Citing personal communications in APA Style

In APA Style, a personal communication is any source that is not accessible to your readers. Personal communications are cited in the text, but not included in the reference list.

Example

Another researcher stated that the results so far looked “very promising” (A. Smith, personal communication, July 15, 2015).

What is a personal communication?

A personal communication is any source you refer to that the reader will not be able to access—either because it was not recorded, is deliberately kept private for reasons of confidentiality, or is accessible only to a specific group (e.g. members of a particular institution or online community).

Because the reader cannot look up these sources independently, APA Style states that it is not appropriate to include them in a reference list. The point of a reference list is to allow the reader to find your sources, so inaccessible sources do not belong there.

Some common examples of sources that should be treated as personal communications include:

  • Private conversations, emails, letters and messages
  • Private social media content
  • Unrecorded performances and speeches

How to cite personal communications

When citing a personal communication in your text, you only need to give the person’s initials and last name, the words “personal communication,” and the date of the communication in parentheses:

(F. Davidson, personal communication, January 12, 2017)

If it’s relevant or important to the reader’s understanding, you can specify the type of communication involved:

When contacted for comment, Johnson stated that the controversy was “absurd” (H. Johnson, email, March 5, 2019).
During the performance, the term “Anthropocene” was used repeatedly (J. Wilson, performance, March 13, 2018).

Private messages on social media are always personal communications. Other social media content should also be cited as personal communication if it is not public – that is, if it can only be accessed by members of a specific group or friends of a specific user:

Members of the online community followed the controversy closely, with one user referring to it as a “media circus” (G. Richards, comment in a private Facebook group, April 25, 2018).

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Quoting your research participants

Quotes from your research participants, such as interviewees and survey respondents, are treated slightly differently from personal communications.

You don’t need to include a citation when quoting your research participants, but the transcript or responses you’re quoting from should usually be included in an appendix. Just refer to this appendix the first time you quote from it, e.g. “(See Appendix A).”

Research participants are often anonymized for reasons of confidentiality. There are several ways of handling this. Where it is not important to distinguish participants from each other, you can simply refer to them without any specific attribution:

One participant stated that…

Where more detail is appropriate, you might want to distinguish participants by personal characteristics like age, profession, or gender:

(male participant, 52 years old)

Where it’s important to be able to refer to specific participants, you can use false names (as long as you clarify somewhere that this is what you’re doing) or numerical/alphabetical labels:

Participant D stated that…
A participant named John (names used throughout are pseudonyms) referred to…

Frequently asked questions about personal communications

How do I cite social media content in APA Style?

To cite a public post from social media, use the first 20 words of the post as a title, include the date it was posted and a URL, and mention the author’s username if they have one:

Dorsey, J. [@jack]. (2018, March 1). We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/jack/status/969234275420655616

To cite content from social media that is not publicly accessible (e.g. direct messages, posts from private groups or user profiles), cite it as a personal communication in the text, but do not include it in the reference list:

When contacted online, the minister stated that the project was proceeding “according to plan” (R. James, Twitter direct message, March 25, 2017).

Should interviews be included in an APA reference list?

Interviews you conducted yourself are not included in your reference list, but instead cited in the text as personal communications.

Published or recorded interviews are included in the reference list. Cite them in the usual format of the source type (for example, a newspaper article, website or YouTube video).

What types of source are cited as a personal communication in APA Style?

In APA Style, all sources that are not retrievable for the reader are cited as personal communications. In other words, if your source is private or inaccessible to the audience of your paper, it’s a personal communication.

Common examples include conversations, emails, messages, letters, and unrecorded interviews or performances.

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Is this article helpful?
Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes and edits for Scribbr, and reads a lot of books in his spare time.

4 comments

Laura
February 11, 2021 at 4:44 PM

Does the reference have to include the phrase 'personal communication' as well as the date each time it is repeated?

Reply

Jack Caulfield
Jack Caulfield (Scribbr Team)
February 17, 2021 at 4:30 PM

Hi Laura,

The APA manual doesn't provide much specific information about repeated personal communication citations. It doesn't mention anything about omitting the words "personal communication" on subsequent citations, so I think it's best to keep including them.

Reply

Laura
February 10, 2021 at 12:03 PM

Hi! Thank you for this article, very helpful! I was wondering what I should do in case I would like to cite a document that I received in an email. I would say this is personal communication. However, I am planning on adding the document as an attachment to my thesis as it is important that readers can access the document. Should I still cite it as personal communication?

Reply

Jack Caulfield
Jack Caulfield (Scribbr Team)
February 17, 2021 at 5:11 PM

Hi Laura,

If you feel this document is essential to your thesis, you can probably include it as an appendix. Then you can write "(see appendix)" when you refer to it in the text, and there's no need for a specific citation. I would advise discussing this with your supervisor though; depending on what the document is, there may be some privacy or copyright issues with including it in your thesis like that.

Reply

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