When Do I Cite?


“When do I cite?”

Students ask me this question all the time. It’s such an innocuous question that, until recently, I never gave it much thought. When asked, I usually responded as any good librarian or teacher might by saying, “Cite whenever you quote or paraphrase someone else’s work.” Now at the time, this seemed clear and obvious to me. However, after getting the same question semester after semester, I started to ask myself exactly how clear and useful my response was. Moreover, I never considered how stressful citing sources can be for a student. Because in addition to citing correctly, a student needs to know where and when to cite their sources! This undoubtedly adds extra pressure to the student as he or she is writing a paper. Furthermore, it isn’t only an undergraduate problem. I’ve seen the same anxiety and problems occur at both the masters and doctoral levels. In fact, I’d even argue that the stress is worse at those levels. The stakes are higher and there’s more information to cite. Furthermore, the fear of citing (and doing it correctly) can destroy our confidence with second-guessing and frustration. This is detrimental for dissertation and theses writers!

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) both provide tips for citing.

CMOS 16th edition recommends:

Whether quoting, paraphrasing, or using others’ ideas to advance their own arguments, authors should give explicit credit to the source of those words or ideas. – pg. 621.

APA 6th Edition is equally vague:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. – pg. 169

Not particularly helpful, is it? Neither tells me how much or how little I should cite. Now I’m being a bit facetious here; both CMOS and APA have incredibly useful information for academic writing. However, there is only so much these guides can tell you. After all, no manual knows you and your research exactly.

Writing papers, especially dissertations and theses, involves a great deal of hard work. Think of all the hours you’ve put into your research. The research process can be both rewarding and grueling. It provides us with immense joy when we learn and make connections. Research can enlighten us with new ideas and topics. But let’s be honest, research takes time and attention. Any paper, from a 10-page research paper to the 200-page dissertation, often requires a proportional amount of research time equal to (and often more than) the time it takes to write. Consequently, after all this work, you should want to show it off!

Let’s put aside the question of citing the work of someone else by changing our focus. Consider the problem from your perspective. Think of citing as showing your research work. For example, remember every math class you’ve ever taken. It was never enough to show that you had the answer. With every math problem it’s required to show your work. Your teacher or professor wants to know how you reached the answer. The answer doesn’t make sense without the steps and equations that lead to it.

Citing your sources is much the same way. At certain places in your paper you’ll want to show how you arrived at such an idea, question, or conclusion. Think of citing as showing your work. Citing is more than an exercise we go through to avoid plagiarism. Consider it the manner in which you can show off all the hard effort you’ve done during the research process.

I’m a big fan of using footnotes (I live and breathe the Chicago style). When I write, I often think of my footnotes as my mathematical equations. It’s my way of showing how I worked through the problem. With each footnote I come closer to showing the reader how and why I made my conclusions. Citing shouldn’t be a tedious chore, rather it should be one of the more enjoyable parts of academic writing. It adds a little extra validation to the time and effort we put into the research process.

This is why the research process is so important. When writing, you should know your sources inside and out. Ideally you’ve set aside plenty of time to explore and think about your sources. Problems with citing (especially when to cite) often arise because we haven’t given enough time to research. Without adequate preparation time, our sources appear to us as a jumbled mess. Messy research typically translates into a messy paper. We don’t know how to use our sources. Consequently, we don’t know how to properly cite them. I’ve seen this phenomenon manifest into two common types of papers: excessive and absent.

An excessive paper overuses the sources. The paper reads like a mismatched book report. It’s a Frankenstein paper. Bits and pieces are hobbled together, creating something that’s often horrific. As such, the citations are confused and sporadic. Usually this translates into some things being cited while others are ignored. Or, and this is very unfortunate, excessive papers become plagiarized papers. Haste and unfamiliarity can lead to nasty habits like lazy paraphrasing, copy and pasting, and huge block quotes. And herein lies the problem: you don’t know what to cite because it’s all someone else’s work! Thus, it feels like you should cite every single sentence!

In the second type of paper, absent, there is little to no citing. You’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with your sources. Thus, in this scenario, you don’t use them enough (if at all). Now much of this might be due to a lack of resources. If you don’t have anything to cite, then naturally the sources are absent. However, I don’t think this is always the case. I’ve read plenty of papers with a decent reference list. The student just didn’t know how to use them in the paper. It’s hard to show others your work when you haven’t taken the time to work it out yourself.

But with both errors I notice the same thing: sporadic and inconsistent citing. Thus, it’s completely understandable that this translates into a paper that never quite shows the research as intended. Again, think about math class. It’s impossible to answer the question if you don’t understand the background work behind it (addition/subtraction, multiplication, division, algebraic formula, and so on). Showing your work requires knowing the work. And when you know the work, you know how to show it properly.

Citing and research are intimately connected. Answering the question, “When do I cite?” begins with the research process. Knowing your sources is the first step toward a well-cited paper!

Look for more on citing in later posts! I’ll write more about the nuts and bolts on citing. Stay tuned!

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash