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What Is a Citation in Writing?

When writing, sometimes it’s necessary to provide supporting evidence or examples from a source, like an article, book, or video. Using information from sources can strengthen a paper and make it more persuasive, but it is always important to identify the original author. The best way to achieve this is generally through the incorporation of in-text citations, meaning citations that are incorporated in the body of the writing.

The word cite can be defined in several ways, but in the process of writing an academic paper, it is essentially the acknowledgment of a person’s intellectual property. The citation provides identifying information about the original source, like the author’s name, publication date, title, or page number.

The process of citing is not limited to papers in the classroom. Examining scholarly articles, news sources, and sometimes even social media reveals that citations are a critical component of any writing that relies on the knowledge, ideas, and words of other people. Using them properly is not only a matter of respect but also essential to avoiding plagiarism.

Importance of Citing Sources

Citing sources is sometimes tedious and challenging, but it is extremely important for a number of reasons:

  1. It makes the paper more credible because it demonstrates that the writer has explored trustworthy sources of information.
  2. It demonstrates respect and appreciation for the work of other writers.
  3. It allows the reader to follow up on any information presented within the paper by locating the original source.
  4. It prevents plagiarism, using someone else’s words or ideas without acknowledging their ownership.

It’s important to keep in mind that citations are necessary for any source of information, regardless of the type. Some of the more commonly used source types are academic journals, websites, books, newspapers, and magazines. However, there are many other possible options, including videos, audio recordings, lectures, presentations, personal interviews, surveys, and images. Regardless of which type of source is being used, a citation is necessary to give the original author proper credit.

Types of Citations

Depending on the context of the writing, the format and information needed for citations changes. There are multiple possible styles, some of which place emphasis on different aspects of the source. For example, APA style emphasizes publication date more than MLA.

There are typically two elements to citing a source: in-text citations and end-of-work citations. In-text citations are meant to be brief so that they do not distract the reader or interrupt the flow of the writing. They are also intended to allow the reader to quickly identify which source was used for a particular piece of evidence.

While the various citation styles have important distinguishing features, there are also some rules that apply universally.

  • Never insert a URL or DOI as an in-text citation.
  • All styles require some form of in-text citation and a list of sources at the end of the paper.
  • Full citations on the references list, works cited page, or bibliography should be listed in alphabetical order.
  • Every instance where information is taken from a source, regardless of whether it is summarized, paraphrased, or quoted, must be acknowledged in-text and on the list of sources.

APA Style Citations

APA stands for the American Psychological Association, and this style of citation is typically used in the social sciences. When using APA, every source should have in-text and full citations on the references list at the end of the paper. These citations are written with a hanging indent, which means that the first line of the citation is justified to the left, and subsequent lines for that citation are indented.

APA in-text citations generally include the author’s last name and the year of publication, assuming both of these pieces of information are available. If information from the source is being paraphrased, it does not need to include a page number. However, if the source is being quoted, meaning the original author’s exact words are used, a page number is necessary.

On the reference list at the end of the paper, all of the information necessary to identify the source should be provided. Below is a template for an APA in-text citation and reference as well as an example of each. Note that the examples provided are for an article from a periodical. The rules for different types of sources are lengthy and complex, but this provides a general representation of the type of information that is included in most citations.

Reference Entry In-text Citation
Template Last name, First initial. (Year). Title of article. Title of periodical, volume number (issue number), pages. (Last name, Year, page number)
Sample Smith, J. (2015). How to use citations. The Journal of Citations, 12(3). 15-20. (Smith, 2015, p. 17)

MLA Style Citations

Another common format for citations is MLA, which stands for the Modern Language Association. MLA is typically used in language and humanities courses, and it has similar requirements to APA. There are, however, some important differences, especially in formatting.

Unlike APA, in-text citations in MLA never include dates. Instead, the citation should have the author’s last name and the number of the page where the information was found, no matter whether it was paraphrased or quoted.

