Citing Research Sources

Giving credit to the original creator of an idea, quotation or illustration

How to cite image Documenting sources

We cite the sources of information we re-use in our writings to give credit to the original creator of an idea, quotation or illustration. We don't want others to assume we are the authors of original work done by someone else.

However, we do want another reader to be able to read the original source if needed. A reader should be able to assume that anything not cited, if not common knowledge, is your original idea.

If you take information from a printed book, the data needed for a proper citation often is found on the front and back of the title page. In printed magazines and journals, information for a citation also can be found inside the periodical, usually in the front matter.

The situation may be different, however, for pages published on the World Wide Web.

We find on the Internet a vast, virtual library of books, essays, articles, reports, documents and collections of assorted information. These resources can be browsed and borrowed easily. However, Internet documents are difficult to catalog. They are changed readily and frequently. Sometimes they disappear.

A researcher may have a problem when a colleague can't verify a source cited in a research paper. Still, the information can be very useful. What is the proper way to cite a World Wide Web page, a blog, a tweet, a wiki, some other Internet posting or an e-mail message? While the rules for citing Internet sources in academic works may seem to be in flux, there are some sound strategies to follow.

Rules vary

The rules for citing print media, electronic media and Internet sources differ by topic and source. It's important always to check a style guide for the academic discipline or field of study within which you are working.

Among numerous style guides for academic research papers, two major handbooks in use are The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers from the Modern Language Association and The Publication Manual of the APA from the American Psychological Association.

Generally, MLA applies to writing in the humanities and liberal arts while APA covers papers in natural and social sciences.

Whether citing the Internet or a print or electronic medium, it's important for a researcher to use the latest edition of a guide.

MLA internal cites

MLA requires writers to document sources within the text of the paper, and on the last page in a "Works Cited" list. Within the text, after each quote or paraphrase, place within parentheses the author's last name and page number of the source on which a quote or paraphrase can be found. Then the last page of the paper is a "Works Cited" list of all sources quoted or paraphrased. This "Works Cited" list is alphabetized by authors' last names.

APA internal cites

APA requires the same information within the text as MLA style, but the format is slightly different. Quotations are introduced with a phrase that partially consists of the author's last name and, in parentheses, the publication date. The page number is printed within parentheses after the quote. In APA style, the complete list on the last page of the document is referred to as "References."

Styleguides on the Web

These informative resources about citing sources can be read on the World Wide Web:

MLA APA Chicago Turabian CSE CBE APSA Others Some strategies for citing Internet sources

You must let readers of your research papers and academic essays know your sources so they can tell whose words or ideas you are reflecting and so they can refer back to the original sources if necessary. Document all of the sources of information you use in research papers, as well as in shorter essays where you may mention only a few books, articles or other sources to illustrate a point or support your case.

An Internet document may be authoritative, but it is a virtual source. Since it's not a hard copy, some might think it doesn't really exist. As a minimum, try to save documents you cite as computer files in your own system. If practical, you might even decide to print those documents to paper for future reference. Think of it as taking notes from a book or photocopying a magazine article. If your source were to be questioned, you could verify its authenticity.

If the Internet document is not original, but a copy of a text published elsewhere, cite the primary printed source if you can locate it. Examples might include the public domain books at the Project Gutenberg site or the statistical data at the U.S. Census Bureau website. You might have to use a library or interlibrary loan to see the original source.

It's easy for anyone to publish anything on the Internet. That means you might find more information, fresher data and people who share your interests for an exchange of ideas. However, not every source is reliable.

Just as during a computer search of a physical library's holdings, you must exercise judgment about what sources are authoritative and trustworthy. Gauge source reliability by comparing authors' claims and evidence. If there is any doubt, choose only articles which have a byline. That is, have been signed by the author.

An author's name may appear in an odd location so be sure to read the entire document. If necessary, ask the site webmaster for the document in question, for the name of the author or for the source of the information. Explain what you plan to do with the information. Access to a webmaster's page usually can be found at the bottom of a Web page or on a website's home page.

Once you have an author's name, you can check her or his reputation by finding a biography or other documents she or he has written. Many Web documents offer email links to authors or links to other works by an author. If appropriate, you could send an email message to the author asking the whereabouts of the best version of an article.

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Further readings about research methods
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© 2011 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke    e-mail    home page