How To Use A Pseudonym In An Essay

by David Becker

“Whom do I cite: Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens?”

In this post, I provide some basic guidelines and suggestions for citing pseudonyms. There’s no official APA Style rule on this, but a few criteria can help you decide how to present the information.  I use republished books as examples here—to learn more about citing republished works, see a recent post on citing sheet music.

Citing pseudonyms can seem tricky at first, but it becomes much simpler when you take into account one of APA Style’s key mottos: Cite what you see.  When it comes to citing an author, cite whatever name is used by the source, whether it be a real name or a pseudonym.  For example, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer lists Mark Twain as its author, not Samuel Clemens, so you should cite the author’s pseudonym rather than his real name: 

Twain, M. (2010). The adventures of Tom Sawyer. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published 1876)

In-text citation: (Twain, 1876/2010)

However, some pseudonyms can still be difficult to cite.  What if you’re citing a work by the Dalai Lama, for example?  Do you cite him as “Lama, D.” in the reference list and as just “Lama” in an in-text citation?  Well, the “Dalai” cannot be removed from “Lama” without losing meaning, so the author’s name should be spelled out in full as “Dalai Lama.”  Also, “Dalai Lama” is a title, so spelling it out in full makes that especially clear:

Dalai Lama. (1991). Freedom in exile: The autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

In-text citation: (Dalai Lama, 1991)

This same rule applies to Dr. Seuss, where the “Dr.” and the “Seuss” cannot be separated from one another without creating some confusion:

Dr. Seuss. (1985). The cat in the hat. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1957)

In-text citation: (Dr. Seuss, 1957/1985)

You might have noticed that in both of the above reference list examples, there is a period after the author’s name.  If you’re wondering why that is, then read this post about punctuating reference list entries.

You may have also noticed in a previous post about citing recorded music in APA Style that Dr. Seuss is cited as “Geisel, T.” in a sample reference list entry for the song “Welcome Christmas!” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Why was he cited by his real name, Theodor Geisel, for this song but by his pseudonym for the book The Cat in the Hat?  This is where the “cite what you see” motto comes into play again.  “Dr. Seuss” is listed as the author of The Cat in the Hat, whereas the lyricist for “Welcome Christmas!” is listed as “Theodor Geisel.”  In each case, you use whatever name was provided by the source you’re citing as the author in your citations.  This rule also applies to the Dalai Lama who occasionally goes by his birth name, Tenzin Gyatso, when authoring some books.

The “cite what you see” motto helps to keep your citations simple and uncomplicated without struggling to find extraneous information, yet it still provides readers with enough information to follow your sources.  It is an important rule of thumb to keep in mind when you are citing any source.

See sections 6.11–6.15 and 6.27 in the Publication Manual for more information about citing authors in in-text citations and reference lists.

In Maintaining Confidentiality (Part 1), I listed a few different places in a capstone study where you should be careful not to reveal the identity of your study site or participants, especially inadvertently through citations and documentation of the research process. This post offers some recommendations for actually writing about your study site or community partner without compromising confidentiality (particularly in introductions and discussions of the setting and participants).



As the APA Style Blog noted in the post “Let’s Talk About Research Participants,” there is a tension between retrievability and confidentiality when it comes to writing a research study. Retrievability refers to the need to provide citations for any material that you use as background research so that readers of your study can retrieve those documents. Confidentiality refers to the need to protect the privacy of participants, especially by not revealing identities or any identifying characteristics. The APA Style Blog’s post offers helpful tips on how to mask the identities of individual participants. Some general principles for writing about participants are: (a) avoid mentioning irrelevant details that may inadvertently help to identify individuals, (b) provide more general characteristics of individuals when necessary,  and (c) differentiate between participants only as necessary (since much social research is about aggregate or composite characteristics).

Here are some additional recommendations for writing about your study site (e.g., the school, company, hospital, or other institution):

Providing statistics and other data about the site: 

When necessary, provide statistics about the study site but leave out the citations and reference list entries (confidentiality always trumps retrievability). You should not cite any documents produced by the study site (e.g., white papers, newsletters, or blog posts).

Describing the setting

As with the guidelines for avoiding unnecessary details about individual participants, describe your study site only with relevant details. Usually, you only need to offer a description of the site a couple of times in your study—when you first mention the site in the introduction and then when you discuss the study site while explaining your research methods. For most references to the study site, use simple phrases such as the study site, the middle school, or the organization. Avoid using a lengthier description each time you mention the site (e.g., the large, racially-diverse, urban elementary school in the southeastern United States), which can be annoying to read three or four times on a page. Be careful that the details you provide don’t inadvertently identify the site (such as referring to “a private elementary school in Georgio County” when that county only has one private elementary school). Again, keep in mind the type of study you are conducting and the context of your research to determine how much detail you need to provide.

Using pseudonyms

Although it may be tempting to provide pseudonyms (made up names) for your study site for ease of reference in the document, consider carefully whether you need to make up a name or if you can simply refer to the study site as necessary or a generic description such as the hospital. Use a pseudonym only when your focus on the study site is significant, as when you are providing an in-depth case study rather than simply turning to a single institution for convenience. The danger of pseudonyms is that the made up name you choose may refer to an institution that actually exists. If you do use a pseudonym, be sure not to include it in your study’s title nor in the abstract. Note also that you should avoid using pseudonyms for individual participants as well unless you need to highlight the differences between the participants in your discussion and want to keep their comments and personalities distinct. In general, simply referring to Participant 1, Participant 2, and so on is preferable to avoid the possibility of pseudonyms being read as real names.

Discussing your relationship to the studysite

A number of programs at Walden University encourage students to use their current place of employment or a former workplace as a study site in order to connect research to practice. If you conduct such a study, your discussions of your role as researcher and possible researcher bias are particularly important but also especially vulnerable moments for inadvertently revealing the study site. Again, keep in mind how much information you need to give in the capstone studies document. If you are studying a division of your workplace with which you have no real connection in your current job, you may not need to state that you work for the study site. If you hold a position with a very unique job title, make sure to not state the job title but instead describe it in general terms.

Redacting names

Redacting names by highlighting them in black (e.g.,               helped                get ready for work) is a last resort method of maintaining confidentiality in your document. Only redact names when you have determined there is no other way to mask them, as with writing about the site in more generic terms. In general, you should not have any redacted names in the body of your document (in the actual chapters and sections). Also do not redact any names in the in-text and parenthetical citations. Remember that the point of citations is retrievability, and if you redact names, you render the citations unuseful. Simply leave out citations for material that you cannot cite. The only places you might find redacting useful are in the appendices with documentation that you may deem necessary to include but that includes some identifying names and information.

You may also find it helpful to refer to the FAQ aboutIRB, Anonymity, and Confidentiality in Doctoral Capstone Studies for more tips on the IRB process and confidentiality.





Before coming to Walden, Dissertation Editor and Web Content Coordinator Paul Lai taught college English, worked in academic publishing, and edited scholarly journal issues and literary magazines.

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