The list of sources at the end of a paper in MLA format is referred to as the works cited page. It includes full information for all of the sources that have been referenced in the paper. Like APA, these citations should be formatted with a hanging indent. The templates and examples below demonstrate how MLA citations for a periodical should be formatted.

Works Cited Entry In-text Citation
Template Last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Title of Periodical, volume, issue, year, pages. (Last name page number)
Sample Smith, Joseph. “How to Use Citations.” The Journal of Citations, vol. 12, no. 3, 2015, pp. 15-20. (Smith 17)

Chicago Manual of Style Citations

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is typically used in business, history, and the fine arts, and it differs significantly from APA and MLA. Rather than using in-text citations, CMS uses a notes and bibliography (NB) citation method, with footnotes or endnotes within the text and a bibliography at the end of the paper. For every instance where a source is used, a superscript number is added. This number corresponds to a detailed note at the bottom of the page or end of the paper. The examples below make clear how extensive CMS in-text citations are in comparison to MLA and APA.

Bibliography Entry Note
Template Last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Title of Periodical volume, issue (year): pages. Number. First name Last name, “Title of Article,” Title of Periodical volume, issue (year): page number.
Sample Smith, Joseph. “How to Use Citations.” The Journal of Citations 12, no. 3 (2015): 15-20. 1. Joseph Smith, “How to Use Citations.” The Journal of Citations 12, no. 3 (2015): 17.

How to Cite a Research Paper

In a research paper citation, there are certain steps to ensure that sources are cited accurately and appropriately. First, when conducting research, it is important to keep track of which information came from each source to avoid accidentally misattributing it.

During the drafting of the paper, it is wise to insert in-text citations as sources are used. Otherwise, it is easy to forget that a source was used for a particular point in the paper, which could lead to problems with plagiarism.

When citing in APA style, the in-text citation should have parentheses enclosing the author’s last name, year of publication, and the page number. An MLA citation is very similar, but the year of publication is never included and there are no commas used between the last name and page number.

In both MLA and APA formats, a signal phrase can take the place of part or all of an in-text citation. A comparison of the two strategies is below.

  • APA in-text citation: According to the author, the “magnitude of the problem is increasing” (Smith, 2015, p. 17).
  • APA signal phrase: According to Smith (2015), the “magnitude of the problem is increasing” (p. 17).
  • MLA in-text citation: According to the author, the “magnitude of the problem is increasing” (Smith 17).
  • MLA signal phrase: According to Smith, the “magnitude of the problem is increasing” (17).

In CMS, the in-text citation takes the form of a note, either a footnote at the bottom of the page where the source is used or an endnote at the conclusion of the paper. This note includes the same information as the bibliography entry for the source. However, the formatting is slightly different and the page number is specific to the location of the detail being cited.

After inserting accurate citations within the text, it is critical to also create a list of full citations at the end of the paper. Each item on this list should always tie directly to a source referenced within the paper.

Lesson Summary

When writing a paper that includes research and information taken from sources, it is essential to give proper credit to the original author in order to respect that person’s intellectual property rights and avoid accusations of plagiarism. To cite a source means to acknowledge the original authorship of any words or ideas taken from it. Citing requires two components: in-text citations and a list of full citations at the end of the paper. There are several styles used for citations, including APA, MLA, and the Chicago Manual of Style.

APA in-text citations typically include the author’s last name, year of publication, and the page number, and the full citations at the end of the paper are on a references list. In MLA style, the in-text citation is required to have the author’s last name and page number, but never the date of publication. The list of sources at the end of a paper in MLA style is called a works cited page. Finally, the Chicago Manual of Style uses the notes and bibliography method, which means that the in-text citations are a combination of superscript numbers and corresponding footnotes or endnotes, and the list of courses is referred to as a bibliography, which appears at the end of the document with all sources listed in alphabetical order. No matter which style is being used, the URL and DOI should never be included within the text.

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