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Guidelines for Citing Your Sources


A citation is a formal reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper.

Citing Sources


A citation is a formal reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper. It refers to a source of information that supports a factual statement, proposition, argument, or assertion or any quoted text obtained from a book, article, web site, or any other type of material. In-text citations are embedded within the body of your paper and use a shorthand notation style that refers to a complete description of the item at the end of the paper. Materials cited at the end of a paper may be listed under the heading References, Sources, Works Cited, or Bibliography. Rules on how to properly cite a source depends on the writing style manual your professor wants you to use for the class [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.]. Note that some disciplines have their own citation rules [e.g., law].

Reasons for Citing Your Sources

Reasons for Citing Sources in Your Research Paper

English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, once wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”* Citations support learning how to "see further" through processes of intellectual discovery, critical thinking, and applying a deliberate method of navigating through the scholarly landscape by tracking how cited works are propagated by scholars over time and the subsequent ways this leads to the devarication of new knowledge.

Listed below are specific reasons why citing sources is an important part of doing good research.

  1. Shows the reader where to find more information. Citations help readers expand their understanding and knowledge about the issues being investigated. One of the most effective strategies for locating authoritative, relevant sources about a research problem is to review materials cited in studies published by other authors. In this way, the sources you cite help the reader identify where to go to examine the topic in more depth and detail.
  2. Increases your credibility as an author. Citations to the words, ideas, and arguments of scholars demonstrates that you have conducted a thorough review of the literature and, therefore, you are reporting your research results or proposing recommended courses of action from an informed and critically engaged perspective. Your citations offer evidence that you effectively contemplated, evaluated, and synthesized sources of information in relation to your conceptualization of the research problem.
  3. Illustrates the non-linear and contested nature of knowledge creation. The sources you cite show the reader how you characterized the dynamics of prior knowledge creation relevant to the research problem and how you managed to effectively identify the contested relationships between problems and solutions proposed among scholars. Citations don't just list materials used in your study, they tell a story about how prior knowledge-making emerged from a constant state of creation, renewal, and transformation.
  4. Reinforces your arguments. Sources cited in your paper provide the evidence that readers need to determine that you properly addressed the “So What?” question. This refers to whether you considered the relevance and significance of the research problem, its implications applied to creating new knowledge, and its importance for improving practice. In this way, citations draw attention to and support the legitimacy and originality of your own ideas.
  5. Demonstrates that you "listened" to relevant conversations among scholars before joining in. Your citations tell the reader where you developed an understanding of the debates among scholars. They show how you educated yourself about ongoing conversations taking place within relevant communities of researchers before inserting your own ideas and arguments. In peer-reviewed scholarship, most of these conversations emerge within books, research reports, journal articles, and other cited works.
  6. Delineates alternative approaches to explaining the research problem. If you disagree with prior research assumptions or you believe that a topic has been understudied or you find that there is a gap in how scholars have understood a problem, your citations serve as the source materials from which to analyze and present an alternative viewpoint or to assert that a different course of action should be pursued. In short, the materials you cite serve as the means by which to argue persuasively against long-standing assumptions propagated in prior studies.
  7. Helps the reader understand contextual aspects of your research. Cited sources help readers understand the specific circumstances, conditions, and settings of the problem being investigated and, by extension, how your arguments can be fully understood and assessed. Citations place your line of reasoning within a specific contextualized framework based on how others have studied the problem and how you interpreted their findings in support of your overall research objectives.
  8. Frames the development of concepts and ideas within the literature. No topic in the social and behavioral sciences rests in isolation from research that has taken place in the past. Your citations help the reader understand the growth and transformation of the theoretical assumptions, key concepts, and systematic inquiries that emerged prior to your engagement with the research problem.
  9. Underscores what sources were most important to you. Your citations represent a set of choices made about what you determined to be the most important sources for understanding the topic. They not only list what you discovered, but why it matters and how the materials you chose to cite fit within the broader context of your research design and arguments. As part of an overall assessment of the study’s validity and reliability, the choices you make also helps the reader determine what research may have been excluded.
  10. Provides evidence of interdisciplinary thinking. An important principle of good research is to extend your review of the literature beyond the predominant disciplinary space where scholars have examined a topic. Citations provide evidence that you have integrated epistemological arguments, observations, and/or the methodological strategies from other disciplines into your paper, thereby demonstrating that you understand the complex, interconnected nature of contemporary research problems.
  11. Supports critical thinking and independent learning. Evaluating the authenticity, reliability, validity, and originality of prior research is an act of interpretation and introspective reasoning applied to assessing whether a source of information will contribute to understanding the problem in ways that are persuasive and align with your overall research objectives. Reviewing and citing prior studies represents a deliberate act of critically scrutinizing each source as part of your overall assessment of how scholars have confronted the research problem.
  12. Honors the achievements of others. As Susan Blum recently noted,** citations not only identify sources used, they acknowledge the achievements of scholars within the larger network of research about the topic. Citing sources is a normative act of professionalism within academe and a way to highlight and recognize the work of scholars who likely do not obtain any tangible benefits or monetary value from their research endeavors.

