Citation is the act of referencing or attributing a source of information. Learn to identify contexts that require citation of sources. Review common citation styles: APA, MLA, Chicago.
Charles Darwins' Google Scholar Profile

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

Charles Darwins' Google Scholar Profile

What is Citation?

Citation is

  • the act of referencing or attributing a source of information
  • a commodity protected by intellectual property laws.


A citation is equivalent to a reference or an attribution.

Citation vs Reference

Some websites suggest there’s a difference between a citation and reference: they claim the term references refers to the list of citations you provide at the end of a paper and citation applies to cited material inside your text.

That’s nonsense. Writers may refer to their citations as references, sources, or evidence.

Related Concepts: Archive; Canon; Intellectual Property; Paraphrase; Quote; Summarize

Why Do Citations Matter?

Knowing how to cite sources (e.g., quotes, paraphrases, and summaries) is a basic literacy in a knowledge economy. In order to avoid being duped by the sophistry — those who endeavor to manipulate you regardless of the truth or your best interests — you need to understand what citation is and why it’s important.

When you are writing in workplace and academic contexts, your readers expect you to follow Information Literacy Perspectives & Practices, especially

  1. Authority is Constructed & Contextual
  2. Information Creation as a Process
  3. Information Has Value
  4. Research as Inquiry
  5. Scholarship as a Conversation
  6. Searching as Strategic Exploration

In evidence-based discourse communities, readers, listeners, users . . . engage in critical literacy practices. They question the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose of new information as a matter of convention codified in professional standards of conduct.

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.

Traditionally, citations provide four types of bibliographical information:

  1. name of author(s)
  2. title of book/article/website, etc
  3. publisher information
  4. date of publication.

Educated readers use this bibliographical information to put sources in conversation. In other words, citations are used to trace scholarly conversations–to identify and distinguish original works from derivative works.

When to Cite

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . cite when

  • they quote, paraphrase, or summarize someone else’s ideas, words, and other creative media
  • their thinking is influenced by the original works of others
  • they aim to contextualize information, to convey a summary of scholarly conversations so readers can better understand what’s known and unknown about the topic
  • they hope a citation helps them establish their ethos ir the persona they aspire to project
  • they believe their audience will want to read more about the topic and are perhaps curious about the contributions.

Citation Styles

Different discourse communities (aka communities of practice) have unique style guidelines. See Wikipedia for a good overview of citation styles.

Many academic and professional disciplines have style guidelines for citation and document design, especially page design.

for citing material, which you will need to familiarize yourself with if you hope to be taken seriously as a knowledgeable and competent contributor to your chosen field.

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:
    Modern Language Association) style is primarily used in the fields of English and foreign languages.
  • APA (American Psychological Association) style is often used in psychology and education. Education and social science professors commonly ask students to follow the APA (American Psychological Association) 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. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines established by the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
  • Chicago Style is used in many social science fields.
  • CSE (Council of Science Editors) is for the scientific community
  • IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) for the engineering community.

How Do I Know When a Citation is Necessary?

Whenever you answer yes to any of the following questions, then you must document the source.

But be careful: Avoid stringing together a list of sources and calling it a research paper. College instructors tend to be very critical of essays that read like laundry lists of loosely tied-together ideas. Connectedness is key; learning how to balance another writer’s words with your own requires patience, practice, and diligence–and in thinking-through multiple drafts of a document.

  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 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 terms.

Will summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting the source add a layer of authority to your interpretation or argument?
Perhaps the source is influential, which may sway readers’ opinions regarding the strength of your argument or conclusions.

Citation Tools

See Citation Tools for an introduction to bibliography tools that help you automate some processes associated with citations.