Citing Sources: Why and When?

The Purpose of Citing Sources: 

  1. Citations protect the intellectual property of the people who originated the ideas, research, or information that you are using to build your case. 
  2. Citations are allowing readers to track down the sources you used for your research in order to verify the credibility of your claims or begin conducting their own research on the topic you are writing about. 
  3. Citations add credibility and authority to your writing.  They make it apparent that you are informed about the topic.

When to Cite Sources in the Text of Your Paper:

  1. When you use someone’s exact words.
  2. When you paraphrase someone’s original argument or idea. 
  3. When you cite a piece of data or information unique to a particular source or set of sources (like census, survey, or polling data).
  4. When you cite analysis of data or information that is unique to a particular source (“Smith says that changes in these numbers are due to X, Y or Z”).

When NOT to Cite Sources:

  1. When a piece of information can be considered “common knowledge.”  For example, even though you may have to go look up the dates of the Russian Revolution, no individual historian came up with those dates.  Therefore, it is not necessary to cite the source you used to find them. 
  2. A good rule of thumb:  if a piece of information can be found in at least 5 sources, it is considered common knowledge.  As you conduct your research on a specific topic, you may notice that certain bits of background information are repeated in multiple sources.  You can usually use that information without citing every source it appears in.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.  If you are unsure whether or not you should cite something, it is ok to simply go ahead and cite it.