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How to Cite Sources

An academic paper can be defined as a paper that uses outside resources of any kind, rather than your own creativity and imagination. Writing a poem, short story, memoir or novel does not require any citation, although authors of historical fiction usually provide a bibliography or some other type of recognition for the basis of their plot and/or characters.

In a paper you write for class, there are three main things that require a citation.

  • Direct quotes from articles, books or websites
  • Photos, graphs or other images
  • Ideas that you might have reworded or paraphrased, but are no longer direct quotes.

Direct Quotes

Direct quotes can come from websites, books, articles and other print sources. Depending on what citation style your professor asks you to use — MLA, APA, Chicago, etc. — your citation will look different. Be sure check you are using the right style for the assignment.

Paraphrased Ideas

When you paraphrase, you are rewording another author’s ideas instead of using a direct quote.

Paraphrasing is often used to summarize or consolidate an idea, or perhaps to highlight an author’s broader point in a large work. Citing a paraphrased idea is just as important as citing a direct quote, because often a professor looking for plagiarism can tell when an idea is not typical of that student.

Putting ideas from a source into your own words does not mean a citation isn't needed. The only exception is when the paraphrased material is common knowledge, a term that refers to information that occurs in many different sources. If you find three sources that say the same information, you can usually regard that information as common knowledge.

If paraphrasing is done poorly, it can become plagiarism. Correct paraphrasing does not use the author's words or the author's sentence structure. Word re-arranging is still plagiarism, even if is followed by a citation. If the author uses specialized terms or especially well-selected phrases, it is permissible to quote terms or phrases and build your own sentences around those quotations. Citations are still required, of course.

If you must use three or more of the same words from the original text in the same order they were used in the original, use a direct quote rather than paraphrase.

Photographs & Other Images

Photographers, mapmakers and tacticians (they make a lot of graphs) are just like authors. Their work is considered intellectual property. If you are borrowing it for your paper, images, graphics, models and photographs must be cited.

View guidelines for photos, digital images and more »

Finding Quality Sources

Things to avoid:

  • Periodicals like National Enquirer, People, The Onion
  • Websites expressing extreme political views or articles in propaganda materials trying to recruit people to specific ideologies.
  • Popular television or radio shows, novels, and personal websites.

Alternatives monitored by the academic community and typically reviewed by other scholars:

  • Journals and other publications with articles by scholars that have been peer-reviewed by other experts on the subject.
  • Magazines published by national professional organizations (like the National Association of Music Educators, etc.)
  • Sites hosted by the United Nations, a state, federal, or foreign government, national or international scientific associations, or other organizations that are nationally or internationally recognized (like the American Red Cross or the Nature Conservancy)

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