Documenting Your Sources

When writing a report or essay, it is assumed that you already know how to properly document your sources. This is very important for academic work, and this brief guide is to remind you how to do it.

Why is it important?

When reading a document that someone else prepares, the reader assumes that the words used are those of the author. If you, as the author of the document, were to use a phrase, sentence, or paragraph from a source without documenting it, anyone who is familiar with the source and reads your document would think that you are presenting someone else's work as your own. In effect, they would think you are a fraud. Also, there are potential legal problems that could result.

In academics, we often use one document to support another. For example, you could write a paper on how the wavelet transform works, then later need to write a paper on image compression using a wavelet transform. For the second paper, you do not want to re-explain how the transform works. Instead, you might include a summary of your first paper, then tell the reader how he could find your first paper, for more information.

Citing other people's work can be done in a similar fashion. You present, in your own words, a summary of what the other person said. Then you give the citation, which tells your readers where to go for more. The citation is in the form of a number in square brackets, for example [2], or perhaps in the form of the first author's last name, followed by publication year, as in [Weeks99]. I prefer that you use the number in square brackets. At the end of the paper, the reference section gives full details about the publication.

Often, you will see more than one author on a paper. If you write a paper that is good, your professor might want to make you a co-author on something he is working on. If you are listed as a co-author, then it is no problem to use some (or all) of your paper in the joint work. However, if it is later revealed that you copied someone else's work in your paper, there are many repercussions that could result, the least of which would be embarassment. Your professor could also be liable! This is why we take this issue so seriously.

Citing other people's work is a good idea. It shows the readers that you are familiar with other people's work in the area. Not only have you read about their work, you understand it, and present what is relavent from it. You are extending or contributing to the subject as a whole. Also, a good reference section allows someone new to the field to find out where to go to get more information, and what information is important. Suppose you were to search for all documents on a topic, and find 2000 results. You might not have the time to read all of them, and would naturally want to know which ones are essential. A good reference section will indicate which ones that the document's author found to be useful.

What are you NOT allowed to do?

You cannot simply copy someone else's writing and include it in your document. These days, students are tempted to find a source of information on the Internet, then copy and paste this information into their documents/reports. Even if the web-site is included in the reference section, this is still not good enough. You must specify exactly what other people said, and (by default) specify exactly what you are saying.

When you present someone else's words as your own, this is called plagiarism. It is considered dishonest (if not illegal), and may be dealt with very harshly.

What are you supposed to do?

1) Quoting a source directly

Direct quotes are usually frowned upon, but there is a process to do this. You should use double-quotes (") around the words that someone else said. Before or after the quote, it is a good idea to say WHO said it. Also, follow the quote with a citation. For example,

Franklin D. Roosevelt was referring to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor when he called it, "A date which will live in infamy" [3].

By the words "usually frowned upon", I mean that you want to avoid it when possible. For an essay or report that will be graded, this means that points may be taken off for this. But this is very minor compared to plagiarism, where penalties could be as high as dismissal from the University! Sometimes, people succinctly capture in words an idea, and their words are repeated over and over. For example, most of you have heard the phrase "a date which will live in infamy," and probably knew who said it, and what he was talking about. This is a good example of when you DO want to directly quote someone.

You may directly quote someone who is an expert in the field. Do not quote someone who is not an expert. The label "expert" is somewhat subjective. If you are writing about the second world war, and your brother has an opinion, it is NOT a good idea to quote him. However, if your brother has a Ph.D. in history, then it MAY be a good idea to quote him.

2) Paraphrasing

You are allowed to paraphrase a source. This is where you read the source, then re-state it in your own words. This should also be followed by a citation, showing where you got the ideas. The critical difference here is that you are reading a source, understanding it, then explaining it (or an aspect of it) to your audience. If you just quote it, you do not show the same level of work. Yes, it is difficult to re-state something using your own words, but it is part of the assignment! This process does get easier with practice. Also, it helps you understand the topic. When you read, it all seems to make sense. But when you can explain the topic to someone else, you really show your understanding of the subject.

A citation is good to include. When you present something, such as a claim expressed by someone else, the citation backs up the claim. It is a way of saying, "This is important. But if you dispute it, you are not just arguing with me, you are arguing with this authority, too."

3) Writing as an authority

When researching a topic, you will read many different documents from many different authors. You will see that certain patterns emerge. These documents will influence the way that you think about the topic, and this will ultimately influence the way you write. You will learn much about the topic, and occassionally, you will read something that makes you see the topic from a different angle. After a while, you will be able to explain the topic well, on your own. When you commit this explanation to paper, you are re-presenting many ideas that you have read about. Things should come to your mind, such as a figure you remember, or a piece of information. Hopefully, you will be able to recall where you saw these things, and include them in your writing. By continuing to read about the subject, and writing about the subject, you can become an authority on the subject yourself.

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Last update: September 2012