Structure and Writing Style

Referencing your sources means systematically showing what information or ideas you acquired from another author’s work, and identifying where that information come from. You must cite research in order to do research, but at the same time, you must delineate what are your original thoughts and ideas and what are the thoughts and ideas of others. Citations help achieve this.

Procedures used to cite sources vary among different fields of study. If not outlined in your course syllabus or writing assignment, always speak with your professor about what writing style for citing sources should be used for the class because it is important to fully understand the citation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently. If your professor defers and tells you to "choose whatever you want, just be consistent," then choose the citation style you are most familiar with or that is appropriate to your major [e.g., use Chicago style if its a history class; use APA if its an education course; use MLA if it is literature or a general writing course].


1. Are there any reasons I should avoid referencing other people's work?
No. If placed in the proper context, referencing other people's research is never an indication that your work is substandard or lacks originality. In fact, the opposite is true. If you write your paper without adequate references to previous studies, you are signaling to the reader that you are not familiar with the literature on the topic, thereby, undermining the validity of your study and your credibility as a researcher. Including references in academic writing is one of the most important ways to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of how the research problem has been addressed. It is the intellectual packaging around which you present your thoughts and ideas to the reader.

2. What should I do if I find out that my great idea has already been studied by another researcher?
It can be frustrating to come up with what you believe is a great topic only to find that it's already been thoroughly studied. However, do not become frustrated by this. You can acknowledge the prior research by writing in the text of your paper [see also Smith, 2002], then citing the complete source in your list of references. Use the discovery of prior studies as an opportunity to demonstrate the significance of the problem being investigated and, if applicable, as a means of delineating your analysis from those of others [e.g., the prior study is ten years old and doesn't take into account new variables]. Strategies for responding to prior research can include: stating how your study updates previous understandings about the topic, offering a new or different perspective, applying a different or innovative method of data gathering, and/or describing a new set of insights, guidelines, recommendations, best practices, or working solutions.

3. What should I do if I want to use an adapted version of someone else's work?
You still must cite the original work. For example, maybe you are using a table of statistics from a journal article published in 1996 by author Smith, but you have altered or added new data to it. Reference the revised chart, such as, [adapted from Smith, 1996], then cite the complete source in your list of references. You can also use other terms in order to specify the exact relationship between the original source and the version you have presented, such as, "based on data from Smith [1996]...," or "summarized from Smith [1996]...." Citing the original source helps the reader locate where the information was first presented and under what context it was used as well as to evaluate how effectively you applied it to your own research.

