Citations: Why, When, How?

Anne Canavan



This word can terrify even the bravest of students. If you went to school in the United States, you know that plagiarism can lead to failing assignments, repeating courses, or possibly even being expelled from school. You have heard it called “stealing,” “fraud,” and “cheating,” and you may have even accidentally done it once or twice. Plagiarism is a tricky subject. There are many different types of plagiarism, ranging from taking an entire essay from a website or friend and passing it off as your own work to forgetting to do an internal citation or missing a source from your works cited page.

Writers from more pluralistic societies, such as China, often have radically different views about source use. Once an idea is published, or otherwise in the public domain, it is considered public property—anyone can build on the idea, or use it in their own research, without giving explicit credit to the original author (Bouman 2009, Polio and Shi, 2012). As a result, explicit citation—“This information came from _____, and here is where I found it”—is unusual, even in academic writing. While this reading will be focusing on American expectations of citation, other views of citation are not incorrect, simply different.



To answer this question, it is necessary to understand some of the ideas Americans (among others) have about intellectual property. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, intellectual property is considered “creations of the mind—creative works or ideas embodied in a form that can be shared or can enable others to recreate, emulate, or manufacture them.”

This definition may sound a bit complicated, but it’s saying that ideas or other creative products, like writing or art, are protected just like “real” property (e.g. cars, personal possessions, etc.).

Because we view ideas and the expression of those ideas as a kind of property that can be “owned” and protected by trademarks, patents, and copyright, when we use other people’s words and ideas, we have to give credit to where those ideas came from. One very basic way of thinking about this is the analogy of borrowing your friend’s car. You would definitely ask their permission first, and if someone asked you if it was your car, you would tell them it’s not yours but your friend’s. You would also (hopefully) return the car in the same condition you borrowed it. This last part is relevant to when we talk about using sources “responsibly.”

To use a source responsibly, you have to take into account the context in which it was written and that the author has chosen, as well as what the meaning of the overall piece is. You don’t want to just take a sentence or two that seem to fit your beliefs or needs. Sometimes, this can be tricky. For example, an author might use irony to make a point (for instance, an author writing a pro-dog piece might write, “Everyone knows dogs make terrible pets, which is why they are so unpopular in American homes.”)  If you were to only quote this sentence, in which the author is saying something that doesn’t fit with the overall argument/tone of the rest of the piece, you are misrepresenting the source to your reader.

The final reason that we cite sources is so that our readers know where to go to find more information on the topic. Wikipedia makes a great example here; sometimes when we are beginning a research topic, we might visit Wikipedia to get an overview of the topic and to see what some of the big discussions about the topic are. However, we know we can’t cite Wikipedia because it’s not an authoritative source on its own. This is why the References section of Wikipedia is so useful. While you can’t quote what Wikipedia has to say about dogs, you can visit some of the sources it has listed as references.



Whether you are writing an academic paper for a college course or making a flyer for our job, the principles behind citation remain the same: whenever you use someone else’s ideas, you need to give credit to that person. In order to do that, you need to tell the reader which part of your work came from another source and where the reader can find that information themselves. Whether you quote the words or not depends on whether you are paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting the words of the original author. Whether you are paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting the words of the original author, you need to cite your source (say where the information comes from and where to find it).


This technique involves taking a large amount of text (anywhere from several paragraphs to a whole chapter, essay, or even an entire book) and condensing those ideas into your own words. The hallmark of summarizing is that you start with something very large and change it into a more concise version that only hits on the main ideas.


In the film Jurassic Park, visitors to an amusement park find themselves in danger when the genetically engineered dinosaurs break free.

This example is an extremely short summary of the film, and it leaves out a number of details, such as who the main characters are, how and why the dinosaurs were created, how the dinosaurs escaped, etc. You could do a more detailed summary that addresses those questions, or you could paraphrase a smaller part of the text, as in the next section.


Typically when someone paraphrases a source, they are working with a much smaller section of the source, often only a sentence or two. Having a shorter piece of text to work with means you are much more likely to be able to put all of the main ideas in your own words. The paraphrase is also likely to be roughly the same length as the original source.


Original quote from Jurassic Park:
“You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you wanna sell it.”
Paraphrase of the original quote:
In this scene from Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm makes the point that science should be accomplished in a thoughtful, orderly way and that scientists should consider the ramifications of their work before they try to profit from it.

In this example, the ideas from the quote are represented in the paraphrase, but the language is entirely changed from the informal tone of the original. A good rule of thumb for when you are paraphrasing is to read the original source once or twice, and then try to write it down in your own words without looking at the original. Once you have your version written down, take another look at the original source to make sure you have all the main ideas.


Sometimes we run across a source that communicates an idea so clearly that we want to preserve not just the original idea but the language as well. In those circumstances, we want to quote the work.


In the film Jurassic Park, the park staff is experiencing problems as they prepare to open, and the park’s owner, John Hammond, says, “All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!”&
However, Ian Malcolm responds, “Yeah, but John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

You can see that there is some framing around these quotes to give the reader context for the information, but everything within the quotation marks is clearly indicated as being the words of the original source.



This question largely has to do with the style of citation you are working with. Two of the most common citation styles are Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA). Your teachers may discuss these styles in more depth. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has great references to help you as you research and lots of information on how to use MLA and APA.

Purdue OWL MLA Guide

Purdue OWL APA Guide



Bouman, Kurt. “Raising questions about plagiarism.” ESL writers: A guide for writing center tutors (2009): 161-175.

“Dog.” Wikipedia. 12 Dec. 2016. Web.

Polio, Charlene, and Ling Shi. “Perceptions and beliefs about textual appropriation and source use in second language writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 21.2 (2012): 95-101.


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Anne Canavan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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