Citation is crucial to establishing authority in speech and writing--especially when the target audience is well educated and likely to engage in critical literacy practices. Learn when to cite, how to cite, and which citation style to use so your texts and arguments will be clear and persuasive--and avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty.      

Photo Credit: "File:Citation needed - March for Science (cropped).jpg" by DarTar is marked with CC0 1.0.

Citation Definition

Citation refers to

  1. the use of a citation style (such as APA Style or MLA Style) to provide bibliographical information about a source an author has quoted, paraphrased, or summarized
  2. a system that scholars use to keep score of who said what/when:
  3. a system for tracking intellectual property
  4. a form of social capital, a measure of influence, a measure of value
    • Being frequently cited is a form of social capital. Scholars who are frequently cited in their disciplines are extending their networks. Presumably, a broader network creates more opportunities. In the U.S. scholars whose works are changing the conversation in a particular discipline may be able to exchange that expertise for grants, speaking tours, royalty advances on books, and so on.


A citation may also be called an attribution, a reference, support, backing, or a proof. Writers and speakers may say they are citing, attributing or referencing a source of information.

Related Concepts: Academic Dishonesty; Archive; Canon; Copyright; Discourse; Hermeneutics; Intellectual Property; Paraphrase; Plagiarism; Quote; Scholarship as a Conversation; Summarize

When are Citations Required?

A writer’s or speaker’s failure to acknowledge information they’ve quoted, paraphrased, or summarized may result in allegations of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. In workplace and academic writing, writers are expected to cite sources whenever

  1. they quote, paraphrase, or summarize someone else’s ideas, words, and other creative media
  2. their thinking is influenced by the original works of others.

Failure to cite sources under these circumstances is an ethical breach that can lead to consequences. For instance, in school settings when students fail to cite their sources, they may be accused of plagiarism or academic dishonesty. In workplace and public writing, legal consequences can follow when a writer fails to cite sources and presents someone else’s ideas or stories as their own. Thus, citation is tied to ways readers assess the authority, the accuracy and reliability of a source.

Why Do Citations Matter?

Knowing how to cite sources (e.g., quotes, paraphrases, and summaries) is a basic literacy in a knowledge economy.

In life, ideas matter. Texts matter. They are a form of intellectual property–and intellectual capital. For example, consider the Harry Potter media franchise, which was estimated to be worth $25 billion in 2016 (Meyer 2018). Educated readers understand information has value. It’s a commodity that is protected by intellectual property and copyright laws. As such, it’s tagged and indexed using a citation style.

Citation as Influence, Social Capital

For scholars and researchers, citation is a way of keeping score: academics are awarded or denied tenure/promotions based in part on how frequently other researchers attribute their work. Note, e.g., the screenshot below from Charles Darwin’s Google Scholar page: 60,382 citations makes him a Michael-Jordan level scholar. And unlike Jordan’s all-time record, Darwin’s continues to score points as others cite his work.

Charles Darwins' Google Scholar Profile
Charles Darwin’s Google Scholar Page. 1/23/22

Citation & Authority in Speech and Writing

Citations help writers (and speakers) establish authority in their speech and writing. In academic writing, educated readers expect writers and speakers to provide bibliographical information–and they often have a specific citation style in mind. In peer-reviewed literature, academics use citations as a form of record keeping and shorthand. As scholars become more specialized and more knowledgeable about their topics, they are able to discern which topics are canonical–i.e., the texts that everbody cites because they changed the conversation on a topic.

Writers and speakers may also introduce citations to boost their ethos–their credibility and trustworthiness.

Beyond satisfying mores associated with intellectual property, citations may be used for rhetorical purposes. For instance, writers may attribute sources when

  1. they aim to contextualize information, to convey a summary of a text or scholarly conversation so readers can better understand what’s known and unknown about the topic
  2. they believe their use of citations will give their ideas more authority
  3. their audience may want to read a work you summarized, quoted, or paraphrased.

For readers, citations are a signal of professionalism and rigor–when employed correctly. When absent or used incorrectly, the converse is true. Thus, when writing you can assume that your citation practices will signal how intellectually open and how educated you are.

For researchers, citations are a form of social currency: They enable investigators to keep track of intellectual property and copyright. Investigators whose speeches and texts are often cited have social capital. Subject matter experts in a discipline are likely to know who the thought leaders are because they read and cite their works. Part of being inculcated into a disciplinary community is learning its catechism, canon, and archive.

Citations and the Conversation of Humankind

For researchers, citations are a way of keeping track of the Conversation of Humankind–a concept articulated by Oakeshott in 1962 to account for how people develop knowledge by engaging in ongoing debate, dialog, and reflection:

“[W]e are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. . . . Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity” (Oakeshott 1962).

