page(s).
  3. Online material. Almost all government publications are now available online, and some are exclusively available online. Rule 18 governs these publications. For items that are only or primarily available online, a URL citation should be appended per Rule 18.2.2. If the print publication is available, but the online version is easier to find, an “available at” parallel citation is appropriate (18.2.3).

Of the things you need to consider when you’re citing government material, authorship may be the most confusing. Many government publications, particularly those generating from executive agencies, list a string of organizational authors from the narrowest body up to the broadest level, like a cabinet department. You might see, as in our example linked above, “Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, Department of Justice,” with or without the personal names of individual authors! How much of that do you need? Rule 15.1 (c) and (d) hold the answers. (The same rules apply for periodical materials, as well.) Here’s the skinny: regardless of what information is presented, you need two elements to indicate institutional authorship.)

  • If an individual author is named, use that person’s name and then the institution itself. For instance, our example report should be cited as being authored by “Matthew J. Hickman & Joseph L. Peterson, Bureau of Justice Statistics.”
  • If no individual author is named, used the smallest subdivision responsible for the work, and then the overall body. If there were no one’s name attached to this report, it would simply  be authored by “Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice.”

Another special area of concern is a serial number. Many government publications are part of series, and each item in the series is numbered. This is great for specifically identifying the work. Rule 15.7 dictates that the serial number of a work should be included in the citation as follows:

  • If the entire series is issued by the same author (usually an institution), include the number as the beginning of the title. In the case of our Fact Sheet above, the serial number is NCJ 205988, and the series is issued by the institutional author. So the series is part of the title, as “NCJ 205988, 50 Largest Crime Labs, 2002.”
  • If the series is issued by a party other than the author, include the series number parenthetically, before the date (for example, if that applied to our document here,  “(NCJ 205988, 2004).”).

Given these considerations, the final citation for our document is “Matthew J. Hickman & Joseph L. Peterson, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 205988, 50 Largest Crime Labs, 2002 (2004).”

Be sure to consult the Bluebook for specific variations and for typeface considerations (whether in court documents or for a law review). But the bottom line is – citing government documents isn’t as hard as it seems!

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