How Can You Determine Whether to Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize?

Summary: Learn how to introduce and correctly summarize, paraphrase, and cite sources. Clarify the research methods employed by your sources.

Your instructors do not want to read miscellaneous quotations that are thrown together one after another. The problem with essays that use extensive direct quotations is that they tend to lack voice, continuity, or authority. If you offer quotations every few lines, your ideas become subordinate to other people’s ideas and voices, which often contradicts your instructor’s reasons for assigning research papers—that is, to learn what you think about a subject.

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

Below are some guidelines that you can employ to introduce and effectively paraphrase, summarize, or quote sources.

When Is Quoting Preferable to Paraphrasing?

When is it appropriate to rely on a direct quote? You might want to directly quote a source

  1. If the quoted material goes to the heart of your discussion or argument.
  2. If it is so well-written that it cannot be condensed further.
  3. If it contains a dramatic eyewitness account of an event.
  4. If it is written by a prestigious author or philosopher.
  5. If it contains relevant statistics.
  6. If you cannot paraphrase or summarize the quote more effectively in your own words.

For example, if you were writing an essay about corporate crime, you might want to directly quote the following passage from Russell Mokhiber’s “Crime in the Suites,” which appeared in

The financial cost [of corporate crime] to society is staggering. The National Association of Attorney Generals reports that fraud costs the nation’s businesses and individuals upwards of $100 billion each year. The Senate Judiciary Committee has estimated that faulty goods, monopolistic practices and other such violations annually cost consumers $174 to $231 billion. Added to this is the $10 to $20 billion a year the Justice Department says taxpayers lose when corporations violate federal regulations. As a rule of thumb, the Bureau of National Affairs estimates that the dollar cost of corporate crime in the United States is more than 10 times greater than the combined total from larcenies, robberies, burglaries and auto thefts committed by individuals.

This paragraph, for many of the reasons mentioned above, is eminently “quotable.” In other words, you might believe that you could not improve on the wording of this passage, in part because of its reference to specific costs, statistics, etc.

When Is Paraphrasing Preferable to Quoting?

Paraphrasing, on the other hand, involves rearticulating someone else’s ideas. As a student, you routinely paraphrase your instructors’ lectures and the contents of textbooks. Exams, in one sense, are one large paraphrase in that they require you to review and restate material from assigned readings and lectures. Of course, when you paraphrase, you want to be careful that you do not alter the author’s original message, eliminate any significant background information, misrepresent the author’s intentions, or copy the original wording too closely. To help you distinguish effective paraphrases from faulty paraphrases, consider how the following paragraph from Russell Mokhiber’s “Crime in the Suites” is handled:

Original passage: The full extent of the corporate crime wave is hidden. Although the federal government tracks street crime month by month, city by city through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, it does not track corporate crime. So the government can tell the public whether burglary is up or down in Los Angeles for any given month, but it cannot say the same about insider trading or illegal polluting.

Faulty paraphrase: In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber has noted that the full extent of the corporate crime wave is hidden. The federal government does not track corporate crime, yet it does track street crime month by month, city by city through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. So the government can tell the public whether burglary is up or down in San Francisco for any given month, but it cannot say the same about insider trading or illegal polluting.

The “faulty paraphrase” is a good example of academic dishonesty—that is, plagiarism. While a few words have been changed and the structure of the second sentence has been changed, this passage as a whole has not been revised in the paraphraser’s own words.

Effective paraphrase: In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber has noted that we lack information about the prevalence of corporate crime. While the FBI monitors crime statistics for the federal government on a monthly basis, it fails to do so for corporate crime. Consequently, we may know that violent crime is up by 10 percent in Manhattan, but we can’t be sure that less insider trading is occurring this year on Wall Street.

Mix Quotes with Paraphrasing

As with most other skills, practice is the best way to become effective at paraphrasing. Also, you may need to write several drafts before developing one that accurately reports the author’s intentions in your own words. Note also that 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 terms.

To give you a sample of how writers mix direct quotes with paraphrase, take a look at a short excerpt from Stephen North’s influential book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition. As you read the passage, note how North intermixes his own opinions about ethnography along with an occasional direct quote from the work of Clifford Geertz. Note also that North is careful to show readers how Geertz quoted from the work of Paul Ricoeur. Finally, North cues readers that he has not emphasized Geertz’s words by italicizing them; he does so by writing “his emphasis” in parentheses. When he felt the need to clarify Ricouer’s terms, he placed his clarification in brackets.

Ethnographic inquiry produces stories, fictions. Ethnographic investigators go into a community, observe (by whatever variety of means) what happens there, and then produce an account—which they will try to verify or ground in a variety of ways—of what happened. The phenomena observed are gone, will not occur again, and therefore cannot be investigated again. What remains, then, is whatever the investigators have managed to turn into words. Clifford Geertz perhaps put it best in Chapter 1 of his The Interpretation of Cultures: “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”: “The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse, he writes it down. In so doing, he turns it from a passing event, which exists only in its own moment of occurrence into an account, which exists in its inscription and can be reconsulted” (p. 19, his emphasis). This is not to say, as Geertz is careful to explain that the ethnographer transcribes, literally, all of what a community’s members say. Rather, the inscribing is an effort to capture what he calls, borrowing from Paul Ricoeur, the “said”: “‘the noema [“thought,” “content,” “gist”] of the speaking. It is the meaning of the speech event, not the event.'” (p. 19)


Summaries tend to be interpretive. They give the author’s critical evaluation of the source. Would your summary differ, for example, from the following summary of The Wizard of Oz?

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.

Like paraphrasing, summarizing involves reporting someone else’s ideas in your own language. Unlike paraphrasing, however, summaries allow you to sort through the information in the secondary source and report only what you consider to be essential. A summary is therefore much shorter than the original, whereas a paraphrase may be the same length. In addition, you do not need to cite particular pages when summarizing a source.

Below is a sample summary of the passage paraphrased in the above example:

Summarized version : In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber has noted that we are unsure about the prevalence of corporate crime because the federal government does not compile crime statistics for white-collar crime.

While the above passage overlooks the comparison between corporate crime and street crime, it does not misconstrue the author’s original meaning, so it meets the standards of academic fairness. In contrast, a revised summary such as the following would be considered ineffective because it changes the author’s meaning:

Ineffective summary: In “Crime in the Suites” Mokhiber argues that the federal government does not track corporate crime as thoroughly as it does street crime.

To fall within the purview of academic fairness, a simple change could transform the above into an effective summary:

Effective summary: In “Crime in the Suites,” Mokhiber implies that the federal government does not track corporate crime as thoroughly as it does street crime.

Inform Your Reader 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.

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 imprimateur 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.

Ask These Questions to Evaluate the Authority of the Researcher’s Methods

Here are some of the standard questions that academic readers ask when reviewing research reports:

  1. Is the source a first-hand or second-hand account? That is, are the authors reporting results of their own research or reviewing someone else’s work?
  2. Is the source of publication credible? (For example, an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine would influence most physicians’ opinions about a surgical procedure far more easily than an essay in a biweekly community newspaper.)
  3. Do the authors work for research institutes, publications, private companies, or universities? Are they well-known authorities? Can you identify any hidden agendas?
  4. Have the authors followed traditional research methods?