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Citation Help: The Basics

Citation Help!

Why Citations Matter

Citing your work can be difficult...like a puzzle, it's important to put all the pieces in the right places. This guide is here to help you cite your resources properly and avoid plagiarism.

There are many reasons why it is important to cite the resources that you consult when researching a paper. The most important of these are:

  • Gives credit to authors whose works you have used (whether you quote them or not).
  • Provides a trail by which others can locate the materials you consulted.
  • Provides evidence of your research.
  • Properly citing materials is one strategy to help you avoid plagiarizing.

Bailey/Howe Library. Why Citations Matter. The University of Vermont Libraries. <https://library.uvm.edu/guides/citation/why.php>.

What to Cite and When not to Cite

What should I cite?  That's a common question.  There are five basic situations where you should cite.

  1. When quoting a text or a person.  Any time you use someone else's words verbatim, you need to cite it.
  2. When paraphrasing another person's work.  If it wasn't your idea, then you need to give credit where credit is due.
  3. When summarizing another person's work.  Similar to paraphrasing except condensing the information into a summary.  It also allows the person reading your work to find out more information if they are interested.
  4. When using data or when using facts or information that is not commonly known. This allows the person reading your work to look up the information themselves.  Read on to learn about the exception to this rule.
  5. When you want to supplement your work with more information.  This isn't as common in regular research papers, but you see it a lot more in longer research papers.

I've included a link to Princeton University's When to Cite Sources page.  This page gives you more detailed information on the five situations listed above.  If you go through this list and are still unsure about whether or not to cite something, cite it.  It is better to be safe than sorry...and sorry, in this case, can mean academic probation.  See Plagiarism 101 for more information.

When NOT to Cite

The exception to the rule.  There is always at least one.  In #4, I mentioned that there was an exception to citing facts or information.  The clue was in bold--you cite facts or information that are not commonly known. That means that you do not need to cite common knowledge.  For instance, if writing a paper about President John F. Kennedy, you would not need to cite that he was assassinated on November 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, TX because that is common knowledge.  If, however, you were to talk about Lee Harvey Oswald's time in New Orleans prior to the assassination, you would need to cite that information.

The common knowledge exception can apply to ideas or even quotes, but that gets trickier.  An example of one such idea would be that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the real assassin, but that the real assassin(s) was on the grassy knoll nearby.  Of course, you would need to cite your sources as you go into more detail on that theory, such as when it came about, who first published or publicized it, etc.  An example of a common knowledge quote would be from President Kennedy's inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."  As I did, you must acknowledge where it came from, but not necessarily create a citation for it.

As I stated before, these two situations are much trickier.  Experts on plagiarism disagree on whether ideas and quotes can be considered common knowledge.  So, when in doubt, cite.  Below are some sites to give you more information common knowledge. 

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