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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Citation Styles: A Primer

Quote by Henry David Thoreau. Photo by Ktylerconk.


There’s something you have to learn if you’re going to write essays for college classes, conduct research for work, write reports for your boss, or even just write blog posts.  That “something” is a citation style. 

What Is a Citation Style?

A citation style is, simply put, the way a writer references in his or her text the source of his or her information.   When you read an article in the newspaper and the journalist writes “According to a statement made by Tiger Woods late last night, he loves his wife,” the writer has just cited his or her source.  Even when a manager says “The employee protocol manual says that tube tops are not an appropriate style of dress for work,” he or she is citing a source for his or her information. 

Citing a source when speaking only requires you identify it as part of your sentence (e.g., “In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘I have a dream.’”).  If you were to write out the specifics of each of the sources you use when writing a research paper, though, your paper would be so cluttered with author names, article titles, journal names, book titles, and publications dates, it would be a struggle just to figure out what claim(s) the paper was trying to support.  Moving each source’s identifying information out of the text and into a set of parentheses and a Works Cited page clears up the clutter so your paper’s assertions can take center stage. 

Because different disciplines prioritize different things, citations styles come in a variety of flavors.  For example, parenthetical citations for APA style include the year in addition to the author’s name: (Smith, 2007).  In MLA style, on the other hand, the page number is included next to the author’s name in parenthetical citations: (Smith 24).  The sciences that use APA style are concerned with how recent research is; new discoveries are always being made and the older an article becomes, the less likely its findings are still accurate.  MLA style is used by the humanities, in contrast, and if you’re studying a work of literature, it’s far more important to know where to find a precise passage than it is to know the year.

Based on the needs of the discipline, citation styles can use parenthetical citations, footnotes, or endnotes.  They may sound different, but once you know how to cite properly in one style, switching to another style is just a matter of figuring out what information to change.  ALL styles ask for the same information; the way they organize that information is the only difference between them.

Now that we’ve figured out what a citation style is, we can move on to why we should use one.

Why Use a Citation Style?

The 7th edition of the  MLA Handbook says the simple reason for using a citation style is because “Every time you write a research paper, you enter into a community of writers and scholars” (xiii), and while that’s all well and good, unless you’re planning on becoming an academic scholar, that’s not a very compelling reason for learning a citation style, especially if you’re unfamiliar with citation styles in general.

Most people use a citation style because the teacher requires it. While the pursuit of a good grade is as good a reason as any,  there are more practical reasons for using a citation style that make it a useful skill to have for anyone, regardless of his or her future aspirations.

1. It can keep you from getting into trouble.

I’ll start with the most persuasive reason for learning how to properly cite sources. The reason you’ll want to learn and use a citation style is because it can keep you from plagiarizing (see these previous posts to learn why plagiarism is something you want to avoid). By citing a source immediately after you paraphrase or quote information taken from that source, you make sure you stay out of academic and legal trouble[1], the consequences of which could be devastating professionally and financially.

2. It can provide evidence and support your claims.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a formal academic paper or trying to persuade your parents to let you go to a friend’s party, citing sources (provided they’re good ones) bolsters your arguments.  Claims that are unsupported aren’t well received by anyone and are generally disregarded.  Even infomercials know the importance of evidence! They throw step-by-step demonstrations of the product at you along with customer testimonials of how much their lives have improved ever since they bought the product.

3. It can give increase your authority in a subject area.

One thing citations are good at is showing just how much research the writer has done.  If the same name keeps appearing in parentheses and there’s only one entry on the Works Cited page, it’s painfully obvious the writer read one article and based all his/her conclusions on it. 

The reason a good research paper has a LOT of sources is because good writers don’t put all of their eggs in one basket.  Citing only one source puts you at risk if that source later becomes discredited.  It’s also much easier for a reader to dismiss one source as biased or inadequate; when someone’s confronted with a slew of strong, credible sources, it’s much more difficult to refute a claim.

Citing sources also proves that you’ve done your research.  You’ve not just someone who read a blog post about the topic and then wrote a paper as though you were an expert.  When you’ve done research well, you have every right to say you know what you’re talking about (and to write that way too).

4. It gives credit where credit is due.

Someone went through a great deal of trouble to create the works of art and/or science you’re using to bolster your claims.  Legal and academic issues aside, giving the original sources credit for all their hard work is just the right thing to do.

5. It lets interested readers follow up on your research.

Believe it or not, some readers are actually interested in how you came to your conclusions and what resources you used.  They might be writing on the same topic and want to use one of the sources you used, or they might be genuinely interested in learning more about the subject. 

I read several science-fiction novels by Peter Watts just the other night and was delighted to find that at the end of them he included some of his research.  I probably spent just as much time digging around through the information and links he gave about inatentional blindness (i.e., humans have a saccadal glitch in their vision that can make objects that are right in front of you, “invisible"), astronomical infrared emitters, radical hemipherectomy, and Chernoff Faces as I did reading the novel itself. [2]

As lonely and solitary an endeavor as writing any paper is, there are people who are interested in your findings and the work you put into creating your own piece of literature.


So, now that you know how important learning a citation style is, which one are you going to learn?


[1] While plagiarism is unethical, it is not always illegal (for example, when a person plagiarizes him/herself).  What IS illegal is copyright infringement.  Since every written work is automatically under copyright the moment it is created, the only time when plagiarism is not illegal is when the person who is being plagiarized gives explicit permission to the plagiarist to use his/her words.  Since most people get quite irate when their work is stolen without their permission, don’t count on that person granting it after you’ve been caught plagiarizing him/her.  Also keep in mind that in academia, plagiarism is an “academic crime” regardless of if you have the original author’s consent. 

[2] If anyone else is interested in Peter Watt’s novels, they’re available for free online and can be found here.  One of his short stories has recently been nominated for a Hugo award and is also available on that page (just scroll down).  It’s a wonderful read and definitely worth a look.


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