In other words, subject matter experts tend to be well versed in the ongoing conversations that characterize the works of other subject matter experts. Experienced researchers tend to engage in strategic searching of the archive. They engage in critical literacy practices, asking questions, such as

  1. What is the status of knowledge on the topic? What is the ebb and flow of research on the topic–over time?
  2. What are the canonical texts?
  3. Who are the pioneers? How has their work changed the conversation?
  4. What knowledge claims are currently being debated?

This process of making meaning through dialog and conversation enables writers to “stand on the shoulders of giants!”

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

Sir Isaac Newton
Citation Needed! Who says eucalyptus is a cure-all? Got any research to back that claim? Photo Credit: Moxley

Citation, Ethos & Authority

Citation may also serve as a barometer of ethos, especially trustworthiness. When audiences are engaged in critical literacy practices, they are likely to question a source’s

  1. Currency
  2. Relevance
  3. Authority
  4. Accuracy.

When audiences check the archive and find that authors are making inconsistent quotations they are likely to question the character of the authors.

How Do I Know When a Citation is Necessary?

Infographic Credit: “How to Defend Against Online Plagiarism” by harrisxiong is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Whenever you answer yes to any of the following questions, then you must cite your sources of information:

  1. Is the information taken directly from another source?
    1. Is this information generally well known?
    2. Is this information part of the common domain–i.e., the knowledge, assumptions, and so on that experts in a field already know or assume?
  2. Am I paraphrasing, quoting, or summarizing someone else’s original thoughts?
  3. If you cite three or more words from the original or even one word that was coined by the author, you should acknowledge your indebtedness by placing quotation marks around the borrowed term(s).

Types of Citations

While there are many different citation styles, as discussed below, there are only three major types of citations:

  1. Parenthetical citations
  2. Numerical citations
  3. Note Citations

Parenthetical Citations

A parenthetical citation refers to the practice of placing bibliographical information in parentheses when sources/information are first introduced in a quote, paraphrase, or summary.

APA Example
When using APA style, writers place the author’s name, year, and page number (when available) in parentheses.

  • “As of 2022, about 12,700 nuclear warheads are still estimated to be in use, of which more than 9,400 are in military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines” (Eagle, 2022).

And then at the end of their text, they list all of the sources they cited in the text, providing all of the bibliographical information users need to track down the source and read it:

  • Eagle, J. (2022, March 21). Animated chart: Nuclear warheads by country (1945-2022). Visual Capitalist.

See below for an example of APA format in parenthetical style.

Numerical Citations

IEEE Example
When using numerical citations, writers use numbers in brackets or superscript rather than parentheses to indicate to readers when they are quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing:

  • “As of 2022, about 12,700 nuclear warheads are still estimated to be in use, of which more than 9,400 are in military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines”[1]

Subsequently, in the reference list at the end of their text, writers provided the bibliographic information following the order of the citations in the text:

  • [1]J. Eagle, “Animated Chart: Nuclear Warheads by Country (1945-2022),” Visual Capitalist, Mar. 21, 2022. (accessed Jan. 03, 2023).

See Inclusive – Inclusive Language for a full-length example of Numerical Citations

Note Citations

Chicago (Turabian) Example
When using note citations, writers place citations numbers just as they do with numerical citations AND then provide all of the required bibliographical information in the text–as opposed to providing all that information at the end of the text in a list of references:

  • “As of 2022, about 12,700 nuclear warheads are still estimated to be in use, of which more than 9,400 are in military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines” J. Eagle, “Animated Chart: Nuclear Warheads by Country (1945-2022),” Visual Capitalist, Mar. 21, 2022. (accessed Jan. 03, 2023).

Citation Styles

Professional organizations (communities of practice) have unique ways of formatting citations. (See Wikipedia for a good listing of citation styles.)

Although style guides differ in regard to where the author’s name or publishing source is listed, they are all designed to ensure that proper credit is given to authors. As you know from your experience as a writer, developing insights and conducting original research is difficult and time consuming, so you can understand why people want to receive proper credit for their original ideas.

  • MLA Handbook, 9th Edition
    Modern Language Association style is primarily used in the fields of English and foreign languages.
  • Publication Manual of the APA: 7th Edition
    American Psychological Association’s style guide is used in psychology and education. Education and social science professors commonly ask students to follow the APA style for citing and documenting sources. APA differs from MLA in a number of ways, including the overall structure and format of the essay, but the major distinction between the two is APA’s use of the year of publication, rather than the page on which a particular quotation appears, for the in-text citation. APA requires in-text publication dates because of the particular importance of a study’s currency to research reports in the social sciences.
  • Chicago Style is used in many social science fields.
  • CSE (Council of Science Editors) is used by the scientific community
  • IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) is used by the engineering community.

Bibliographical Information

Regardless of which style is used, citations typically provide four types of bibliographical information:

  1. Name of Author(s)
  2. Title of source, whether it’s a book/article/website, etc
  3. Date of publication, if available
  4. Publisher information.

Works Cited

Oakeshott, M. (1962). Rationalism in politics. Basic Books.
Meyer, K. (2018). Harry Potter’s $25 billion magic spell. Money.