Why we cite
To participate in college-level research is to engage with a chain of debate and scholarship that extends well beyond any individual scholar or researcher’s efforts. As new knowledge builds on or upends older established knowledge, a conversation of sorts develops across time. When we conduct or synthesize the research or writings of others in a college-level research paper, we participate in that conversation. Key to holding this vast enterprise together is the notion of citation.
Citation is how scholars acknowledge or point to the work of earlier scholars. Ideally, citation provides a standard means for tracking down the research of others by providing sufficient information about the original source so it can be easily found. Citations typically include things like article titles, journal titles, authors, dates, and publication information. Citations will look different depending on citation style, discipline of study, and the format and nature of the information itself. The purpose is the same: to make the original source of any information you reference easily findable by others. This is our responsibility as participants in research. One day others may use your work in their own research, and those future authors will be obligated to cite you.
Citation also allows you to avoid plagiarism. Most every educational institution has some sort of academic integrity policy that outlines a student’s responsibilities as a researcher.
These policies may vary slightly from institution to institution, but typically warn against two behaviors:
- Committing plagiarism. Plagiarism is when we use the ideas or research of others and fail to attribute those ideas or research to the original authors. This is a form of theft easily remedied by extensive use of citation. Did you get an idea from a book, article, or website? Cite it as spe-cifically as possible. Did you find a terrific graph or image online that you want to include in your paper? Cite it. Using a quote from any source? Cite.
- Self-plagiarizing. This happens when you submit work you completed in one class for a different class. Most syllabi expressly forbid this. If you are considering using your previous work for a current project, be sure to cite yourself and to note how extensively you are reusing the work. Also be sure to talk to your instructor. What constitutes self-plagiarism may seem murky to you, but your instructor may have bright red lines over what is and isn’t allowed in a particular class.
Why are there so many citation styles?
One common frustration with student researchers is the need to learn more than one citation style. You may learn MLA in an English composition class, but may also need to learn APA for a sociology class, or Chicago style citation for a history class. Why are there so many? Styles have developed for the most part organically to reflect the needs of different areas of study. While the differences between styles may seem arbitrary, they emerge from how scholars in various fields cite sources and present their research. For example, historians often use the Chicago style. Why? One reason is that Chicago accommodates the footnotes and endnotes essential to history researchers in a way other styles do not.
How we cite
Most databases and many library discovery tools will include a citation feature, providing student researchers with an auto-generated citation of the article or book they are viewing. While no auto-generated citation builder is perfect, these tools can be helpful for creating a references or works cited page, or an annotated bibliography. Even Google Scholar includes a citation tool for creating citations in multiple styles.
More serious student researchers may want to consider using bibliographic management software for their research-based projects. Products such as RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley allow researchers to easily save citations to articles and books as they conduct their research. Whether a student is using a library database, Google Scholar, or their library’s discovery service, useful citations can be quickly exported to the bibliographic management tool and saved for use later. Many of these tools also allow users to store copies of the articles themselves and can even generate bibliographies. Some of the more robust bibliographic management tools can create citations in hundreds of different citation styles, greatly reducing the amount of time and effort required to create high-quality reference or works cited pages. Citations can also be organized by project, allowing researchers to easily share their citations with colleagues and collaborators. Contact your library to see what bibliographic management software your campus supports. Many of these products are free, but some require a subscription.
Also consider asking a professor in your field what software is used most frequently in your field.