Using outside sources in your paper is a great move. Doing outside research enriches the conversation in your paper, builds your fluency and confidence in the subject, and can bolster (or challenge) your own argument. As a writer, it’s important to give credit to the original author whenever you use outside words or ideas. This is true in every academic discipline, and it’s true in less formal contexts, as well.
Citation Is Good for Creators
Imagine that you’re scrolling through Instagram or TikTok (or whatever cool new social media platform has been invented since these words were written—the challenge of writing in such a fast-moving world!). If an influencer uses someone else’s audio clip or artwork, it’s considered basic internet courtesy to tag the original source to give them credit. In fact, if reposters don’t do this, the original creator might publicly complain and accuse the “borrower” of stealing their work.
Why do they care? Why does it matter to the creators or artists if someone reposts their artwork? Some people would argue that reposting helps spread the art around, so it’s actually good for the original artist. That makes sense, to a point—but how does that argument hold up if the original creator isn’t tagged or attributed in any way?
Your answers to those questions are probably similar to the reasons why citation matters in academia. Researchers and authors are generally glad for others to reference their work—after all, they published it rather than keeping it in a private diary—but they want credit for the work they’ve done. Using someone else’s words or ideas without citing them—or citing them incorrectly—can feel like stealing. The original author (or content creator) only benefits from the “repost” if you cite their work, leading others back to the original source. In that sense, citation is an ethical issue: giving credit where credit is due.
Citation Is Good for You Too
Don’t get me wrong though. Citation isn’t a purely selfless act. It also benefits you, the writer! Citing your sources builds your credibility as a speaker on the subject because it shows your audience that you have done your research. It gives your statements more weight by indicating that they came from a reliable source. (You should, of course, be using reliable sources; chapters 22 and 23 on evaluating sources can help you determine whether a source is trustworthy.)
For example, if you write that there will be 25 million centenarians (people who are 100 years old or more) in the year 2100, your reader will immediately want to know how you reached that conclusion. “Based on what?!” they’ll ask. If the statistic seems to come out of nowhere, your audience could be distracted by the statement. They might even wonder if your arguments or conclusions are well founded, since you seem to be pulling numbers from thin air.
However, if you cite your source—and it’s a reliable, reputable source—you will instantly build credibility with your audience. They will be more willing to accept the initial statistic and then listen to your argument on its own merits. You will show them that you have some knowledge on the topic and that your knowledge comes from authoritative sources.
Consider the following examples. Which is the most credible? The answer is clear: it’s the one with the specifics and the citation.
There will be even more elderly people in the future.
There will be more than 25 million centenarians in the year 2100.
Although the United Nations predicts that there will be 25 million centenarians by 2100, other demographers have found that population transitions and global events make it harder to pinpoint. A truer estimate is somewhere between 13 and 50 million (Robine and Cubaynes 60).
As you can see, citing your sources also pushes you to be more specific. In this case, I saw the “25 million” statistic in the article’s abstract, but on closer reading, I found that the authors’ research actually suggested a range. I had to read the article carefully to understand that point though—another key part of building your knowledge, fluency, and credibility.
Now, depending on your purposes, you may wish for a simpler version of the information. In many cases though, the more complex (and research-supported) version works better—it’s potentially more accurate and, honestly, more interesting.
What to Cite
In every discipline, you need to cite outside words and ideas. If you’re not sure whether to cite something or not, err on the side of caution and cite it! It’s better to overcite than undercite. For example, you should always cite the following:
- Charts or other graphics
- Arguments or ideas
- Original phrases
Depending on your discipline, you might use some of these examples more than others. In the humanities, for example, quotes are an important form of evidence: how someone says something can be just as important as what they say. For that reason, quoting the original source is common in literature, history, and philosophy classes.
In other fields, the data are the most important point. In your science and social science classes, then, you will probably rely mostly on statistics and paraphrases as supporting evidence. It’s rare to see a direct quote in an engineering paper.
Knowing what kinds of sources to use—and how to use them—is part of the learning you will do in your discipline. You can read example papers and articles in a particular field or ask your instructor for guidance.
What’s consistent across all of these disciplines, though, is the need to cite the information. If you are using outside words or ideas, you need to essentially tell your audience, “Hey! This information came from another source. Here’s how you can find it.” You will do this by including two forms of citation for every outside source: (1) an in-text citation and (2) an end citation.
How to Cite
The details of how to create citations will vary depending on what kind of class you’re taking. In writing and other humanities courses, we often use MLA citation (which stands for Modern Language Association); psychology and other social sciences often use APA citation (American Psychological Association). Other citation styles include IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), CSE (Council of Science Editors), CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), and more. Ask your instructor which citation style you should use for each class.
