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How to Cite Sources and Why

How to Cite Sources and Why

Citations are a pain; let’s be honest. But they are also important. They are a pain, not just because they “show evidence you didn’t plagiarize,” as teachers like to tell students, frightening them out of their wits. Instead, knowing how to cite is worthwhile for several reasons, all of which will help you become a more informed writer, reader, and human being.

What follows are some tips on how to go about citing sources, whether you are a researcher, a student, a writer, or simply someone who wants to tell people where you got a fact, figure, or quote.

Citation’s Original Sources

Citation isn’t a new practice to make sure you didn’t copy your info from a Wikipedia page, but an old practice invented by priests, philosophers, and scholars to identify sources of information.

Citations were mainly for the purposes of location, not because specific sources carried more authority than others, although that was also a factor. Citations would help members of a learned audience get from one book to the next or from one part of a book to another. That’s right: the citation is no different than the internet hyperlink.

Biblical scholars used citation to distribute knowledge to the public more easily, referring people to chapters and verses so they could remember where to consult their Bibles. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, citation became a crucial way to democratize the written word and increase the transparency of worship. If a priest claimed something, they made sure to say where it was from, so you could look it up yourself and consult your conscience on the issue.

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Why There Are So Many Formats

The secularization of institutions of higher learning during the Renaissance did not alter these practices: it only spread them wider until they became the ubiquitous methods of a citation we know today.

But the standardization of citation by different colleges and organizations over the next few hundred years also led to the bewildering amount of formats for sources that crush us all and confuse us utterly.

Oxford cited differently than the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago cited differently than the Modern Language Association. The Modern Language Association cited differently than the Associated Press, and so on, and so on.

Some of these differences (as with the AP style) emerged out of techniques adapting to new practices of distributing information. Some developed as inventors tinkered with different cataloging systems for libraries in the 19th century.

No one seemed to care about the ultimate effect: everyone did whatever seemed best for them. The plethora of styles that confront us today is the result: while they all share the same basic function, nearly all look different from the others and follow different rules.

Confronting the Difficulties of Citation

The first step in simplifying your citation practices involves using this history for your benefit. Since the content that makes up most citations is easy to find, and only the formats that differ, start by gathering that basic information and noting it in whatever form feels comfortable to you. Only then begin to think about how to use that information.

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While you are reading, note the essential elements: name of the author, date, and place of publication, and the name of the publishing house or imprint. All of these are available, usually, on the inside cover of the book, in the Publication Information section.  

If you are reading an article in a magazine or some other publication, note the issue number and the pages the article takes up. If you are dealing with an internet article, note when you accessed it and hunt around for the article’s original publication date, which will usually be underneath its title.

You now have a base of information from which you can work when it comes time to choose your format.

Putting Together Your Citations

Next, find out what source your audience expects you to use. Print and online publications usually have style-sheets with this information readily available for you to consult: search on their website or email an editor asking them for one.

Getting a style sheet is better than just finding out what format your venue prefers since it will also tell you any other formatting information that may come up in composing your work. It also further acclimates you to why publishers may go with one style rather than another. Sometimes, it is just for fashion reasons.

Sometimes, they want to send a particular message with their magazine or journal about what they think constitutes intellectual authority.

If you are writing just for informational purposes, choose the most helpful style. The Modern Language Association generally has the most straightforward citation form and is the most portable citation form across different media platforms. Whether email, print, or online article format, you probably won’t run into trouble if you use MLA.

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Taking Advantage of Citation Tools

Once you decide what format is right for you, take advantage of citation tools on the internet that can easily format the information you have for you.

Specific tools like and Scribbr allow you to enter the author’s name and the publication simply, and will even search this information for you and find it out–there’s no need even to rifle through the pages of the book.

These tools should produce a handy, clean Works Cited document for you quickly and efficiently.

Issues of Authority, Consensus, and Controversy

Once you become familiar with citation practices, you enter a world of dialogue and discussion that is wonderful to explore. But specific issues remain as to whose voice speaks louder than others and more authoritatively.

Citation is not about authority, in other words–except for when it is.

Because citation leads readers to an author to allow them to further consult a piece of information for themselves, leading them to the proper authors is not only good practice but a duty.

Citing fleeting bits of information by inconsequential commentators is an excellent way to make whatever point you are citing irrelevant. However, linking a hard piece of evidence to a strong authority in a field is to gain credibility on the issue in question.

Sometimes the same piece of information will come up in two sources: in that case, mention both, but lead readers to the one by some parenthetical comment which emphasizes the comprehensiveness of the more authoritative source.

But in the end, a citation is not about quoting the big names: it is about showing people where the information originates. The point is to bring them along not just the journey of the writing but also the journey of your research. You’ve done more than enough in your citation if you have done this.

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Citing is Writing

Knowing how to cite adds a whole different dimension to your paper: suddenly, you are not all out on your own, just saying what comes into your head but continuing a conversation. You show how what you have in mind is the product of reading a lot and figuring out the consensus on an issue and whether that consensus is good or whether the discussion needs to be changed.

So citation is much more than fulfilling some requirement that you can’t say what you think without getting it from somewhere else more authoritative than you. It is the only way to show the whole comprehensive structure of ideas behind what you believe, to immerse them in the process of reflection you put into what you write. It gives them an appreciation of everything you did to make the point you made.

Learning how to cite, then, is learning how to discuss, argue, and ultimately write well. Readers genuinely appreciate good citations because it respects them as fellow thinkers. Fellow writers appreciate them because it brings them in on a conversation to which they didn’t even expect to be contributing. Finally, you can appreciate them because you do your thoughts and words justice in citing.

And if you remember this, it makes all that pesky formatting worth it. Or at least a little bit more bearable.


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