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2.4: Citing sources

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    Questions for reflection

    • What kind of sources have you used in the workplace? How has this differed from the kind of sources you’ve used in school?
    • Why do you think the rules that we have around source use exist? Why do we cite sources?
    • How does your culture handle using other people’s ideas and words? Who “owns” an idea? How do you respectfully use someone’s words?
    • What questions do you have about citation?
    • What’s your definition of “academic integrity?”
    • Do you think that the rules of “academic integrity” apply to the workplace?
    • When you use researched sources, do you typically paraphrase, summarize, or quote other ideas/words?
    • What do you think about when deciding whether to quote or paraphrase?
    • Are you comfortable writing someone else’s idea in your own words?

    Karan’s story

    When Karan studied in India, he wasn’t expected to cite. When he started studying in Canada, he was surprised by the length of the writing assignments. He didn’t know how to use sources, so he copied and pasted a few paragraphs into his assignment and hoped he’d done it right.
    He was worried when his teacher asked to meet with him. She said that he’d plagiarized, and that he could get into a lot of trouble. Luckily, Karan’s teacher decided to help him and not report him. She explained that in North American schools, you must distinguish between what words are yours and what come from the source, and what ideas are yours and what come from the source. Karan learned to use quotation marks to show what words came from the source, and to paraphrase by never looking directly at the source.

    In this section, we’ll tackle how to use sources ethically, analyze them, and combine them into an effective argument.

    But first: a note about the difference between workplace citation and academic citation.

    In the workplace, you may often find yourself using your colleague’s words without crediting them. For example, your boss might ask you to write a grant application using text from previous grant applications. Many people might work on the same document or you might update a document written by someone else.

    In the workplace, your employer usually owns the writing you produce, so workplace writing often doesn’t cite individual authors (though contributors are usually named in an acknowledgements section if it’s a large project/report). That doesn’t mean that you should take credit for someone else’s work, but in general a lot of sharing and remixing goes on within an organization.

    For example, say that you work in HR and have been asked to launch a search for a new IT manager. You might use a template to design the job posting or update copy of the ad you posted the last time you hired someone for this role. No one would expect you to come up with an entirely new job posting just because it was originally written by someone who’s left the company.

    That said, writers in the workplace often use a wide range of sources to build their credibility. Citation is not only an ethical practice, but it is also a great persuasive strategy. The citation practices you learn in school will therefore serve you well in the workplace.

    In school in North America, the context is different. Unless your instructor specifically tells you otherwise, they will assume that you wrote everything in your assignment, unless you use quotation marks.

    What is academic integrity?

    Different universities have different definitions. Here is the definition we use at Kwantlen Polytechnic University:

    The University ascribes to the highest standards of academic integrity. Adhering to these standards of academic integrity means observing the values on which good academic work must be founded: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. Students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with these values. These standards of academic integrity require Students to not engage in or tolerate Integrity Violations, including falsification, misrepresentation or deception, as such acts violate the fundamental ethical principles of the University community and compromise the worth of work completed by others.

    You can read the full policy here.

    In other words, you must take full responsibility for your work, acknowledge your own efforts, and acknowledge the contributions of others’ efforts. Working/ writing with integrity requires accurately representing what you contributed as well as acknowledging how others have influenced your work. When you are a student, an accurate representation of your knowledge is important because it will allow both you and your professors to know the extent to which you have developed as a scholar.

    It’s worth noting that other cultures have different – equally valid – definitions of academic integrity. By making you aware of what we mean by academic integrity in this context, you can be aware of the expectations that are being placed on you.

    What is plagiarism?

    Let’s take a look at a common definition of plagiarism. This one comes from Ohio State University’s First Year Experience Office:

    At any stage of the writing process, all academic work submitted to the teacher must be a result of a student’s own thought, research or self-expression. When a student submits work purporting to be [their] own, but which in any way borrows organization, ideas, wording or anything else from a source without appropriate acknowledgment of the fact, [they are] engaging in plagiarism.
    Plagiarism can be intentional (knowingly using someone else’s work and presenting it as your own) or unintentional (inaccurately or inadequately citing ideas and words from a source). It may be impossible for your professor to determine whether plagiarized work was intentional or unintentional.

