Writing references to personal communication

by Thomas Mejtoft

Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.

Lao Tsu*

From time to time there are information that needs to be referenced in a paper but there is no published version of the statement (or the publication is not released to the public) but the statements come from e.g., a conversation or an email. Hence, the facts rely on face-to-face or written communication between the author and the informant.

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Reference to personal communication

These guidelines are based on the following sources:

Personal Communications by APA style
IEEE – Referencing Guide: Citing Personal Communications by Murdoch University
Harvard Referencing: Personal communications by Victoria University

Any communication that cannot be retrieved by a reader should be considered as “personal communication”. This can be a face-to-face conversation, an email, a text message, a phone call, asocial media message (that are not public), etc. That is, any information that cannot be retrieved from public sources.

Personal communication should only be cited when it it the best source available. Do not use personal communication for information that can be found in published sources.

When referring to personal communication in writing, follow the examples below:

Only about half of students starting the five-year engineering program in Interaction Technology and Design graduate (T. Mejtoft, personal communication, February 12, 2022).

...

T. Mejtoft (personal communication, February 12, 2022) states that only about half of students starting the five-year engineering program in Interaction Technology and Design graduate.

...

In a personal interview with T. Mejtoft (February 12, 2022), he states that only about half of students starting the five-year engineering program in Interaction Technology and Design graduate.

...

In an email to the author (February 12, 2022), T. Mejtoft states that only about  half of students starting the five-year engineering program in Interaction Technology and Design graduate.

...

During a phone call, T. Mejtoft (February 12, 2022) stated that only about half of students starting the five-year engineering program in Interaction Technology and Design graduate.

Using the expression “personal communication” and stating the source and the date should be in-text only. Hence, personal communication should not be included in the reference list (only sources that are, somehow, published and accessible for reader should be in the reference list).

Observe: The example above is for information that is treated as a source of information just like a reference. That is, for example, a statement of an expert that could be in print, but is not. In many cases the results in a research paper or report is based on interviews or observations, which is a form of personal communication. However, regarding writing results, this example do not apply since then the results should be structured to conform with the method used and most of the time the respondents are anonymous.


*Quote from Tao Te Ching (Tsu, 600BC/1997, ch. 56).
Tsu, L. (1998). Tao Te Ching (G-F. Feng & J. English, Trans.). Vintage Books. (Original work published around 600 BC).


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(First published by Thomas Mejtoft: 2021-12-27; Last updated: 2024-01-16)