Why Does It Matter to Cite?

A citation is a statement of the source of an idea, a conclusion, or a specific collection of information. Citation is one way you give credit to others’ work and ideas, and also guide your readers to the materials you have used so they can examine it for themselves.

A citation—a statement of the source of an idea, a conclusion, or a specific collection of information—of another person’s work is the highest form of respect that a serious writer can make. It is also the single best way to avoid accusations of plagiarism Opens in new window and cheating.

Properly citing sources involves acknowledging them both in the body of your work (when and where your writing borrows from a given source) and in a list of all the sources at the end of your paper.

There are three reasons to cite the materials you use:

  • To give credit to others’ work and ideas, whether you agree with them or not. When you use their words, you must give them credit by using both quotation marks and citations.
  • To show readers the materials on which you base your analysis, your narrative, or your conclusions.
  • To guide readers to the materials you have used so they can examine it for themselves. Their interest might be to confirm your work, to challenge it, or simply to explore it further.

Taken together, these citations fully disclose your sources. That’s important for academic integrity in several ways.

First, good citations parcel out credit. Some belongs to you for the original work you did; you need to take full responsibility for it. Some belongs to others for their words, ideas, data, drawings, or other work. You need to acknowledge it, openly and explicitly.

Second, if you relied on others’ work in order to tell your story, explain your topic, or document your conclusions, you need to say exactly what you used. Take a sample paper about World War I. No one writing today learned about it firsthand.

What we know, we learned by reading books and articles, by examining original documents and news reports, by listening to oral histories, by reviewing data compiled by military historians, and perhaps by viewing photographs or movies. When we write about the war, then, we should say how we acquired our information.

The only exception is “commonly known information,” something that everyone in the field clearly understands and that does not require any substantiation. There’s no need for a footnote to prove Woodrow Wilson was actually president of the United States. But if you referred to his speech declaring war, you would need a proper citation. If you used his words, you’d need quotation marks, too.

Important Tip  

Note that what counts as common knowledge depends on your audience.

Third, your readers may want to pursue a particular issue you covered. Citations should lead them to the right sources, whether those are books, interviews, archival documents, websites, poems, or paintings. That guidance serves several purposes. Skeptical readers may doubt the basis for your work or your conclusions. Others may simply want to double-check them or do more research on the topic. Your citations should point the way.

Important Tip  

What citations should not do is prance about, showing off your knowledge without adding to the reader’s. That’s just bragging.

Citations should never mislead your readers.

There are lots of ways to mislead or misdirect your readers; accurate citations avoid them. For example, they should not imply you read books or articles when you really didn’t. They should not imply you spent days in the archives deciphering original documents when you actually read them in an edited book or, worse, when you “borrowed” the citation from a scholar who did study the originals. Of course, it’s fine to cite that author or an edited collection. That’s accurate. It’s fine to burrow into the archives and read the original yourself. It’s dishonest, though, to write citations that only pretend you did.

Good citations should reveal your sources, not conceal them. They should honestly show the research you conducted. That means they should give credit where credit is due, disclose the materials on which you base your work, and guide readers to that material so they can explore it further. Citations like those accurately reflect your work and that of others. They show the ground on which you stand.

Which citation format should you use?

With so many formats available, which one should you choose? The answer is usually straightforward: most fields rely on one format. In English literature, for instance, most papers and articles use MLA. In chemistry, they use ACS. A few fields use two styles, depending on the journal or publisher.

Mathematics has a couple of citation styles, both of them unique to that field. Political science also uses two styles: APA for journals that prefer in-text citations and Chicago for journals that prefer true footnotes or endnotes.

All these styles, and many more, are addressed in the next entry, titled, Basic Citation Styles Opens in new window.