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The Importance of Proper Citation
One of the most challenging aspects of writing a college paper can be in correctly citing your sources; one of the major things that gets undergraduate students in trouble is plagiarism, which may or may not be intentional. It is expected that students will know how to properly indicate the source of any material they use, clearly separating it from their own ideas.
The exact method used for citations will depend on which style is used at your university; the most popular are APA and Chicago style. However, there are some simple guidelines to follow to ensure that you avoid plagiarism.
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When to Cite a Source
One challenge is to know whether or not each given piece of information needs to be sourced. A simple rule of thumb is that you do not need to cite a source when you say something that is a well-known fact or common knowledge; for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius or that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Notice that well-known doesn't mean that the average person knows it; most people probably couldn't tell you that Zachary Taylor was the 12th president of the United States, but you still don't need to cite a reference for that fact as anyone interested can easily look it up.
However, when you're using information that is obtained from someone else and doesn't fall under the conditions given above, you do need to cite it; in scientific writing, this applies even to your own work! One thing many students don't realize is that this doesn't only apply to direct quotations, if you paraphrase someone or even just use an idea from someone else, you should cite your source.
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Quote, Quote, Paraphrase
When citing an authority, there are three primary methods to reproduce their results: direct quotes, indirect quotes, and paraphrases. Quotations are used when the exact language of the speaker is important, and should generally be used sparingly because they interrupt the flow of your own writing. Quotations should always be introduced with their source; short quotes can be integrated into your text, while longer quotes (more than four lines) should be set off by indenting.
This is an example of a longer quote; I would have ended the previous paragraph with something like "In his 2010 article on citing references, William Springer said:. Setting this paragraph apart thus makes it clear exactly what part of the text is a quote, while avoiding the awkwardness involved with trying to integrate it into your writing. This is called a block quote and, like regularly quotes, should be used sparingly to avoid disrupting the flow of the text.
An indirect quote is similar to a direct quote but does not use quotation marks; instead, you report what someone else said. For example, "William Springer claims that you should be careful to cite your sources" would be an indirect quote. This is similar to a paraphrase, in which you rewrite what someone else said in your own words; however, in a paraphrase, it is the information that is important and the original source will be acknowledged with a citation at the end of the line rather than at the beginning of the sentence as in the indirect quotation above (like this, 2010).
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When using the Chicago style, after giving material that requires a citation, give the name of the author, date of publication, and any relevant page numbers in parentheses (Murdoch, 2006). In the previous sentence, for example, I paraphrased a reference cite about the Chicago style; in a college paper, I would now place the following in my endnotes:
Murdoch University. 2006. How To Cite References - Chicago Style. http://wwwlib.murdoch.edu.au/find/citation/chicago.html (accessed July 12, 2010)
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In APA style, the author's last name is often used as part of the sentence, followed by the year in parentheses, as in "Springer (2010) wrote about the correct way to cite sources." Otherwise, the author and year appear in parentheses at the end of the sentence, as they do in this one (Springer, 2010). Notice that, as in Chicago style, the citation appears before the period.
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More Complex Citations
The examples above suffice for simple cases with one author, but each style has rules for handling multiple authors, multiple sources, and specific formats for various types of sources. Depending on what style your university uses, you may wish to obtain a copy of one of the following books:
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association - official APA style guide
The Chicago Manual of Style - official Chicago style guide
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Things to Remember
The purpose of citation is to make clear whose ideas are being used; this both gives proper credit to the originator of an idea and allows you to support your thesis by building on the work of others, as you can point to already-verified work as a basis for your claims. It should always be obvious to your reader where each idea or piece of information is coming from.
When in doubt, it's better to cite too much than too little. Remember that a firm foundation adds credibility to your work.