Tell Your Readers When You Are Citing, Paraphrasing, or Summarizing

While documentation styles differ in their formats and procedures, they all agree on one point: You must ensure that your readers know when you are borrowing from secondary sources. Remember, in particular, that readers read from left to right.

They should not–and truly cannot–be expected to read backwards to determine just how much of a paragraph or section is borrowed from a secondary source. For example, note the confusion a reader would have in evaluating Theresa Lovins’s interesting essay, “Objectionable Rock Lyrics”:

Many Americans fear government intervention when it comes to human rights. They fear that government censorship of rock lyrics might lead to other restrictions. Then too, what would the guidelines be, who would make these decisions, and how might it affect our cherished constitutional rights? Questions like these should always be approached with serious consideration. We have obligations as parents to protect our children and as Americans to uphold and protect our rights. Therefore, it’s important to ask what effects proposals like Tipper Gore’s, president of PMRC, might have on our freedoms in the future. She recommends that the record companies utilize a rating system: X would stand for profane or sexually explicit lyrics, V for violence, O for occultism, and D/A for drugs/alcohol. The PMRC also suggest that the lyrics be displayed on the outside cover along with a general warning sticker which perhaps might read “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics.” To date, record companies have not agreed to all these demands but some have decided to put warning labels on certain questionable albums (Morthland).

Although Lovins provides complete documentation for Morthland–the source that she is citing in this paragraph–she does not clarify for the reader exactly what she is borrowing from Morthland. As a result, the reader cannot know if the author is indebted to Morthland for all of the thoughts in this paragraph or merely the section on PMRC’s proposal. This problem could be easily rectified by including a transitional sentence that distinguished her thoughts from those of other authors whom she is citing. For example, Lovins could write, “According to John Morthland’s recent essay in High Fidelity, Tipper Gore has recommended that record companies do such and such.” If Lovins did not want to call so much attention to Morthland, she could merely put Morthland’s name in parentheses after the word “future” in the sixth sentence of this paragraph.

The second example, below, serves as another example of how an ambiguous citation/paraphrase results in confusion for the audience:

While the PMRC’s request needs to be studied, perhaps they have merit. Rating systems could actually serve to alert the public, similar to how movie ratings have helped motion picture audiences choose the types of movies they wish to view. A committee could be appointed by a reputable party such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The group would perform its duties in a manner similar to that used by the Academy of Motion Pictures. This type of system has not hurt the movie industry, but has actually aided in promoting some movies. For instance, “The Black Hole” by Walt Disney Productions was given a PG rating. Disney was trying to reach a broader audience and by receiving this kind of rating they did just that. It told the adult audience that it wasn’t along the same lines as a Mary Poppins film, and perhaps it contained material which they could enjoy but was too sophisticated for a 4-6 year old to grasp. Movie rating is a good example, proving that rating systems can and do, in fact, work (Wilson).

Lovins runs into the same problem in this paragraph as she did in the previous one. Because she doesn’t inform the reader about exactly when she is referring to Connie Wilson’s Time essay, “A Life in the Movies,” readers cannot be sure whether it is Lovins’s idea or Wilson’s that “a committee could be appointed” to evaluate the lyrics of rock music. If this idea was originally propounded by Wilson, then Lovins could be considered guilty of plagiarism, yet most people would merely describe this particular example as sloppy scholarship.