    While academic integrity calls for work resulting from your own effort, scholarship requires that you learn from others. In the world of “academic scholarship” you are actually expected to learn new things from others AND come to new insights on your own. There is an implicit understanding that as a student you will be both using other’s knowledge as well as your own insights to create new scholarship. To do this in a way that meets academic integrity standards you must acknowledge the part of your work that develops from others’ efforts. You do this by citing the work of others. You plagiarize when you fail to acknowledge the work of others and do not follow appropriate citation guidelines.

    What is citing?

    Citing is basically giving credit. If your source is well-cited, you’ve told the audience whose ideas/words belong to whom and you’ve told the audience exactly where to go to find those words.

    Why cite sources?

    There are many good reasons to cite sources.

    To avoid plagiarism & maintain academic integrity

    Misrepresenting your academic achievements by not giving credit to others indicates a lack of academic integrity. This is not only looked down upon by the scholarly community, but it is also punished. When you are a student this could mean a failing grade or even expulsion from the university.

    To acknowledge the work of others

    One major purpose of citations is to simply provide credit where it is due. When you provide accurate citations, you are acknowledging both the hard work that has gone into producing research and the person(s) who performed that research.

    To provide credibility to your work & to place your work in context

    Providing accurate citations puts your work and ideas into an academic context. They tell your reader that you’ve done your research and know what others have said about your topic. Not only do citations provide context for your work but they also lend credibility and authority to your claims.

    For example, if you’re researching and writing about sustainability and construction, you should cite experts in sustainability, construction, and sustainable construction in order to demonstrate that you are well-versed in the most common ideas in the fields. Although you can make a claim about sustainable construction after doing research only in that particular field, your claim will carry more weight if you can demonstrate that your claim can be supported by the research of experts in closely related fields as well.

    Citing sources about sustainability and construction as well as sustainable construction demonstrates the diversity of views and approaches to the topic. Further, proper citation also demonstrates the ways in which research is social: no one researches in a vacuum—we all rely on the work of others to help us during the research process.

    To help your future researching self & other researchers easily locate sources

    Having accurate citations will help you as a researcher and writer keep track of the sources and information you find so that you can easily find the source again. Accurate citations may take some effort to produce, but they will save you time in the long run. Think of proper citation as a gift to your future researching self!

    Other challenges in citing sources

    Besides the clarifications and difficulties around citing that we have already considered, there are additional challenges that might make knowing when and how to cite difficult for you.

    You learned how to write in a different school system

    Citation practices are not universal. Different countries and cultures approach using sources in different ways. If you’re new to the Canadian school system, you might have learned a different way of citing. For example, some countries have a more communal approach to sources. Others see school as “not real life,” so you don’t need to cite sources in the same way that you would on the job.

    Not really understanding the material you’re using

    If you are working in a new field or subject area, you might have difficulty understanding the information from other scholars, thus making it difficult to know how to paraphrase or summarize that work properly. It can be tempting to change just one or two words in a sentence, but this is still plagiarism.

    Running out of time

    When you are a student taking many classes, working and/or taking care of family members, it may be hard to devote the time needed to doing good scholarship and accurately representing the sources you have used. Research takes time. The sooner you can start and the more time you can devote to it, the better your work will be.

    Shifting cultural expectations of citation

    Because of new technologies that make finding, using, and sharing information easier, many of our cultural expectations around how to do that are changing as well. For example, blog posts often “reference” other articles or works by simply linking to them. It makes it easy for the reader to see where the author’s ideas have come from and to view the source very quickly. In these more informal writings, blog authors do not have a list of citations (bibliographic entries). The links do the work for them. This is a great strategy for online digital mediums, but this method fails over time when links break and there are no hints (like an author, title and date) to know how else to find the reference, which might have moved.

