Study Skills Writing

I don't understand how to cite sources correctly...

I don't understand how to cite sources correctly in a research paper. I don't want to be accused of plagiarism. What should I do?

I recommend Diana Hacker's website (google Diana Hacker) and reference books, such as The Writer's Reference.  I like the help of services such as EndNote or Zotera or even websites such as Son of Citation Machine or or but they are all subject to error, so even if you use them to create your citations, check your final citation by samples in a resource such as Hacker's The Writer's Reference.

A few quick rules of thumb:

Rule One: If you are using the exact words written or stated by someone else, you must quote those words exactly, followed by the appropriate citation.

For example, if you were quoting my words above, you would need to write them using quotation marks in your paper.

According to Duke (2011), "[i]f you are using the exact words written or stated by someone else, you must quote those words exactly" (p. 5).

This quote was cited using APA format for intext quotations for a book (pretending, of course, that I wrote a book on this topic). In APA format, it would also be necessary to list the bibliographic information of this website on your References page.

Please note--almost no one memorizes these formats. You just have to find a reference book in the library or on the web to find the right format. If you are creating your citations from memory, there's a good chance you aren't doing them correctly.

Rule Two: If you are not using the exact same words but you are summarizing an idea you got from another source, you are paraphrasing, and you must cite the statement appropriately.

Now, you may not need to cite my statement, due to Rule three, but let's pretend there is something amazingly new about what we quoted me saying, and let's paraphrase me.

According to Duke (2011), writers who use the exact same words as someone else must quote that person (p. 5).

However... rule three is interesting...

Rule Three: If the information you include in your paper is COMMON KNOWLEDGE, such as information you might find in a general encyclopedia or dictionary, you do not need to cite the source if you are paraphrasing.

I recommend extreme caution with rule three. If I have any doubts that something might not be considered common knowledge, I cite it anyway.

I think common sense helps here. A few samples from a practice essay I wrote on Mark Twain,

He published countless stories and books and achieved worldwide fame in his lifetime; he continues to be quoted today.

This is a statement of fact. It would be possible to find a source that lists all of his books and stories, one that mentions that he was famous, and examples of his quotes being used. However, what I'm saying here is general knowledge, for the most part, even if I did doublecheck that he published a great deal (since off the top of my head, I could only list about ten books and a few short stories). I don't need to cite a source after this statement... unless I was using the exact words someone else used somewhere, which would be sad, since this is a statement easy enough to think up and write down on your own.

At times, he forced himself to write and rewrite as much as it took to create something worth publishing, particularly when money was short (Emerson, 2000, p. 186).

I wrote this statement in my own words, and I had heard this fact about Twain before, but I made sure to find a specific source to verify it, because I did not believe this statement could be considered common knowledge. It represents some research by someone, and deserves a citation.

Rule Four: Okay, this is not a rule of thumb, the first three were the main rules of thumb, but this last one is just good advice--never copy and paste information from the web straight into your paper.

You can copy sections of research from valid journals and educational websites into a separate document that lists all the important citation information, but it seems to me dangerous and a bad habit to copy and paste words directly. You might make a mistake and not cite something correctly, or you may have difficulty not being tempted to just 'reword' what you found elsewhere (without citing the paraphrasing). You also may find it hard to come up with original ideas if you keep seeing someone's else's words in front of you (it's like trying to write when a song is on the radio that I like to sing along with--those lyrics seem to crowd out my own ideas for writing!)

I definitely think you should aim to start by writing your own ideas first, analyzing the research you've found, and then quote or paraphrase examples of what you've learned.

Good luck!