Citing Your Sources

What is a Citation?

This page covers creating citations for academic papers, why it's important to cite your sources, and when you're required to cite them.

What Is a Citation?

A citation is a reference that allows you to acknowledge the sources* you use in a formal academic paper, and enables a reader to locate those sources through the key information it provides.

Citations are placed both in the text and in an organized list at the end of the text, unless you use a footnote or endnote system, which can be self-contained without an organized list.

*Source material might come from books, journal articles, speeches, websites, on-line articles, films, government publications, legal proceedings, maps, and so on.

When Do I Have to Cite?

  • If you quote an author, even if you are only borrowing a single key word, you must tell your reader where you found the information. Using an author's words exactly as they appear on the page, then, is a direct quotation that always requires a citation.
  • You also must cite a source
    • if you restate an idea, thesis, or opinion given by an author,
    • if you restate an expert's theory or opinion,
    • if you use facts that are not common knowledge, or
    • if you need to provide an informational or explanatory note.

These restatements of an author's words, thoughts, or ideas will take the form of either

  • a summary, or
  • a paraphrase (or indirect quotation).

When Is It Okay Not to Cite?

  • Facts that are common knowledge do not have to be cited. For example:
    • The Republicans succeeded in winning the majority in both the House and Senate in the November elections.
    • AIDS is a disease that is managed but not cured.
  • Statistics and information that can easily be found in several sources and are not likely to vary from source to source do not have to be cited. For example, the population of the United States is 281 million.
  • Dictionary definitions that are common knowledge and vary little from source to source do not have to be cited.

Why Cite?

It is important to cite when borrowing the ideas and thoughts of others for several reasons. Citing sources

  • builds credibility in your work by showing you are not alone in your opinions;
  • gives you a chance to show that you have thought about and investigated your topic;
  • gives your reader the information he or she needs to verify your source or to find more information on the subject; and
  • allows you to give credit where credit is due.

Please note that not citing your sources is academically dishonest and may lead to charges of plagiarism.

In addition, citations are integral to scholarly literature. The scholarly literature on a topic is like a huge conversation that can include many experts from around the world and across the centuries. When an individual writer credits his sources, he ties his work to the larger scholarly discourse. Because citations identify intellectual links throughout scholarly literature, they can be helpful not only when writing but also when conducting research.

Citations enable you as a researcher to

  • verify the facts and opinions set forth in a piece of writing;
  • identify additional sources that may delve more deeply into a subject;
  • distinguish the ideas of various experts regarding a specific topic;
  • measure the influence of one thinker upon another; and
  • trace the evolution of an idea as it passes from scholar to scholar, from culture to culture, and from era to era.

Parts of a Citation

A book citation generally includes the name of the author (whether personal or corporate), the title of the book, the place of publication, the name of the publisher, and the year the book was published.

An article citation generally includes the author or authors of the article, the title of the article, the name of the periodical or journal in which the article appears, the date the journal was published, the volume and/or issue number of the journal, and the page number (or range of page numbers) for the article.

A Web citation may include the author of the website (if one is given; this can be a person, a corporation, or an organization), the title of the website, the entity that published the website (if available), the date the website was created or last updated, the date that the website was accessed, and the address (i.e., the Uniform Resource Locator [URL]) of the website on the Internet.

How the parts of a citation go together depends on the type of reference (i.e., book, journal article, website, etc.) as well as on the style used by that particular subject area.

Citations are displayed in specific styles, such as APA, MLA, and Chicago, because the consistent formatting makes it easier for other researchers to find the sources you used.


Continue to Part 2: Citation Styles