Citation, or the practice of documenting the sources you use in your writing, is a core element of academic research and writing, regardless of discipline. Citing sources not only allows you to align your work with other scholars, but it also documents the scholarly conversation into which you’re entering. This is part of producing knowledge; documenting what and who you’ve read in the course of writing your paper is a mark of strong scholarship and academic integrity.
What and when to cite
It can be difficult to know when and what to cite. You always need to cite:
- Ideas, concepts, opinions of others
- Direct quotes, summaries, and paraphrases
- Facts used as evidence
- Tables, graphs, or figures produced by anyone but yourself
- Specific statistics or data
You may have heard that you don’t need to cite your source when the information you’re including is common knowledge. Generally, common knowledge can be understood as information that an average reader would accept without having to look up. This includes:
- Information that most people know (such as that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius),
- Information shared by a cultural or national group (such as the names of Canadian prime ministers)
- Knowledge shared by members of a field or discipline (such as that a double bond is stronger than a single bond)
However, it can be difficult to know what counts as common knowledge, because an “average reader” is audience and discipline specific. What might be common knowledge in one cultural group or academic discipline may not be common knowledge in another. Here are some ways to determine if something is common knowledge or not:
- Ask: who is my audience and what can I assume they already know?
- See if the information is cited or not in academic scholarship. If the information is not cited in at least three different sources, it’s probably common knowledge
- If you are not sure, assume the information is not common knowledge and cite. It’s always better to over-cite than under-cite.
Whether you are including a quote or a paraphrased sentence (see below for tips on paraphrasing) in your writing from someone else’s work, it must be cited. In science writing there are two general styles for citing references in text: expanded referencing or abbreviated referencing (see below). We generally cite information from journal articles more often than other sources in science writing because they typically contain the most up-to-date information, but the same formatting is used for books as well.
1) Expanded referencing (author-year): Includes the author’s last name and the year of publication for in-text citing, and an alphabetical list of references at the end of the article.
- • if there are only one or two author names, cite both names in-text
- • if there are more than two author names, only write the first name followed by “et al.”
2) Abbreviated referencing (author-number): Includes a number in parentheses or superscript for in-text citing and a numerical list of references at the bottom of the article (i.e. the order in which they are found in the text).
These examples are designed to highlight how each style of citing can be used. Although there is sometimes flexibility when citing, remember to check with your instructor which style you should use. If he/she is happy for you to use either one, make sure you are always consistent in your formatting style (i.e. don’t mix the two styles in one piece of writing).
- A) Blue, left-handed widgets are actually wodgets (Smith, 1993).
- B) Bloggs et al. (1995) confirmed that …
- C) Smith and Jones (1995) wrote that…
- A) Blue, left-handed widgets are actually wodgets3.
- B) Bloggs et al.2 confirmed…
- C) Smith and Jones  wrote that…
Table 2: Advantages of expanded and abbreviated referencing
|Style of citing||Advantage|
|Expanded Referencing||• author/researcher is found in text (easily recognizable for a researcher in the field)|
• show date of research (current)
|Abbreviated Referencing||• saves time|
• saves space (no extra words- names, dates)
When deciding which style of citing to use, keep in mind the advantages of both, but make sure you follow any directions you were given. Once you choose a style, you must stick to it throughout your whole article. It is very important to be consistent with your formatting; it makes it easier for the reader to follow!
Using Quotations and Paraphrasing
In science writing, it is rare to use direct quotes; they can be long and sometimes very confusing for a reader. It is generally better to paraphrase or summarize than to use quotes. This shows you have an understanding of the material, whereas using quotations of the work of others doesn’t often show that you understand - or are able to - synthesize what you’ve read and tailor it appropriately to what you are writing about.
In science, only use quotations if a piece of information is well-phrased or unique and cannot be simply rephrased to have the same effect. For example, don’t write: Cliff et al. (1989) reported that “A total of 591 great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias were caught between 1974 and 1988 in the gill nets which are maintained along the Natal coast to protect bathers from shark attack.” Instead, write something like: Nearly 600 great white sharks were caught in gill nets along the Natal coast between 1974 and 1988 (Cliff et al. 1989).
When -- and How -- to Use Quotations
Quotes appear in almost every good news story because they add an extra level of interest for the readers, so when you are writing a journalistic science article, you should try to incorporate some. However, as always, writing concisely and telling a story as simply as possible is of vital importance. For this reason, a good story only ever contains good quotes; simply filling space with quotes will put your readers off, rather than encouraging them to absorb the tale you are telling.
