by Shannon Naylor
Let’s meet Annie, a freshman at Imaginary University. She has just been assigned her first college paper and has listened to the list of all the possible punishments for plagiarism, intentional or not. She learned one citation style in high school, but now she’s expected to know three different ones for three different classes and she has started to panic. What on earth is she supposed to do?
If, like Annie, you are panicking over citations, stop, take a deep breath, and relax. Here are some easy steps towards citing sources with confidence.
Which way do I cite? Find out what writing style you need for the paper in question. Most college papers will be written in MLA, APA, or Chicago styles, but sometimes you’ll need something different. Consult the assignment or ask your professor.
How do I cite? Check with the library for the proper style manual or ask a TA or writing tutor how to format the citations properly. The library website is helpful too: http://library.principiacollege.edu/citation-help. These will give you the specifics for whatever style you are required to use.
When and what do I cite? You cite whenever you include specific data, exact quotes or paraphrases. You will most likely use in-text citations, although the style will determine whether you use parenthetical citations, footnotes, or endnotes. All of your sources should be collected in a works cited, bibliography, or references page.
What makes something “common knowledge”? Sometimes it’s easy to tell. Let’s visit Annie again. Say she is writing a paper on the geology of Hawaii. So far, she knows that Hawaii is an island in the Pacific Ocean. This is common knowledge—she knew this before starting her research. In her research, she learns that there are three kinds of lava: pillow, aa, and pahoehoe. She never knew this before, but all of the articles in which she has encountered this fact treat it like common knowledge. It is. This is an example of field-specific common knowledge: the average Joe (or Annie) might not be familiar with it, but it is old news to geologists. Annie continues her research and finds measurements for how far lava has spread on Hawaii per annum. This data is not common knowledge and should be cited.
Why do I cite? At first, citing sources may seem like a chore, but it’s really just a written form of politeness. One day in class, Annie has a group discussion and shares an original, insightful thought about the readings. When their group shares with the class, Bob shares her idea without mentioning that Annie came up with it. She is frustrated. Published articles, essays, and studies are all part of a larger academic conversation and, like Annie, the authors deserve to be credited for their ideas. This is why we cite our sources.
Shannon Naylor is a junior studying creative writing and theatre. She is currently enjoying a break from school—but not from writing!