I’m sometimes asked why nursing schools require students to write papers in APA style—the writing style specified by the American Psychological Association. Although I do not know the historical thinking of the nursing school administrators who chose APA style, U.S. nursing schools’ broad use of APA style is validated by several factors.

  • Widespread use of APA style by nursing schools worldwide. In a survey of over 60 U.S. nursing schools—including U.S. News and World Reports’ top 25 U.S. nursing schools—I found that all of these schools require use of APA style.  In addition, many nursing schools that teach in English outside of the United States also mandate the use of APA style by their academic communities. This international use of a common writing style at all levels of nursing education—undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate—has obvious advantages for both students and faculty members.
  • Widespread use of APA style by nursing journals.  Over 250 nursing journals APA.  (In comparison, only 13 nursing journals use National Library of Medicine style [also known as “Vancouver style”].)
  • In-depth writing style standardization.  APA style sets standards for almost the entire range of writing issues:  word choice, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, manuscript structure, bias and publication ethics, and citation and reference list formatting. This standardization facilitates mastery of APA style in particular and scientific writing style in general. In comparison with APA style, most other scientific writing styles provide guidelines only for citation formatting.

In addition to APA style, two other writing styles used in the health sciences—American Medical Association (AMA) style and Council of Science Editors (CSE) style—are comprehensively described in their respective reference manuals.  However, AMA style and CSE style have disadvantages as described below.

  • Widespread use of APA style by nurses. Many commentators on writing for the nursing profession state that APA is the most commonly used by the nursing profession.
  • Widespread use of APA style across multiple disciplines.  Another advantage of APA style is its unique use in multiple disciplines, including—in addition to nursing—public health, psychology, sociology and social work, anthropology, economics, management science and business, environmental sciences, international studies, political science, education, communication, journalism, linguistics, and jurisprudence–criminology. This broad use of APA style facilitates interdisciplinary research and communication.
  • Relative ease of learning.  The primary reference for APA style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition, is 272 pages in lengthIn comparison, the AMA Manual of Style, 10th Edition contains 1,032 pages and Scientific Style and Format—The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers contains 698 pages. I sometimes wish that the Publication Manual provided information on some minor detail that is covered in these other two references—but I am a professional editor.  For busy nursing faculty members and students, the shorter length of the Publication Manual makes this reference a more practical tool for both learning and using APA style.

As many commentators have mentioned, the volume of information and layout of the three comprehensive style manuals—for the APA, AMA, or CSE styles—make learning any of these styles a formidable undertaking.  However, both the simpler layout of the Publication Manual and the availability of APA style learning textbooks further facilitate mastery of APA style.

  • Cost.  In comparison with the preceding factors, the cost of a writing style reference may seem relatively unimportant. However, nursing graduate students burdened by considerable academic expenses will probably be relieved to know that the Publication Manual is less expensive than both the AMA Manual of Style and Scientific Style and Format (as of this writing, from Amazon, $17.98 vs. $48.36 vs. $75.00, respectively);

In addition to the specific reasons for using APA style, in the following paragraphs the APA Style Team explains the benefits of using scientific writing style in general.

Why is APA Style needed?

From “Why is APA Style Needed?,” by the APA Style Team in the APA Style Blog.  Retrieved from http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/why-apastyle-needed.aspx

Uniform style helps us scan articles quickly for key points and findings. Rules of style in scientific writing encourage full disclosure of essential information and allow us to dispense with minor distractions.

Style helps us

  • express the key elements of quantitative results,
  • choose the graphic form that will best suit our analyses,
  • report critical details of our research protocol, and
  • describe individuals with accuracy and respect.

When we use an editorial style, we remove the distraction of puzzling over the correct punctuation for a reference or the proper form for numbers in text. Those elements are codified in the rules we follow for clear communication, allowing us to focus our intellectual energy on the substance of our research (Foreword, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed., p. xiii).

An author writing for a publication must follow the rules established by the publisher to avoid inconsistencies among journal articles or book chapters. For example, without rules of style, three different manuscripts might use sub-test, subtest, and Subtest in one issue of a journal or book. Although the meaning of the word is the same (in this case, subtest is APA Style), such variations in style may distract or confuse the reader.

The need for a consistent style becomes more apparent when complex material is presented, such as tables or statistics.