    This example of a cultural change of expectations in the non-academic world might make it seem that there has been a change in academic scholarship as well, or might make people new to academic scholarship even less familiar with citation. But in fact, the expectations around citing sources in academic research remain formal.

    How to cite sources

    Now that we know why we cite, so let’s learn how to cite. Citation and source use are all about balance. If you don’t use enough sources, you might struggle to make a thorough argument. If you cite too much, you won’t leave room for your own voice in your piece.

    To illustrate this point, think of a lawyer arguing a case in a trial. If the lawyer just talks to the jury and doesn’t call any witnesses, they probably won’t win the case. After all, a lawyer isn’t an expert in forensics or accident reconstruction or Internet fraud. The lawyer also wasn’t there when the incident occurred. That’s where witnesses come in. The witnesses have knowledge that the lawyer doesn’t.

    But if the lawyer just lets the witnesses talk and sits there quietly, they’ll likely also lose the case. That’s because the lawyer is the one who’s making the overall argument. The lawyer asks the witnesses questions and shows how the testimony of different witnesses piece together to prove the case.

    To cite sources, you should make two things clear:

    • The difference between your words and the source’s words.
    • The difference between your ideas and the source’s ideas.

    This diagram illustrates the difference:

    A graphic illustrating when to cite words and ideas

    Attributing a source’s words

    When you quote someone in your document, you’re basically passing the microphone to them. Inviting another voice into your piece means that the way that person said something is important. Maybe that person is an expert and their words are a persuasive piece of evidence. Maybe you’re using the words as an example. Either way, you’ll likely do some sort of analysis on the quote.

    When you use the source’s words, put quotation marks around them. This creates a visual separation between what you say and what your source says. You also don’t just want to drop the quote into the document with no explanation. Instead, you should build a “frame” around the quote by explaining who said it and why it’s important. In short, you surround the other person’s voice with your own voice.

    Tip: The longer the source, the more analysis you’re likely going to do.

    Here’s an example of a way to integrate a quote within a paragraph.

    According to Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliot (2019, p. 18), “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” Here, Elliot shows that when Indigenous people have the opportunity to learn Indigenous languages, which for generations were intentionally suppressed by the Canadian government, they can connect with their culture in a new way.

    As you can see, Elliot’s words are important. If you tried to paraphrase them, you’d lose the meaning. Elliot is also a well-known writer, so adding her voice into the document adds credibility. If you’re writing about Indigenous people, it’s also important to include the voices of Indigenous people in your work.

    You can see that in this example, the author doesn’t just pass the microphone to Alicia Elliot. Instead, they surround the quote with their own words, explaining who said the quote and why it’s important.

    Attributing the source’s ideas

    When the source’s ideas are important, you’ll want to paraphrase. For example, Elliot goes on to say that when over half of Indigenous people in a community speak an Indigenous language, the suicide rate goes down (2019). Here, it’s the idea that’s important, not the words, so you should paraphrase it.

    What is paraphrasing? Paraphrasing is when you restate an idea in your own words. It’s this last bit — the “own words” part – that is confusing. What counts as your own words?

    When you’re paraphrasing, you should ask yourself, “Have I restated this in a way that shows that I understand it?” If you simply swap out a few words for synonyms, you haven’t shown that you understand the idea. For example, let’s go back to that Alicia Elliot quote: “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” What if I swapped out a few words so it said “We know our cultures have value and importance, and that culture lives and exhales inside our languages.”?

    Does this show that I understand the quote? No. Elliot composed that line with a lot of precision and thoughtfulness. Switching a few words around actually shows disrespect for the care she took with her language.

    Instead, paraphrase by not looking at the source material. Put down the book or turn off your computer monitor, then describe the idea back as if you were speaking to a friend.

    What information do I cite?

    Citing sources is often depicted as a straightforward, rule-based practice. In fact, there are many grey areas around citation, and learning how to apply citation guidelines takes practice and education. If you are confused by it, you are not alone – in fact you might be doing some good thinking. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate citation practices.

