Bulleted List In Research Paper

When considering the use of a bulleted or numbered list in your academic writing, please take a moment to consider if the list will encourage understanding of the topic, or if the list is a technique to avoid using full sentences to explain a concept. As you might imagine, the latter isn’t a valid reason to use a bulleted or numbered list in a formal academic paper because bulleted lists do not generally include analysis, but instead only provide surface-level information. Since the focus of academic writing is to demonstrate your critical thinking, you will more fully communicate your ideas by writing complete sentences. Please see below for information on each type of list, and for help with deciding which type of list to use in your text, please see "Lists, Part 6: Overview" from the APA Style Blog.

Numbered lists

The American Psychological Association (2010) reserves numbered lists to identify specific paragraphs, such as "itemized conclusions or steps in a procedure" (p. 63), or sentences (p. 63). Numbered paragraphs should be

identified by an Arabic numeral followed by a period but not enclosed in or followed by parentheses. Separate sentences in a series are also identified by an Arabic numeral followed by a period; the first word is capitalized, and the sentence ends with a period or correct punctuation. (p. 63)

Please keep in mind that "the use of 'numbered lists' may connote an unwanted or unwarranted ordinal position (e.g. chronology, importance, priority) among the items" (p. 64). To avoid this suggestion of position, use a bulleted list instead. 

Bulleted lists

When using bullets to set off short paragraphs, capitalize the first letter of the first sentence and end the paragraph with a period (see page 64 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association for examples). When using a bulleted list to separate three or more elements within a sentence, “capitalize and punctuate the list as if it were a complete sentence” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 64). 

Lettered lists within a sentence

If you want to identify elements in a series within a paragraph or sentence without breaking the elements into a numbered or bulleted list, you can use lowercase letters in parentheses (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 64). For example, "the participant's three choices were (a) working with another participant, (b) working with a team, and (c) working alone" (p. 64). To punctuate a lettered list within a sentence, "use commas to separate three or more elements that do not have internal commas; use semicolons to separate three or more elements that have internal commas" (p. 64). For example, "we tested three groups: (a) low scorers, who scored fewer than 20 points; (b) moderate scorers, who scored between 20 and 50 points; and (c) high scorers, who scored more than 50 points" (p. 64). 

For more information and examples of numbered, bulleted, and lettered lists, please see pages 63-65 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. 

by Timothy McAdoo

This is the fifth in a six-part series about lists. Today I’ll discuss bulleted lists, which are new to APA Style!

Bulleted Lists

As the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association notes (p. 63), creating a list sometimes “helps the reader understand the organization of key points.” And although numbered lists are useful, in some cases the numbers may imply a chronology or ranking of importance that you don’t intend. Thus, I’m happy to share that bulleted lists are now an official part of APA Style (pp. 64–65)!

Bulleted lists allow a writer to create a list that stands out from the text without the implied chronology or order of importance that a numbered list might convey. Any symbol may be used for the bullets, although small circles or squares are typical software defaults. Here again, when full sentences are used, the first words should be capitalized and appropriate end punctuation should be included.

●  Each child received one plush toy.
●  Some toys were familiar to the children from their experiences in Experiment
    1. In Experiment 1, all children could see but not touch the plush elephant.
    Also in Experiment 1, half of the children could see but not touch the plush
    kangaroo, whereas the other half of the children could both see and touch
    the plush kangaroo.
●  One toy, a plush giraffe, was unique to Experiment 2.

(Note that although we single-space examples in the blog, you should double-space lists in an APA Style manuscript just as you would regular text.)

Bulleted Lists Within Sentences

In the example above, I used full sentences. But, you can also use bulleted lists within a sentence. When you do so, capitalize and punctuate throughout the list just as you would in any sentence. For example, in the following list, note the commas following the first two items, the conjunction “and” included with the second-to-last item, the lowercase used for each item in the list, and the end punctuation with the last item.

Each child was seated at a separate station and given
●  an elephant,
●  a kangaroo, and
●  a giraffe.

And remember that the rule for semicolons when items have internal commas is still applicable:

Each child was seated at a separate station and given
●  an elephant, which all children could see but not touch in Experiment 1;
●  a kangaroo, which half of the children could see but not touch and half of the
    children could both see and touch in Experiment 1; and
●  a giraffe, which was new to all children in this experiment.

A Caveat

Bulleted lists can be effective, but be sure to use them judiciously. Just as with numbered lists, by virtue of their formatting, bulleted lists are likely to draw a reader’s attention away from the running text. Too many bulleted lists in your paper may be visually distracting for a reader. You don’t want each page of your paper to look like a PowerPoint presentation!

There may also be differences in opinion about whether bulleted lists are appropriate for technical articles, dissertations, class assignments, and other types of writing. What do you think? Are you a list maker?

More to Come

In Part 6 of this series, we’ll provide an overview of good uses for each type of list.

Lists, Part 1  |  Lists, Part 2  |  Lists, Part 3

Lists, Part 4  |  Lists, Part 5  |  Lists, Part 6

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