How to Cite Sources in Academic and Professional Writing

Knowledge of citation practices is a basic literacy in a knowledge economy. This guide to citation provides resources to help you integrate the words and ideas of others into your texts.  

Knowing when and how to cite sources is fairly straight forward: you identify the required citation style and then either compose your own citation or use a citation tool to create the citation.

In contrast, the act of integrating the words and ideas of others into your speech or written texts can be really tricky. It can be difficult to keep a consistent tone when you summarize, paraphrase, or quote the works of others. It’s pretty ease to lose track of your thesis when you introduce new information into a text.

This citation guide provides resources that are designed to help you cite sources so that your ideas and words will be treated seriously by your intended audience

Key Concepts: Academic Dishonesty; Attribution; Evidence; Information, Data; Archive; Epistemology; Plagiarism; Textual Research; Symbol Analyst; The CRAAP Test

1. Determine the Citation Style

Different communities of practice have different discourse conventions for formatting citations. Thus, there is no one perfect way to weave in citations into your work, no one perfect way to weave sources into texts.

Thus your first step when endeavoring to weave the ideas and words of others into your writing is to engage in rhetorical analysis: Ask yourself what your audience’s expectations are regarding what constitutes valid evidence, and what the discourse conventions are for attributing sources

AMAAPPublication Manual of the APA: 7th Edition
BluebookChicagoMLA Handbook, 9th Edition
Influential Citation Styles

2. Limit Quotation Usage, especially Block Quotations

Audiences do not want to read miscellaneous quotations that are thrown together one after another. The problem with texts that use too many quotations — especially block quotations — is that they tend to lack voice and clarity. In other words, if you offer too many quotations, your ideas become subordinate to other people’s ideas and voices. And after you’ve mixed a bunch of different quotes with one another, your readers may loose track about what your purpose is–why you’re writing.

Therefore, you are generally better off paraphrasing and summarizing material and using quotations sparingly.

3. Introduce Sources; Establish their Authority

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 primary and 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.

Provide Background Information About the Researcher’s Methods

By definition, critical readers are skeptical. They do not take the results of research as the final word on the subject, but instead look for flaws in the reasoning; or if it is an empirical study, critical readers look for flaws in the research design. As a result, when you introduce an outside source, be sure to spend a moment clarifying the source’s credibility.

For example, when reading the following excerpt on the greenhouse effect, what questions do you believe a skilled reader would raise?

The greenhouse effect is likely to change rainfall patterns, raise sea levels 4 to 7 feet by the year 2100, and increase the world’s mean temperature 2.7 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2050 (Brown and Flavin 6, 16). Everyone will suffer as irrigation and drainage systems become useless and agriculture faces its first changes in a “global climatic regime” that has changed little since farming began (Brown and Flavin 16). Some places will cease to be productive such as the North American heartland, and the Soviet Union’s grainbelt (Brown and Flavin 17). Although some areas, previously unproductive, will suddenly become good farmland, scientists say these climate shifts could occur so abruptly that agricultural losses would be hard to readily adjust for (Brown and Flavin 16).

On what evidence is this information based?

According to the Works Cited section, this information appears in the following source: Brown, Lester R., and Christopher Flavin. “The Earth’s Vital Signs.” State of the World (1988): 5-7, 16-17. Critical readers would probably question the reliability of this source because the claims are so controversial and because they are not familiar with the journal.

Brown and Flavin may be correct in their dire predictions. However, chances are that critical readers such as your instructors would be more likely to believe these predictions if additional information about the authors and their research were provided or if the author could “power quote”—that is, cite numerous other studies that reached similar conclusions.

Below is a student paper that contains several interesting but controversial statements. As you read the two paragraphs, what critical questions do you have about the research that is cited?

It is imperative to realize that protecting dolphins should be a priority because they are gentle animals which possess many human-like qualities. Did you know, for instance, that dolphins, like humans, live in communities where mothers work cooperatively, protecting their young from predators, and that they “babysit” for one another if a mother must temporarily leave the school (Booth 57)? These communities are stable systems that exist for long periods of time, they exist within certain territorial ranges, and they are composed of dolphin peer groups and families (Booth 57). Also, like humans, dolphins assist one another when ill or in danger; they have social norms for attending to deceased members of their community, and they have even been known to assist mariners who are in danger at sea (Booth 57).

But the most notable fact is that dolphins are capable of communicating and comprehending language symbols such as the ones with which we communicate (Chollar 52). The ability to interact with others using language is an accomplishment that only human beings have been associated with performing, and it is certainly far beyond the capabilities of other ordinary land or sea creatures. As consumers, we must therefore ask ourselves if we are willing to tolerate the needless slaughter of these unique, gentle animals just for the sake of having tuna fish on our tables or as a filler for pet food.

By turning to the Works Cited section, an academic reader’s critical faculties would be soothed by the following references:

Booth, William. “The Joy of a Big Brain.” Psychology Today 23 (Apr. 1989): 57.

Chollar, Susan. “Conversations with Dolphins.” Psychology Today 23 (Apr. 1989): 52-56.

Clearly, the imprimatur of Psychology Today is nothing to scoff at. Nevertheless, for readers to entertain the possibility that dolphins have such human qualities, more background information about these scholars’ studies should be provided in the text of the student’s paper. Without more background information about the research, critical readers would remain skeptical about dolphins’ ability to communicate via oral language.