You should always try to make your story accessible to the audience to which it is targeted. For example, suppose you had spent three years in a genetics lab and discovered how a gene functioned to protect fruit from pests. When it came to communicating your research, you would write two very different articles to a specialist science magazine and a newspaper that would be read by more diverse audiences.
However, in both cases, you would likely add quotes to help make the article more engaging. Although you might include more jargon in the specialist version, there is a fairly standard set of guidelines for choosing quotes that you would be able to apply to both articles.
In general, and in order of importance, the following elements will all be present in a good quote:
1) It will be attributed to a relevant source with something meaningful to say.
2) The information contained in it will add to, expand, and/or personalize the story.
3) It will be easy to understand, even if it contains comparisons/descriptions.
4) Although not always the case, impact tends to be higher if the word count is small.
In contrast, the following elements tend to be present in a bad quote:
1) The information contained in it is boring, redundant, repetitive, contains jargon, overly complex words, or is incoherent and hard to follow.
2) It is taken from a source that was not introduced earlier in the article, or from a non-relevant source with nothing of importance to add to the story.
3) It is not concise and/or is hard to interpret.
The Importance of Paraphrasing
As mentioned above, you should generally try to paraphrase a source when citing it in science writing, particularly when you are writing a lab report or journal article. While using quotes is more common in journalistic science writing, sometimes even then you should paraphrase in preference.
Sometimes, for example, you will have access to a quote from a relevant source but there will be a problem with it that prevents you using it word for word. For example, perhaps the quote contains too much jargon for your audience, or maybe it makes a good point but is too long-winded. In either of these instances, it would be a shame not to use the information in the quote if it could improve the quality of your writing, but using the quote itself would have the opposite effect. So what do you do?
The answer is that you should paraphrase the information.. In other words, you are going to attribute it to the source, but only include the information that is relevant to your audience. For example, imagine Prof. Stout provided the following quote:
“We had the feeling that crops would be considerably less valuable if they were solely wind-pollinated, but it had never been shown experimentally before. Now we know for sure just how valuable these bees are in terms of boosting yield, we hope it will give us the power to convince governments to step up their efforts of conserving them. The bees help us, so we need to repay the favour!”
Rather than using the (whole) quote, which contains admittedly interesting information in a long-winded way, you could paraphrase it like this:
Professor Stout explained that she hopes governments will help conserve bees now it has been shown how valuable their pollination service is.
Because the second part of the original quote is concise and interesting, you could also think about including it after your initial paraphrased sentence, like this:
Professor Stewart explained that she hopes governments will help conserve bees now it has been shown how valuable their pollination service is. She said: “The bees help us, so we need to repay the favour!”
Re-ordering Transcripts and Quotations
If/when you interview somebody as a source, you will probably produce a transcript of information ordered in a way that does not tell the most interesting story possible; in spoken conversations about complicated subjects people rarely explain themselves smoothly or without backtracking.
As a result, you will often have to re-order things when incorporating quotes into your article. This might mean paraphrasing parts of a quote and including other parts of it as a direct quote, or it might mean swapping the order of quotes so that the story follows a more logical development. Although this is a common, and necessary action, you must be careful not to take quotes out of context when doing this. Make sure that when you read the original transcript and compare it to the re-ordered quotes in your article, you are satisfied that you have not misrepresented your source in any way!
Choosing Descriptive Words to Introduce Citations.
Because you must interpret a source when you paraphrase or summarize it, you must be very careful not to misrepresent the author in any way, which is easier than you might think. For example, writing that Reilly (2010) found that more than one cup of morning coffee slows response rates in people, is not the same thing as writing that Reilly (2010) argued that more than one cup of morning coffee slows response rates in people.
Although it is sometimes important to use ‘strong’ descriptors such as argue, challenge, confess, attack etc. it is generally a good idea to use ‘neutral’ descriptors whenever possible, as these cannot be misinterpreted so easily.
For example, writing that Reilly (2010) wrote that more than one cup of morning coffee slows response rates in people cannot be misinterpreted, and therefore removes any concern that you might have about paraphrasing his/her work.
We then suggest you complete the quick quiz (below) to see whether you have mastered some of the important skills relating to effective use of citing and integrating sources.