Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Some quick notes on citation practice for undergraduates

Posted: Feb 04, 2015 18:02;
Last Modified: Feb 04, 2015 18:02

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Students seem always to get very nervous about citation… and, interestingly, perhaps through that nervousness, end up doing it in ways that professional scholars don’t.

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Here are some tips that pros use for citation that undergraduates tend not to know:

Plagiarism is not a property crime.

Many students treat citations as, in essence, payment for ideas. Or perhaps better said, they seem to understand the absence of citations as a property crime: you “stole” somebody’s ideas or words.

But citation is not (primarily) an economic activity, but rather an evidentiary one. The point of citation is not to pay somebody for their ideas or words, but to show where your words and ideas came from. If you don’t cite things, then people don’t know what the basis for your evidence and claims is and they can’t refine or develop your arguments. Nobody is so original that nothing they say is based on what others said. You cite things so people can understand the context of your ideas.

You don’t need to quote things in order to cite them

Many students seem to think you need to quote something from somebody in order to cite them. You don’t and, unless they say something memorable the formulation of which is important to your argument, you probably shouldn’t.

There are three reasons why you might cite a work you are not quoting at some point in your paper:

  1. You are paraphrasing them: i.e. your point or evidence is very similar to theirs, but, since there was nothing important or memorable about how they said it, you are simply repeating what they said in your own words;
  2. You are synthesising or summarising information from them: i.e. you got your information from a source which you are now summarising in some way or extracting and reusing in a form that isn’t more or less exactly the way your source did it;
  3. You were influenced by the source (and perhaps others): i.e. you aren’t directly using their conclusions of evidence, but their conclusions or evidence had an influence on yours and agrees with yours or supports it.

In each of these cases, you would provide a citation to the work(s) in question; but you probably wouldn’t quote them.

Quotations should be in some way memorable

The only time you really need to quote somebody is if they say something you want to use in a memorable, non-obvious way and their particular formulation is important to you. You don’t have to quote formulations that are trivial or non-memorable. There must be 10,000 books about Jane Austen, for example, which contain the words “Austen writes…” somewhere in them. You don’t need to put “Austen writes” in quotation marks, however, because one of your source has this.

Citations can be retrofitted

An interesting exercise (and actually good for you as well), is to try and retrofit citations: i.e. add citations to your text after it is written.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to write your paper the normal way, citing things as you use them, and then, when you are finished, go back through your paper and see how many additional sentences could reasonably contain a citation to the works you have already used. The second is to write a paper and then go through it trying to find evidence and sources for the things you’ve already said, or examples of other people who have said the same thing.

The point is to try and be extra generous with your citations, including them whenever they are related to your work, rather than just when they are the source of your work. Students often seem intent on including the minimum number of citations possible in their work; professional researchers, on the other hand, generally try to err on the side of the maximum possible number of references.

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