The What & Why & So What of Plagiarism: Citations & Formatting Made Simple

Tiffany Rousculp


The word plagiarism appears in almost every course syllabus in college. It’s in the SLCC Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Your professors talk about it in serious tones. There is software embedded in Canvas to monitor your assignments for it. Everyone seems to take it very seriously. You take it seriously too …

… then, one day, your teacher sends you a message through Canvas:

Dear Student,

It appears that you have plagiarized the most recent assignment. You will receive a failing grade on it, and you may be subject to disciplinary action.

Your heart races. What? you think. Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? 

The “What” of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a very simple concept: it is taking someone else’s work, ideas, knowledge, or information and making them seem like they belong to you.

Plagiarism is a simple concept, but its “wrong”-ness is culturally determined. 

The “Why” of Plagiarism 

In colleges in the U.S., plagiarism is not permitted because of the culture’s dominant ideology that work, ideas, knowledge, or information are “owned” by the first person or group who publicly shares them. 

This ideology is neither right nor wrong. It is cultural.

Some educational cultures think sharing others’ work, ideas, knowledge, or information without saying where you got it is a form of respect or of showing that you belong in that culture.

However, the culture of U.S. education has developed for the past two-and-a-half centuries within dominant ideologies that value individualism and ownership.  So, knowledge and information belong to the people or groups who get them out there first. 

For more on this, read this article by SLCC professor Anne Canavan.

The “So What” of Plagiarism

Here in the U.S., plagiarism is pretty important. In the professional world, people can lose their careers over it or, at the very least, be publicly humiliated. Professional musicians are regularly sued for allegedly stealing someone else’s song or melody. Students can fail classes or be expelled from school …

Seriously? Expelled from school? 

Yes, seriously. Students can be expelled from school for plagiarism, but it is rare.

Intentional Plagiarism 

Being expelled for plagiarism is rare because expulsion (or academic probation or failure of a class) is a consequence for students who intentionally plagiarize: students who buy papers from an internet site, or students who have someone else do their work for them, or students who copy and paste big chunks of writing from somewhere else and say it’s their own—because they don’t want to do the work themselves. 

This is a small percentage of students.

Accidental Plagiarism

But a lot of students accidentally plagiarize; it happens all the time! Maybe it’s even happened to you. 

You may have accidentally plagiarized because you didn’t know how to quote, paraphrase, or summarize. Maybe you’ve been overwhelmed or confused by the different formatting and citation rules that your teachers require. There are so many little details and contradictions that maybe you just gave up and ignored it.

Special note:
It’s possible you could have been lazy or just don’t care about citations and formatting.

None of these are a good reason to accidentally plagiarize, so get focused and pay attention to this chapter. It will: 

  1. Help you to understand the difference between citation and format.
  2. Explain the purposes of both.
  3. Show what you need to do so that—even if you don’t get it completely right—your professors know that you are not intentionally plagiarizing.
  4. Provide you with resources so that you can get it right.

Why Citations?

You may already know what citations are.  Or maybe you have a vague memory of hearing the words “works cited,” or “bibliography” in high school.

Citations are just the way you “cite (e.g. point out, acknowledge, show) someone else’s ideas or knowledge in your work.  They’re how you show that you know it belongs to someone else.  

Remember, this is culturally specific. Because U.S. culture values individuals and ownership, we need to show that we are aware that someone else owns this idea or knowledge. With a citation you show, “Hey, this belongs to someone else; I’m just borrowing this, and here’s how you can find it too!”

Citations Are Like Hyperlinks

The word “citation” can be confusing because it names a connection, not just a single element. A complete citation requires three linked parts: 1) the content you have written, 2) the in-text notation[1], and 3) the source that belongs to someone else.

Citation = my work ↔ in-text notation ↔ source


Citations are like hyperlinks in online media (e.g. websites, articles, blogs, tweets, etc.). A hyperlink is an in-text notation that connects to another page, article, or tweet to give credit to it and also to give readers a way to see it themselves. Just clicking on the link takes you to the source.

When you’re not writing in an online format, a citation does the same job as a hyperlink. It directs readers to an entry in a list of your sources(e.g. Works Cited or References or foot- or endnotes). While they can’t click on a citation, readers can “follow” the citation to the source.

Quoting? Paraphrasing? Summarizing?

There are three ways to cite writing from sources. You can also cite images, audio, and video in multi-modal documents.


You’re probably most familiar with quoting, which is copying and pasting the exact words from a source and putting quotation marks around them.

Paraphrasing & Summarizing

Paraphrasing is harder for people to figure out, because why would you want to “put in your own words” something that someone who knows more than you do wrote about in a way that you found useful?  Paraphrasing a single sentence from another source is really difficult.