    Cite when you are directly quoting. This is the easiest rule to understand. If you are stating word for word what someone else has already written, you must put quotes around those words and you must give credit to the original author. Not doing so would mean that you are letting your reader believe these words are your own and represent your own effort.

    Cite when you are summarizing and paraphrasing. This is a trickier area to understand. First of all, summarizing and paraphrasing are two related practices but they are not the same. Summarizing is when you read a text, consider the main points, and provide a shorter version of what you learned. Paraphrasing is when you restate what the original author said in your own words and in your own tone. Both summarizing and paraphrasing require good writing skills and an accurate understanding of the material you are trying to convey. Summarizing and paraphrasing are not easy to do when you are a beginning academic researcher, but these skills become easier to perform over time with practice.

    Cite when you are citing something that is highly debatable. For example, if you want to claim that an oil pipeline is necessary for economic development, you will have to contend with those who say that it produces few jobs and has a high risk of causing an oil spill that would be devastating to wildlife and tourism. To do so, you’ll need experts on your side.

    When don’t you cite?

    Don’t cite when what you are saying is your own insight. Research involves forming opinions and insights around what you learn. You may be citing several sources that have helped you learn, but at some point you are integrating your own opinion, conclusion, or insight into the work. The fact that you are NOT citing it helps the reader understand that this portion of the work is your unique contribution developed through your own research efforts.

    Don’t cite when you are stating common knowledge. What is common knowledge is sometimes difficult to discern. Generally quick facts like historical dates or events are not cited because they are common knowledge.

    Examples of information that would not need to be cited include:

    • Partition in India happened on August 15, 1947.
    • Vancouver is the 8th biggest city in Canada.

    Some quick facts, such as statistics, are trickier. A guideline that can help with determining whether or not to cite facts is to determine whether the same data is repeated in multiple sources. If it is not, it is best to cite.

    The other thing that makes this determination difficult might be that what seems new and insightful to you might be common knowledge to an expert in the field. You have to use your best judgment, and probably err on the side of over-citing, as you are learning to do academic research. You can seek the advice of your instructor, a writing tutor, or a librarian. Knowing what is and is not common knowledge is a practiced skill that gets easier with time and with your own increased knowledge.

    Creating in-text citations and references

    Now that we know what to cite and how to quote and paraphrase, we need to decide what format to create our in-text citations and references. Your instructor will tell you whether they prefer MLA, APA, Chicago or another style format. Luckily, the Kwantlen Library librarians have come up with handy citation guides, which you can access on the Citation Styles section of the KPU website.

    When to quote, paraphrase, or summarize

    To build everything but the research question, you will need to summarize, paraphrase, and/or directly quote your sources. But how should you choose what technique to use when?

    Choose a direct quote when it is more likely to be accurate than would summarizing or paraphrasing; when what you’re quoting is the text you’re analyzing; when a direct quote is more concise that a summary or paraphrase would be and conciseness matters; when the author is a particular authority whose exact words would lend credence to your argument; and when the author has used particularly effective language that is just too good to pass up.

    Choose to paraphrase or summarize rather than to quote directly when the meaning is more important than the particular language the author used and you don’t need to use the author’s preeminent authority to bolster your argument at the moment.

    Choose to paraphrase instead of summarizing when you need details and specificity. Paraphrasing lets you emphasize the ideas in resource materials that are most related to your term paper or essay instead of the exact language the author used. It also lets you simplify complex material, sometimes rewording to use language that is more understandable to your reader.

    Choose to summarize instead of paraphrasing when you need to provide a brief overview of a larger text. Summaries let you condense the resource material to draw out particular points, omit unrelated or unimportant points, and simplify how the author conveyed his or her message.


    This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 10a – Citing Sources and Chapter 10b – Making An Argument Using Sources in Business Writing for Everyone (used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license).

    This page titled 2.4: Citing sources is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ashman (KPUOpen) .

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