4. What should I do if several authors have published very similar information or ideas?
You can indicate that the idea or information can be found in the works of others by stating something similar to the following example: "Though many scholars have applied rational choice theory to understanding economic relations among nations [Smith, 1989; Jones, 1991; Johnson, 1994; Anderson, 2003], little attention has been given to applying the theory to examining the influence of non-governmental organizations in a globalized economy." If you only reference one author or only the most recent study, then your readers may assume that only one author has published on this topic, or more likely, they will conclude that you have not conducted a thorough literature review. Referencing all relevant authors of prior studies gives your readers a clear idea of the breadth of analysis you conducted in preparing to study the research problem. If there has been a significant number of prior studies on the topic, describe the most comprehensive and recent works because they will presumably discuss and reference the older studies. However, note in your review of the literature that there has been significant scholarship devoted to the topic so the reader knows that you are aware of the numerous prior studies.

5. What if I find exactly what I want to say in the writing of another researcher?
In the social sciences, the rationale in duplicating prior research is generally governed by the passage of time, changing circumstances or conditions, or the emergence of variables that necessitate a new investigation. If someone else has recently conducted a thorough investigation of precisely the same research problem that you intend to study, then you likely will have to revise your topic, or at the very least, review this literature to identify something new to say about the problem. However, if it is someone else's particularly succinct expression, but it fits perfectly with what you are trying to say, then you can quote from the author directly, referencing the source. Identifying an author who has made the exact same point that you want to make can be an opportunity to add legitimacy to, as well as reinforce the significance of, the research problem you are investigating. The key is to build on that idea in new and innovative ways.

6. Should I cite a source even if it was published long ago?
Any source used in writing your paper should be cited, regardless of when it was written. However, in building a case for understanding prior research about your topic, it is generally true that you should focus on citing more recently published studies because they presumably have built upon the research of older studies. When referencing prior studies, use the research problem as your guide when considering what to cite. If a study from forty years ago investigated the same topic, it probably should be examined and considered in your list of references because the research may have been foundational or groundbreaking at the time, even if its findings are no longer relevant to current conditions or reflect current thinking [one way to determine if a study is foundational or groundbreaking is to examine how often it has been cited in recent studies using the "Cited by" feature of Google Scholar]. However, if an older study only relates to the research problem tangentially or it has not been cited in recent studies, then it may be more appropriate to list it under 
further readings.

7. Can I cite unusual and non-scholarly sources in my research paper?
The majority of the citations in a research paper should be to scholarly [a.k.a., academic; peer-reviewed] studies that rely on an objective and logical analysis of the research problem based on empirical evidence that reliably supports your arguments. However, any type of source can be considered valid if it brings relevant understanding and clarity to the topic. This can include, for example, non-textual elements such as photographs, maps, or illustrations. A source can include materials from special or archival collections, such as, personal papers, manuscripts, business memorandums, the official records of an organization, or digitized collections. Citations can also be to unusual items, such as, an audio recording, a transcript from a television show, a unique set of data, or a social media post. The challenge is knowing how to properly cite unusual and non-scholarly sources because they often do not fit within standard citation rules like books or journal articles. Given this, consult with a librarian if you are unsure how to cite a source.

NOTE:  In any academic writing, you are required to identify which ideas, facts, thoughts, concepts, or declarative statements are yours and which are derived from the research of others. The only exception to this rule is information that is considered to be a commonly known fact [e.g., "George Washington was the first president of the United States"] or a statement that is self-evident [e.g., "Australia is a country in the Global South"]. Appreciate, however, that any "commonly known fact" or self-evidencing statement is culturally constructed and shaped by specific social and aesthetical biases. If you have any doubt about whether or not a fact is considered to be widely understood knowledge, provide a supporting citation, or, ask your professor for clarification about whether the statement should be cited.

Other Citation Research Guides

The following Libraries research guide can help you properly cite sources in your research paper:

The following Libraries research guide offers basic information on using images and media in research:

Listed below are particularly well-done and comprehensive websites that provide specific examples of how to cite sources under different style guidelines.

This is a useful guide concerning how to properly cite images in your research paper.

This guide provides good information on the act of citation analysis, whereby you count the number of times a published work is cited by other works in order to measure the impact of a publication or author.

