I have a question about  APA citations. I know that in APA Style, I should add initials to text citations when different authors have the same last name. What do I do when two different authors also have the same first initial?

APA citations for authors with the same surname . . . and the same first initial

The short answer
In this case, rather than using just the initials in your APA citations, include the full names of the first authors.

The details
These APA preferences are discussed in the manual under Section 8.20: Authors With the Same Surname.

As this reader correctly noted, initials typically suffice to differentiate between two different authors who happen to share the same surname. When authors also share the same first initial, however, you need to go one step further to differentiate between them.

Let’s look at a few examples and clarify some do’s and don’ts, so you’ll know exactly what to do should you encounter this situation in a paper you’re writing.

Why differentiate between different authors in APA citations?

Citations serve three broad purposes:

  1. Acknowledge the work of other researchers and give them the credit they are due.
  2. Help to position your research  contribution within the broader field.
  3. Guide readers to the original sources should they want to learn more.

When two different individuals share a surname, readers are more likely to conflate the material you’ve written about them. Adding initials to the text citations gives a visual clue to readers that more than one person has the name in question. The initials help to clarify who said what. As well, the initials make it easier to locate the entry in the reference list.

For these reasons, if you have two (or more) primary authors with the same surname, you should add initials to clarify the text citations even when the years of publication differ.

How to add initials to text citations

Let’s look at an example. These sources are from two different authors, both with the surname Thomas:

Thomas, H. (2006). Steps in leadership. David Fulton.

Thomas, S. (2010). Evaluating schools as learning communities. In P. Peterson, E. Baker, & B. McGaw (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (pp. 539–547). Academic Press.

In the text citations, put the initial(s) before the last name. Use a period and a space. Be sure to add them to every citation of those sources in the paper.

Narrative citation example: H. Thomas (2006) identified six leadership styles—coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching.

Parenthetical citation example: Professional learning communities share common features, such as “shared values and vision; collective responsibility for pupils’ learning; collaboration focused on learning; individual, group, and collective professional learning; reflective professional enquiry; openness, networks, and partnerships; inclusive membership; and mutual trust, respect, and support” (S. Thomas, 2010, p. 539).

How to add first names to text citations

When both the last names and first initials of the primary author are the same, you’ll need to add their first names instead. This situation—different authors, same initials—is rare, but it does crop up occasionally.

Consider the following reference examples:

Smith, J., III, Males, L. M., & Gonulates, F. (2016). Conceptual limitations in curricular presentations of area measurement. One nation’s challenges. Mathematical Thinking and Learning18(4), 239–270.

Smith, J., & Noble, H. (2014). Bias in research. Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(4), 100–102.

In the text citations, add the first name each time you cite the author in question, as follows.

Narrative citation example: As John Smith et al. (2016) clarified, delimitations are the specific, controllable boundaries of a research study.

Parenthetical citation example: Qualitative researchers face the challenge of mitigating biases related to their values, beliefs, personal interests, and past experiences (Fusch & Ness, 2015; Mackieson et al., 2018; Joanna Smith & Noble, 2014).

If you have multiple sources in your parenthetical citation, alphabetize them according to the author’s last name, not the first name or first initial you have added. In our example above, Mackieson precedes Smith. Don’t let the added “Joanna” throw off your alphabetization!

This question came from a reader like you. We’d love to hear your questions about APA citations, APA references, the English language, and more!

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