Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It?

There are few things in academic writing that frustrate (or even terrify) students more than (1) citing sources and (2) avoiding plagiarism. The two are closely related. I will discuss plagiarism in detail in later posts devoted to paraphrase, summary, and quotations. In this post, we’re going to explore the rationale behind citing sources: why do we do it?

(Important note: I’m going to be very direct and blunt in this post. That’s not intended to scare you, but to be honest with you. Don’t worry – citing appropriately is a skill that you can absolutely learn, and it honestly isn’t anywhere near as complicated as most people think.)

Why do we cite?

The why of citation is, I suspect, rarely discussed in high school and college classes beyond, perhaps, a couple of sentences about joining the “academic conversation” (see How is College Writing Different? for more on this). Yet I suspect that understanding why citations are important would go a long way toward helping students understand what they are doing and how it should be done.

Here’s an analogy: I could teach someone to drive by telling them when and how to press the floor pedals, how and when to move the gear shift, and so on. In other words, I could teach someone the mechanics of driving. But if that person doesn’t understand why they would want to drive, that there is a vast body of other people who are all driving, often in the same spaces, and that the rules of driving exist to keep us safe, then they are going to find driving confusing, even bewildering. You need both a broad understanding of the why of driving as well as a fine-tuned grasp of how to drive. The same is true of citing sources. Students need to understand why they cite as well as the mechanics of how to do so.

Students need to understand why they cite as well as the mechanics of how to do so.

As an undergraduate student tasked with using sources in an academic paper, you are dancing on the edges of a larger academic conversation that spans universities, nations, academic disciplines, and time. You are engaging with (believe it or not) the scientific and academic knowledge constructed over centuries. This claim sounds grandiose; I know, but there it is. Scientific knowledge is a network of ideas and evidence that has been subjected to the academic rigor of critical peers.

When you cite the sources you use for your paper, you are doing two things:

  • Giving credit to the people you got the information from, and
  • Borrowing the authority of this network of academics

and bonus:

  • You allow people who might be interested in learning more about your topic to find your sources, and
  • In turn, when you are conducting research, you can “mine” that author’s paper for their sources. This is a great way to figure out what articles are considered very important in the field.

When you turn in your paper, it should demonstrate to your teacher that you:

  • are beginning to understand the nature of this academic conversation
  • have learned how to access it (hint: through library resources)
  • can write about it appropriately, and
  • can point to the sources of your information

You are expected to be able to write intelligently about our scientific understanding of the world we inhabit.

What happens if I don’t cite sources I have used?

When you use sources and do not cite them, or do not cite them accurately, what you have committed is intellectual thievery and fraud. It’s plagiarism, and it is a form of stealing that has consequences, some of them severe.

Consequences range from a lower grade or required revision, to failing the assignment or the course, to being expelled from the university. Some universities deal with plagiarism by making a permanent notation on your transcript. The course syllabus (see Before You Begin) and the university’s student handbook should lay out the consequences of plagiarism. In my classes, I make a distinction between “accidental” plagiarism, which arises from ignorance, and “intentional” plagiarism, which arises from obvious tactics meant to trick me into believing that the student wrote the material they plagiarized from another source (more on this in later posts).

When you use sources and do not cite them, or do not cite them accurately, what you have committed is intellectual thievery and fraud. . . . Consequences range from a lower grade . . . to being expelled from the university.

But don’t fret: this is absolutely a skill you can (and should) learn. I will show you how to do it right in later posts. Just stay tuned (subscribe using the button on the left). With a better understanding of why we cite, what you’ll learn later should make a lot more sense.

This post is the first in a series about citing sources. Continue reading the next article: Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics.

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