Automatic Citation Generators

The links below lead to systems where you can type in your information and have a citation compiled for you. Note that these systems are not foolproof so it is important that you verify that the citation is correct and check your spelling, capitalization, etc. However, they can be useful in creating basic types of citations, particularly for online sources.

  • BibMe -- APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles
  • DocsCite -- for citing government publications in APA or MLA formats
  • EasyBib -- APA, MLA, and Chicago styles
  • Son of Citation Machine -- APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles

NOTE:  Many companies that create the research databases the USC Libraries subscribe to, such as ProQuest, include built-in citation generators that help take the guesswork out of how to properly cite a work. When available, you should always utilize these features because they not only generate a citation to the source [e.g., a journal article], but include information about where you accessed the source [e.g., the database].

Avoiding Plagiarism


Plagiarism is:

    1. The submission of material authored by another person but represented as the student's own work, whether that material is paraphrased or copied in verbatim or near-verbatim form.
    2. The submission of material subjected to editorial revision by another person that results in substantive changes in content or major alteration of writing style.
    3. Improper acknowledgment of sources in essays or papers.

    Avoiding Allegations of Plagiarism

    An allegation of plagiarism is intent-neutral. In other words, the reader cannot discern whether the absence of a citation was done deliberately or you simply forgot to add a citation or accidentally cited to the wrong source. Therefore, it is important to proofread your paper before you submit it to ensure you have listed all sources used during your research and that every in-text citation relates to a full citation in your list of references. This is also why it is important to keep track of everything you have used during the course of writing your paper so you can easily assess whether all your sources have been cited.

    With this in mind, credit must be given when using one of the following in your own research paper:

    • Another person's idea, opinion, or theory;
    • Any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings, or other non-textual elements used or that you adapted from another source;
    • Any pieces of information that are not common knowledge;
    • Quotations of another person's actual spoken or written words; or
    • Paraphrase of another person's spoken or written words.

    If you have any doubts about whether to cite a particular source concerning an argument or statement made in your paper, protect yourself by citing the source or sources that helps the reader determine the validity of your work. Note that not citing a source not only raises concerns about the academic integrity of your paper, but, more importantly, it tells the reader that you did not conduct an effective or thorough review of the literature in support of examining the research problem. It also inhibits the reader's ability to review the cited source to obtain further information about what is being discussed in your paper.

    Footnotes or Endnotes?


    Note citing a particular source or making a brief explanatory comment placed at the end of a research paper and arranged sequentially in relation to where the reference appears in the paper.

    Note citing a particular source or making a brief explanatory comment placed at the bottom of a page corresponding to the item cited in the corresponding text above.

    Structure and Writing Style

    Advantages of Using Endnotes

    • Endnotes are less distracting to the reader and allows the narrative to flow better.
    • Endnotes don't clutter up the page.
    • As a separate section of a research paper, endnotes allow the reader to read and contemplate all the notes at once.

    Disadvantages of Using Endnotes

    • If you want to look at the text of a particular endnote, you have to flip to the end of the research paper to find the information.
    • Depending on how they are created [i.e., continuous numbering or numbers that start over for each chapter], you may have to remember the chapter number as well as the endnote number in order to find the correct one.
    • Endnotes may carry a negative connotation much like the proverbial "fine print" or hidden disclaimers in advertising. A reader may believe you are trying to hide something by burying it in a hard-to-find endnote.

    Advantages of Using Footnotes

    • Readers interested in identifying the source or note can quickly glance down the page to find what they are looking for.
    • It allows the reader to immediately link the footnote to the subject of the text without having to take the time to find the note at the back of the paper.
    • Footnotes are automatically included when printing off specific pages.