In all cases, though, you need to include an in-text citation (which will match up with an end citation—more on those in a minute). An in-text citation is like a signpost that says, “This! This right here! I didn’t make this up—it’s from an outside, credible source.”
In MLA, this in-text citation is a parenthetical citation after the quote or paraphrase, like this: (Robine and Cubaynes 62). It typically includes the author’s name and the page number that the information came from (if there is one). APA is similar but includes the author’s last name and the year of publication, like this: (Garcia, 2008). In both cases, the reader will easily find more information on the alphabetized works cited or references page by looking in the G section for Garcia.
Other citation styles may use a number enclosed in brackets  or a superscript number1 to indicate that this information is from an outside source. In those cases, the number 1 will lead the reader to the first entry on the references list, where they will find a full citation.
What if there’s no author listed? What if there are seventeen authors listed? The answer varies depending on your citation style—so you will have to do your own footwork to find the answer. The OWL at Purdue is an excellent resource for citation questions, whether you’re working with MLA, APA, IEEE, or something else.
Similar to in-text citations, end citations vary quite a bit. In fact, even the name of the citations section varies: in MLA, we call this the “works cited,” while in other disciplines, you may see it being called “references” or “bibliography.” In all cases, though, the end citations provide significant details about the sources you cited in the text.
As a general rule, your in-text citations and end citations should match up. If you have six sources listed on your works cited page but only one cited in the body of your paper, there’s a problem. In this example, your reader will get the sense that you did some research—but they won’t be able to tell which information came from which source or even which ideas were yours and which belong to someone else. To avoid this problem, cite as you go—don’t wait until the end and try to insert citations throughout the paper. That’s a recipe for disaster.
While the specifics about formatting may vary, most end citations will include some or all of the following things in the order required by the style guide:
- Title of the article
- Title of the source it came from (e.g., the journal, newspaper, or website title)
- Date of publication
- Volume and issue number (for journals)
- DOI or URL (for digital sources)
Again, though, there will be variation across citation styles. Some elements may be italicized or in quote marks, for example, or the authors’ names may use only first initials.
While these differences and details may seem arbitrary, they’re important because they tell careful readers what they’re looking at. In MLA, the article title is in quotes and the journal title is italicized; if these markers are reversed, it’s a little harder to figure out what we’re looking at. Attention to detail here can also add to the professionalism and credibility of your paper as a whole.
Here’s the good news: you never have to memorize how to create perfect MLA or APA citations. What you do need to know, though, is that your sources have to be cited—and that you can find and apply the appropriate rules for your project whether it’s in communications, psychology, or civil engineering.
A Word about Citation Tools
Real talk: how do you actually create citations for your papers? Chances are, you use a citation maker of some kind—either online, in the research database you are using, or embedded in Word or Google Docs. Instructors have different opinions about these, but I would argue that they’re a valuable tool. Use what you have!
A warning, though: citation tools are a useful starting point, but they’re not perfect. The free online versions are especially prone to missing style updates or incorrect formatting. The database and word processor versions (as well as citation managers like Zotero and EndNote) tend to be better, but again—not perfect. They’re only as good as the information they pick up from the source (or that you input, depending on the tool).
For that reason, you should consider the citations that are churned out by these tools to be a rough draft. You will need to check them to ensure that they are accurate and consistent.
- Why is attribution important to online content creators? Do you know of any examples where a creator was not given appropriate credit? How did it impact them?
- Do you think that attribution/citation norms are shifting and changing in the digital world? Do you see a generational divide, or does it seem more important to some people than others? Why do you think that is?
- Use the OWL at Purdue to figure out how to create an in-text citation for the following scenarios. Use the citation style of your class assignments.
- A source with five authors
- A quote from one source that you found in another source (i.e., your article is referencing another article)
- A source with no author listed
- Create one end citation the old-fashioned way: look it up on the OWL at Purdue, find each required piece of information, and use the citation style required in your class to write a full end citation for a source of your choice. Talk through it as a class. Which pieces of information were hard to find? Where are there points of confusion? How did this process help you better understand the citation requirements? How might this help you in the future, even if you continue to use citation tools?
- Use a citation maker of your choice to create an end citation for a source. Then compare that citation to the guidance on the OWL at Purdue. Is everything correct? What’s missing or incorrect?
- For more on citation tools and citation managers: Oregon State University Libraries: Citations 101.
- For all of the details about how to cite very specific source types, both in text and on the references page: The OWL at Purdue: Research and Citation Resources.
Robine, Jean-Marie, and Sarah Cubaynes. “Worldwide Demography of Centenarians.” Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, vol. 165, 16 Mar. 2017, pp. 59–67. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mad.2017.03.004.