Citations are a trying stretch of the writing process. It is very difficult to wrestle a funny quip or metaphor from … oh no wait, I just found one.
Citations are like the chain of evidence in CSI or NCIS (if you’ve never seen either of these shows) – they serve a dual purpose: first, to document the legitimacy of your claims and second, to grant credit where credit is due. Unless your work is completely original, or instructions state otherwise, you will probably need to cite your sources – call it a hunch.
Now, lets talk business. Citations come in a wide range of styles; some common formats are MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), and the Chicago Manual of Style. Every style has its own unique form, but the purpose of each is the same. We use citations: for documentation and credit. To find out what documentation style you need to use for your paper, look at the assignment prompt, the syllabus, or ask your professor.
There are also two different types (as opposed to styles) of citations: in text and reference citations. In text citations are embedded within the body of your text, allowing the reader to differentiate where one person’s idea ends and another’s begins. Reference citations generally (but not always, it depends on the style) appear at the end of your work and give a more comprehensive record of your source. That way if your reader wants to read more about something you have mentioned in your paper, the source is easy for the reader to access.
When you use sources in your paper, you will also need to decide how to integrate that information into the paper. Too few sources and you lose credibility, but too many citations will silence your voice all together. The point is to use sources to support your argument. Let your reader know that you understand what the experts say about your topic, what is known, what is unknown, and what is contested.
To that end, you will also need to decide how to integrate those sources into your paper, and some of those decisions will be guided by the topic and by the discipline. For example, you may use a number of quotations in an English literature paper, because you will be asked to use the actual text to support your argument or interpretation of the literature. However, if you are writing an animal science paper, you will be summarizing the results of experiments or studies done on your topic. You probably will not have any quotations, but you will be using other’s information in your work and citing it. And summarizing means that you will be using your own words only. Paraphrasing is using your own words, but in more of a one-to-one relationship, idea to idea way. Paraphrasing is what most students use, but it is not the best way to integrate source material, because it’s easy to just change a few words around by using MS Word synonym feature and call it your own words. That’s really plagiarism, even if you cite the source, because you have made so little effort to understand and synthesize the text to integrate it into your own argument. Paraphrase is most useful when you are trying to explain technical terms and concepts to a general audience.
For examples of the most commonly used citation styles, see the library web site’s Citation Guide. After you’re done perusing them, proceed to Step 4: Dry Run.