In fact, if you want to use only a single sentence, it’s usually better to quote it.

Paraphrasing is like summarizing, but on a smaller scale. You might summarize (and cite) the main idea of an entire article or the results of an experiment, but you’d paraphrase a portion of that article (e.g. a paragraph or page) or the background of an experiment.

For more on this, revisit the citations reading by Anne Canavan.

Why Formatting? 

In reality, citation isn’t the main reason students and professors get frustrated with each other. It’s actually “formatting” where things tend to go wrong.

One professor wants you to write in “MLA format,” while another assumes you know how to do “APA format,” while still another says that you should use “Chicago.”  You think you do it, but then you find out that the format changed last year and you’re not doing it right.  

Then your head starts to spin and you just say, “Forget it.”  

We get it.  We’re here to help. Read on to learn more …

What Is Format? 

Citations are not format. While all formats include citations, and while all citations have a format, they are not the same thing. Think of citation as the process through which you show your sources, and think of format as the style within which you do that process.

Format means “the shape, size, and general makeup” and “a general plan of organization, arrangement, or choice of material” (Merriam Webster). Some format questions include: 

  • Should the writing be single- or double-spaced?
  • Should it include headings?
  • What about color and images?
  • What size margins are allowed?
  • Are there font requirements?
  • Does this need page numbers? Where do they go?
  • What does the references page need to include?

And so on … 

Why Different Formats?

In college, majors and areas of study are grouped into professional disciplines. These professional disciplines are governed by professional organizations (e.g. Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Associated Press, American Chemical Society, etc.).

One responsibility of these organizations is to determine how writing within the discipline will be formatted.  These formats reflect the values of the professional organization/discipline so following the format shows that you “belong” to that discipline and share those values. 

Therefore, if someone wants to publish an article on their research, in that discipline, they follow the format in their submissions to publishers.

The format is like a gate: It lets you in if you use it or keeps you out if you don’t.

But they’re all the same! (Actually, they’re not.) 

Many formats are similar because they are all doing the same thing: presenting writing and citations in a way that is easy to read and understand for their intended audiences.  But, because different disciplines can value different types of knowledge, the formats are slightly different. 

For example, the MLA format(Modern Language Association) is followed by humanities disciplines. MLA in-text notations include the last name of the author of your source and a page number.

The APA format(American Psychological Association) is followed by social sciences disciplines. APA in-text notations need the last name of the author and the year of publication, not the page number. 

This is a small difference that doesn’t seem to mean very much.  But, it shows the value that the social sciences place on knowing when a source was published. To the humanities, how recently something was published may not be as important. 

What Does This Have to Do with My Writing?!?

You may be thinking, Okay, for people trying to get published, this makes sense, but I’m just writing a paper for a class …

What IS the big deal?

That’s a fair point.

You are working on assignments for 1000- or 2000-level classes at SLCC right now. So, if your professor seems to care more about how wide your margins are rather than what you have written, it can be frustrating. 

When the student or the teacher focuses too much on format, it can actually detract from the real purpose of writing:LEARNING. 

The rest of this chapter looks for a middle ground that respects the needs of students and faculty together.  

Professors’ Perceptions 

Maybe you’ve had teachers who grade your formatting instead of the content of your writing. Maybe you almost got an “A” on a paper, but you didn’t have the right headings or your citations were done wrong. That can be really frustrating and can negatively affect how you feel about writing.

It’s true that some professors focus too much on formatting.  But most don’t. If you are feeling pressure from your professors, what you’re probably getting from them is theinevitable frustrationthat teachers feel after years and years of students seeming to ignore their formatting requests.

Read on to see what your professors have most likely dealt with long before you entered their class. 

Your Professors’ Experience 

On an assignment in which a professor asks for APA formatting, with citations and a reference page, students might:

      1. Triple-space instead of double-space to make it seem longer
      2. Ignore the request for a title page
      3. Leave their name off the paper
      4. Include a reference page but no in-text notations in the writing
      5. Include in-text notations in the writing but no reference page
      6. Make margins bigger to make it seem longer
      7. Ignore the request for headings so all the paragraphs blend together
      8. Include in-text notations and a reference page, but the reference page is only a list of websites OR last names OR titles … but not all of them together
      9. Use MLA formatting instead, but not very well
      10. Ignore citations and formatting completely

Imagine this: over and over, class after class, semester after semester, year after year of feeling ignored. Try not to forget: Professors are people too.

Doing Your Part

It’s important to meet your instructor at least halfway on citations and formatting. If you show you are making the effort to do what they’ve asked you to do, they’ll most likely be happy even if you don’t get every detail right. 

This lets both of you focus on the more important parts of your writing: the ideas, knowledge, and information that you are trying to share with them. 

The actual LEARNING! The important stuff of thinking, sharing, growing, and transforming.

Below is what you can do to show you’re willing to do your part.


For citations, regardless of the format that you are being asked to use, you need to do the following five things:

  1. List your sources in a Works Cited, References list, or Bibliography page (depending on the format you are using).
  2. Include in-text notations in your writing to show that you know you got an idea, knowledge, or information from a source that is on your reference page.
  3. Include a citation for each quote or paraphrase or summary or image or any other source that you include.
  4. At the very least, make sure each entry on the list of sources includes all of these parts:
    a. The author(s)’ name(s) (unless there is no author)
    b. The title of the source
    c. The date of publication
    d. How to find it (e.g. web URL, publisher name, etc.)
  5. Make sure each cite has a source listed in the references (remember:  citation = my work ↔ in-text notation ↔ source)

If you do these five things, your teachers will know you are making an effort to cite your sources.

If you don’t do these five things, your teachers have a good reason to feel annoyed with you. 


Formatting is a bit more difficult because of how similar the different formats are. To get format completely right, you need to look at instructions and examples

But, to show your professor that you are trying, for most of your academic writing (e.g. essays, research papers, etc.) you can show your effort by paying attention to the following:

  1. Professor instructions – Follow what the professor or the assignment specifically asks you to do (e.g. title, name, page numbers, columns, etc.)
  2. Paper size – 8.5″x11″
  3. Margins – 1” is standard in most formats.
  4. Font – Times New Roman is the standard.  Some formats actually require it.
  5. Spacing – Double-spacing is the norm, unless the professor asks for something else.
  6. Paragraphs – Indent from left by clicking “tab” one time or using automatic paragraph margin formatting.
  7. Long quotes – Block indent from left by using “indent”
  8. Sources – Alphabetized list of sources on separate page at end of document (Did you see that it said “alphabetized“? Just checking.)

Specific Formats 

If your professor asks you to use a specific format, you should do your best to do so.

Below are the basic ways the most common formats differ from each other. While you should definitely follow the “all formats” guidelines presented earlier, pay attention to these differences too.

Click on the links in the tabs to access sample papers from the Purdue OWL. 



  • Your title (abbreviated if necessary to 50 characters) in the top-left corner of header (“running header”) (Note: student papers don’t need this, but ask your professor what they want)
  • Page numbers in the top-right corner of header
  • Separate title page, with the following centered and double-spaced:
    • Title
    • Your name
    • Institutional affiliation (SLCC)
    • Course name and number
    • Instructor name
    • Assignment due date
  • Abstract page (Note: student papers don’t need this, but ask your professor what they want)
  • Section headings done in levels with different font styles (i.e. indentation, bold, italics)
  • In-text citations include author and year of publication
  • References list page at end of document
  • Sources include the following in order:

Author’s Surname, Initial(s). (Year, Month Date of Publication.) Title of source. Title of Container. Publisher. Page Numbers or Retrieved from URL.




  • Your last name followed by page numbers in top-right corner of header
  • No title page
  • Top-left corner of first page:
    • Your name
    • Your instructor’s name
    • Name of course
    • Date
  • Center title
  • Section headings preceded by number
  • In-text citations include author and page number
  • Works Cited page at end of document
  • Sources include the following in order:

Author’s Surname, Given Name. “Title of Source.” Title of Container. Publisher, Date Month Year of Publication, Page Numbers or Retrieved from URL.



(Samples linked below)

  • Page numbers in top-right corner of header
  • Title page :
    • Title of paper
    • Your name
    • Course name and number
    • Date
  • No section headings
  • In-text citations include author, date, and page number (sample format) or are done using superscript numbers and footnotes (sample format)
  • Bibliography page at end of document
  • Sources include the following in order:

Author’s Surname, First Name. “Title of Source.” Title of Container (Place of Publication: Publisher, Year Published), Page Numbers or Retrieved from URL.


It’s true that focusing too much on picky little details of formats and citations can get in the way of producing your best thinking and writing. You may have a teacher who cares too much about them, or maybe it’s you who does? Either way, worrying about whether the period goes inside or outside of the in-text notation is not a good way to spend your intellectual efforts.

That said, it will serve you well in college and beyond to show that you care about your readers’ needs and that you are willing to do your part. If you do this for citations and for formatting while you are in college, your professors will trust that you are trying to do your best work. Their trust will serve you well, especially if you forget to include a source or accidentally plagiarize in some other way. It’s a wise investment of your time to meet teachers (at least) halfway.

  1. An in-text notation is the element in your writing that refers to the external source. An in-text notation can be a footnote, endnote, parenthesis, hyperlink, author’s name, title of source, etc. Whatever it is, its job is to connect your work to a source.


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

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