What is a White Paper?
The definition of a white paper is somewhat broad. It initially referred to mainly government papers, which can later be extended to include commercial documents. Nonetheless, a white paper is a term that describes an authoritative report or guide on a specific subject. Thus, they are often requested and used in politics, policy, business, academic and technical fields. In commercial use, the term encompasses documents used by businesses as a marketing or sales tool.
Whatever their origin, white papers are frequently cited in publications, especially in academic writing. Thus, the citation and referencing rules that apply to other sources of information govern the use of white papers. Depending on the style guide chosen for the presentation of your thesis, different formats will apply. Hence when editing your thesis, you might find the guidelines given below useful, where the white paper citation and referencing formats applicable to some popular style guides are presented.
MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Guide
The Basic Format should include:
• Author’s Surname, First Name (list all authors, taking note that surname is given first for the first author only, subsequently, the first name followed by the author’s surname is used)
• Title page of the document is double quotation marks
• Name of website (assuming that the source is electronic), in italics
• The name of the organization (if applicable)
• Date of access, followed by the full URL
Hence, the format is given by:
Author. “Title of page or document.” Name of site. Date website
published. Sponsoring Institution or organization (if relevant).
Date of access .
Wallace, Anne, John Brown, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Rush. “Paper title.” Webstie name.
2011. 15 Jan. 2011 .
Harvard Style Guide
Harvard makes a distinction between various levels of what could be commonly referred to as ‘white paper’—White Paper, Green Paper or An Act of Parliament; however, all are cited in the same manner. Thus, the following basic format applies irrespective of the type of the source used.
The basic format should include:
• Issuing organization or author(s) name(s)
• Year of publication (in parentheses) Note: there is no punctuation between the name of the organization, the year of publication, or the title that follows
• Publication title (in italics), followed by a full stop
• Issue number
Department of Health (2005) Publication title. Cm.2230. Town, Publisher.
If however, there is an author, or a group of authors, the name format should follow that of a standard citation, i.e.:
• Author(s) names, Author(s) initials, with no separators between adjacent authors
• Source with four or more authors are cited by listing only the first author, followed by et al. (meaning ‘and others’)
Jones, P. Kirk, M and Nelson C.
APA (American Psychological Association) Style Guide.
As with Harvard style, the distinction is made between citing corporate sources and individual authors. As most white papers are retrieved from the web, the citation format is rather simple, with only basic information required.
The basic format should include:
• Author(s) name(s) in the Last name, Initials format for each author, with individual authors separated by a comma. Up to eight authors should be listed in full.
• Alternatively, a corporate source is cited
• Year of publication (in parentheses)
• Publication title (in italics)
Hence, the format is given by:
Author Last Name, Initial(s) or Corporate Author Name. (Year of Publication). Title
[White paper]. Retrieved from URL
Jones, P., Kirk, M., & Nelson C. (2002). White paper title [White paper]. Retrieved from
For more information, visit specific style guide websites, or seek the help of professional editors, who can help you present your thesis in any style of your choice.
A quick review of how to cite a white paper
The term white paper refers to a research document commissioned by a government department or agency in either the US or the UK. They are called white papers because they usually are published as pamphlets on white paper. They are often presented at conferences, and their purpose is to inform policy-makers about a particular topic and provide them with the information necessary to make decisions.
Since the 1990s, the term has also been used to refer to documents produced by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), think-tanks or large corporations. In the commercial sector, white papers function primarily as marketing tools, arguing the benefits of a particular product or technology.
Whether created for a government or a commercial organization, white papers are valuable to researchers, particularly in business and the social sciences. Writers heavily research info for white papers. Thus, they contain a great deal of recent data that has been analyzed and presented in an accessible form. It is, however, essential to cite white papers correctly, and the method of citation will vary according to the style guide being followed.
In APA style guides, white papers often are referred to as government documents or reports from private organizations. They should be referenced like this:
Institute name/organization represented. (date). White paper title (White paper publication info). City, State: Place of printing/publication.
A white paper that has been retrieved from an online source should be cited like this:
Institute name/organization represented. (Year of Publication). Title [White paper]. Retrieved from http:…
OCLC Online Computer Library Center. (2002). OCLC white paper on the information habits of college students [White paper].
In-text citations should be formatted thus: (OCLC, 2002)
In MLA, white papers may fall under the heading “published conference proceedings” and should be cited accordingly.
Author last name, Author first name, ed. Conference Title including Conference Date and Location.Place of publication: Publisher, Date of Publication. Print.
When the author is a corporate body, put its name at the beginning instead of that of an individual:
American Allergy Association. Allergies in Children. New York: Random, 1998. Print.
In-text citations follow the normal MLA rule of name, short title (e.g., American Allergy Association, Allergies in Children).
If a white paper has been retrieved from a website, you should format the MLA citation like this:
Author last name, Author first name. “Title of page or document.” Name of website. Date of online publication. Sponsoring institution or organization (if relevant). Date of access.
In the Chicago Manual of Style
Chicago style cites white papers differently according to whether the issuing agency is the author or the paper is presented on behalf of a government agency. If the author is a government agency or organization, format the white paper citation this way:
Agency/organization name.White paper title. City: Place of publication, date.
World Bank. World Development Report 2004: A Better Investment Climate for Everyone. WB/2004/22. Washington, 2005.
In-text citations should be formatted thus: (World Bank 2005)
If a paper is authored by/presented on behalf of a government, this changes the white paper citation slightly. With a report presented by a government, format the white paper citation this way:
Government.Department. White paper title. (Publication info such as issue and page). City: Office of publication, date.
South Africa. Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. Towards a water services white paper. Discussion Paper (Government Gazette 23377, Notice 538, 3 May 2002). Pretoria: Government Printer, 2002.
For a report presented by a committee, format the white paper citation this way:
Government. Branch. Committee. White paper title: date. Congress number, session, date. Place of publication.
In Chicago style, papers accessed online are formatted in the same way as print publications, except that you must add the following at the end:
Available from: Host Name: URL
Finally, many government bodies and NGOs are known by acronyms, e.g. UNESCO, UNHCR, etc. In such cases, the name should be written out in full in the bibliography; in in-text citations, it should be written out on first citation (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2000) and abbreviated in later citations: (UNESCO, 2000).