Why and When to Cite Sources

Instructors, tutors, and integrity boards make a big deal about plagiarism. In the academic world, careers are built on intellectual property and achievements. If you use other people's ideas without giving them credit, you effectively claim those ideas as your own and commit a kind of theft. Please note, however, that plagiarism is not just an offense against the original authors. It also violates the ethical norms that govern your relationships with your professors and fellow students.

Citing properly in college papers provides good practice for writing you may do later in your career. Citations also provide your readers with a chance to pursue additional research. They may want to check your claims or simply be interested in learning more about your topic. Thus, citations are a courtesy to your readers.

When to Cite

Here's the general rule for citing sources:

Provide a citation whenever you take words, information, or ideas from another source.

Obviously, this rule applies to direct quotations — the actual words of another author. But it also applies to paraphrases of other people's ideas — ideas that you have put into your own words. In addition, the rule applies to statistics and other data drawn from someone else's work.

Interestingly, you must also cite your own previous papers if you include your ideas from them in a new work. If that old paper is good enough to cite, your audience may want to read it, too.

When Not to Cite

You can leave out citations for material that is clearly common knowledge.

What may be considered common knowledge will vary with your assignment and your intended audience. In general, only long-established ideas, especially those based on the work of a large number of people, count as common knowledge. Current news is also usually common enough knowledge to go uncited, unless you are getting into the specifics of a news event. If your classmates are your intended audience, material covered in class may be considered common knowledge for them.

Even in these cases, however, providing citations is still a courtesy. And if you decide to publish a seminar paper, citations of class material will make your work presentable to a larger audience.

Incorporating Sources

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