Attribution – What Is The Role of Attribution In Academic & Professional Writing?

Attribution refers to the practice of crediting original sources for information or ideas. It encompasses recognizing authors, understanding their credentials, and correctly citing their work in your own speech and writing. By mastering attribution, you ensure your work is ethical, authoritative, and respectful of intellectual property laws and professional, ethical standards of conduct.

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What is Attribution?

In academic and professional writing, “attribution” denotes the act of crediting or identifying the source from which information has been derived, whether that information is summarized, paraphrased, or directly quoted.

An attribution may be formal, such as an APA or MLA citation, or it can be informal, such as a mention or hyperlink in a blog post or on social media. Proper attribution not only provides credibility to the writer’s work but also respects the intellectual efforts of the original creators. Whether formal or informal, attributing sources is an essential practice necessary to adopt an authoritative writing style in academic or workplace writing.


While “attribution” and “citation” often overlap in meaning within academic and professional contexts, they aren’t always used interchangeably. In many instances, “attribution” can be more general, pointing to the act of giving credit to someone without all of the bibliographical information, while “citation” more commonly refers to a formal citation style, such as APA – Publication Manual of the APA: 7th Edition or MLA – MLA Handbook, 9th Edition.

Related Concepts: Copyright; Information Has Value; Plagiarism

Jimmy Wales and two others hold aloft a Citation Needed sign
<a href=httpsenwikipediaorgwikiJimmy Wales target= blank rel=noreferrer noopener>Jimmy Wales<a> founder of Wikipedia and several supporters calling for attributions for <a href=httpswritingcommonsorgsectiongenreargument argumentationclaim>claims<a> Photo Credit Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 20 Generic by Sage Ross

To learn more about the importance of attribution, see Citation.


Why Does Attribution Matter?

  1. Ethical Considerations: Properly attributing sources is an ethical responsibility. Attribution provides credit to the original authors and recognizes their hard work and intellectual property.
  2. Avoiding Plagiarism: Attribution is necessary to avoid plagiarism — i.e., the act of presenting someone else’s ideas or writing as one’s own. Proper attribution helps in avoiding plagiarism and its associated consequences.
  3. Building Authority: When a writer provides proper citations, they signal to the reader that they understand the rules of the road — i.e., that they under information literacy practices and communicate from an informed rhetorical stance,  demonstrates that they have conducted thorough research and are basing their conclusions on credible information. It increases the trustworthiness of the content.

What Critical Perspectives are Readers Likely to Have When Viewing Your Attributions?

To evaluate the the authority of an attribution, critical readers are likely to ask questions about 5 critical perspectives:

  1. Currency: Is the information up-to-date, and does current research validate or contradict its claims?
  2. Relevance: Does the information directly support your argument, and is it the most relevant source for your research needs?
  3. Authority: Who is the author, and what credentials or expertise do they possess that lend authority to the subject matter?
  4. Accuracy: Is the information reliable, verifiable, and free from factual errors or inconsistencies?
  5. Purpose: What is the primary objective of the source, and are there any evident biases or affiliations influencing its content?

When Should Writers Provide Attributions?

Writers are expected to attribute sources when they

  1. acknowledge the ideas of others that contributed to your thinking and writing
  2. adhere to copyright law and avoid plagiarism
  3. follow professional standards of ethical behavior in the workplace
  4. bolster their authority, their ethos in texts, when composing
  5. allow readers to access their source(s), which they might want to do in order
    1. to more fully assess the source’s credibility
    2. to identify the status of the conversation on the topic.

What is the difference between attribution and citation?

Both “attribution” and “citation” pertain to the acknowledgment of original sources, but they have distinct nuances and are used in different contexts:

  1. Citation:
    • Refers specifically to the formalized practice of referencing a source. It involves a structured format according to prescribed guidelines (such as APA, MLA, or Chicago style) that detail how to provide comprehensive information about the source (like the author’s name, publication date, title of the work, publisher, etc.).
    • Citations often appear in academic, research, and professional writings where it’s crucial to reference sources rigorously and provide readers with a way to find the original material.
  2. Attribution:
    • Refers more broadly to the act of giving credit to the original source or creator of a piece of work.
    • While citations are a form of attribution, not all attributions are formal citations. For instance, in journalism or informal writing, one might attribute a quote to someone without providing a full formal citation. Here the assumption is that readers may contact the author, magazine, newspaper, or website to get the full citation.
    • Attribution can be less structured than citation. In a blog post, for instance, one might simply say, “According to Professor Smith…” without providing a full citation.
    • The main purpose is to acknowledge the origin of information or content and to give credit to the rightful creator or source.

In summary, while both citation and attribution center around the idea of acknowledging original sources, “citation” is more formal and structured, while “attribution” is a broader term that encompasses various ways of giving credit.

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