    Disadvantages of Using Footnotes

    • Footnotes can clutter up the page and, thus, negatively impact the overall look of the page.
    • If there are multiple columns, charts, or tables below only a small segment of text that includes a footnote, then you must decide where the footnotes should appear.
    • If the footnotes are lengthy, there's a risk they could dominate the page, although this issue is considered acceptable in legal scholarship.
    • Adding lengthy footnotes after the paper has been completed can alter the page where other sources are located [i.e., a long footnote can push text to the next page].
    • It is more difficult learning how to insert footnotes using your word processing program than simply adding endnotes at the end of your paper.

    Things to keep in mind when considering using either endnotes or footnotes in your research paper:

    1.    Footnotes are numbered consecutively throughout a research paper, except for those notes accompanying special material (e.g., figures, tables, charts, etc.). Numbering of footnotes are "superscript"--Arabic numbers typed slightly above the line of text. Do not include periods, parentheses, or slashes. They can follow all punctuation marks except dashes. In general, to avoid interrupting the continuity of the text, footnote numbers are placed at the end of the sentence, clause, or phrase containing the quoted or paraphrased material.

    2.    Depending on the writing style used in your class, endnotes may take the place of a list of resources cited in your paper or they may represent non-bibliographic items, such as comments or observations, followed by a separate list of references to the sources you cited and arranged alphabetically by the author's last name. If you are unsure about how to use endnotes, consult with your professor.

    3.    In general, the use of footnotes in most academic writing is now considered a bit outdated and has been replaced by endnotes, which are much easier to place in your paper, even with the advent of word processing programs. However, some disciplines, such as law and history, still predominantly utilize footnotes. Consult with your professor about which form to use and always remember that, whichever style of citation you choose, apply it consistently throughout your paper.

    NOTE:  Always think critically about the information you place in a footnote or endnote. Ask yourself, is this supplementary or tangential information that would otherwise disrupt the narrative flow of the text or is this essential information that I should integrate into the main text? If you are not sure, it's better to work it into the text. Too many notes implies a disorganized paper.

    Further Readings


    Further readings provide references to sources that the author has deemed useful to a reader seeking additional information or context about the research problem. They are items that are not essential to understanding the overall study or were cited as a source the author used or quoted from when writing the paper.

    Structure and Writing Style

    Depending on the writing style you are asked to use [e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA], a list of further readings should be located at the end of your paper after the endnotes or references but before any appendices. The list should begin under the heading "Further Readings." Items can be arranged alphabetically by the author's last name, categorized under sub-headings by material type [e.g., books, articles, websites, etc.], or listed by the type of content [e.g., theory, methods, etc.].

    If you choose to include a list of further readings, keep in mind the following:

    1. The references to further readings are not critical to understanding the central research problem. In other words, if further readings were not included, the citations to sources used in writing the paper would be sufficient in allowing the reader to evaluate the credibility of your literature review and analysis of prior research on the topic.
    2. Although further readings represent additional or suggested sources, they still must be viewed as relevant to the research problem. Don't include further readings simply to show off your skills in searching for materials on your topic. Even though they may not be central to understanding the research problem, every item listed must relate in some way to helping the reader locate additional information or obtain a broader understanding of the topic.
    3. Do not include basic survey texts or reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries. Including these types of sources in a list of further readings implies reference to either very general or, if the source provides very specific information, it likely should have been integrated into the text of your paper. In addition, these types of resources rarely add any significant understanding of the research problem.
    4. If you have identified non-textual materials related to your topic that may be of interest to the reader but were not used for your paper, consider including them in a list of further readings. This may include references to sources such as archival collections, documentary or popular films, photograph collections, audio files, or large data sets.

    To identify possible titles to include in a list of further readings, examine the sources you found while researching your paper but that you ended up not citing as a item that helped you write your paper. Review these items and, playing the role of reader, think about which ones may provide additional insight or background information about the research problem you have investigated.

    Access to a wide variety of free tools, research templates, and guidelines can be obtained by visiting our website, which can be found here. We are always ready to provide you with comprehensive research guidance and project support in the event that you ever need assistance with writing your research project, review journal, article, or dissertation. At HAMNIC Solutions, our team of professionals and research experts is always ready to guide you through your research journey.

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