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How to Properly Cite your Sources and Why it is Important

During my tenure as a graduate teaching assistant, one issue that students continually lost points for when writing papers was using and correctly citing academic sources. For some undergraduate students, citing sources is often one of the less important details when writing a paper. After doing the research and analysis for a 10-20 page paper, there is a great feeling of relief. This is especially the case if you have pulled an all-nighter, of which I will not say I have never been guilty. The only thing standing in the way of you handing in your paper is a title page and a bibliography, or works cited page. At that point, the works cited page is, somewhat understandably, an afterthought. However, the first big mistake is making it appear to your professor, as such.

This is often made noticeable by the lack of care in formatting the works cited page after a student has cut and pasted links in fonts of varying shapes, sizes, and unequal line spacing. The absence of aesthetics on your works cited page is often an indication of other common mistakes to follow: a lack of consistency for your in-text citations, and the use of non-academic sources (I will provide more details about the later in my next post).

To be fair, it often takes writing a few academic papers to get used to the academic standards for citing your sources. In addition, it can be confusing if one course expects you to use MLA style citations and in another course you are to use APA style. Still , this is college life, and it is something that all students must adapt to. After all, you have put forth the care and effort to meticulously research your subject, so why not let this shine through in your paper! Follow these tips and tricks to ensure you do not lose valuable points for improper citation.

1) Use the correct citation style.

There are many different styles, and they often vary by discipline. A professor will often announce what style they prefer you to use, either on the syllabus, or on the description of an assignment. If a professor fails to do so, it is your responsibility as the eager student that you are, to clarify this before setting out on the assignment. Do not wait until the day before the assignment is due. It may be the case that a professor does not have a preference, but that they just want you to be consistent. If so, consider yourself lucky! Pick the style with which you are most familiar, and stick with it.

2) Consistency is key

I cannot belabor the point enough, be consistent with your citation style. If you are using Chicago style, be sure that you do not lapse into MLA style because you used it on your last paper. Also, if the correct way to cite an author is (Smith, 2005) be sure that you do not sometimes have (Smith: 2005) or vice versa.

3) Paraphrasing vs. Quotations

Know the difference between using a quote and paraphrasing the ideas of an author. With the former, you should always enclose the words in quotation marks and give credit to the author. Do not try to flip a few of the author’s words around and use it as your own idea. You may interpret their idea, but you must still cite them, even if not using their exact words.

4) Make use of your university library

Not sure how to cite authors using a specific style? Your college or university has a plethora of sources available to you, I am sure. In 2011, many of these sources are available on-line. If you are not sure where to start, or if you are citing correctly, do not be afraid to ask the reference librarian.

Why is citing a source correctly so important? If you are using someone’s idea, it is important they get credit for it. When you publish your own article or book some day, you will want the same. Additionally, this allows your readers to visit your sources and determine 1) the credibility of the source, 2) whether they agree with your interpretation of the source, 3) and also to conduct further research using that source.

This is an important part of your training, whether you plan to go on to being an academic researcher or a public administrator. The source of information is always important! I am more than happy to help you evaluate your sources and show you how to properly use them.