Doing Honest Work in College *

how to prepare citations,
avoid plagiarism, and achieve
real academic success

* by Charles Lipson

Citation FAQ

What Should You Cite?

Q: Do I need to cite everything I use in the paper?

Pretty much. Cite anything you rely on for data or authoritative opinions. Cite both quotes and paraphrases. Cite personal communications such as e-mails, interviews, or conversations with professors if you rely on them for your paper. If you rely heavily on any single source, make that clear, either with multiple citations or with somewhat fewer citations plus a clear statement that you are relying on a particular source for a particular topic.

There is one exception. Don’t cite sources for facts that are well known to your audience. It’s overkill to footnote any authorities for the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. There will be time enough to footnote them when you start discussing the politics of the Continental Congress.

Q: How many citations does a paper have, anyway?

It varies and there is no exact number, but a couple per page is common in well-researched papers. More is fine. If there are no citations for several pages in a row, something’s probably wrong. Mostly likely, you just forgot to include them. You need to go back and fix the problem.

Q: How many different sources should I use?

That depends on how complicated your subject is, how intensively you’ve studied it, and how long your paper is. If it is a complex subject or one that is debated intensely, you’ll need to reflect that with multiple sources—some to present facts, some to cover different sides of the issue. On the other hand, if it’s a short paper on a straightforward topic, you might need only a couple of sources. If you are unsure, ask what your professor expects for your topic. While you’re talking, you might also ask about the best sources to use.

In any case, don’t base longer, more complex papers on two or three sources, even if they are very good ones. Your paper should be more than a gloss on others’ work (unless it is specifically an analysis of that scholar’s work). It should be an original work that stands on its own. Use a variety of sources and make sure they include a range of opinions on any controversial topic.

You certainly don’t need to agree with all sides. You are not made of rubber. But, at least for longer papers and hotly debated topics, you need to show that you have read different views, wrestled with varied ideas, and responded to the most important points.

By the way, your footnotes can be negative citations, as well as positive. You are welcome to disagree openly with a source, or you can simply say, “For an alternative view, see…”

What Goes in a Citation?

Q: Can I include discussion or analysis in notes?

Yes, for most styles, except in the sciences. Footnotes or endnotes are fine spots to add brief insights that bear on your paper topic but would distract from your narrative if they were included in the text. Just remember you still need to edit these discursive notes, just as you do the rest of your writing. And don’t let them become a major focus of your writing effort. The text is the main event.

If you use in-text citations such as (Tarcov 2006) and want to add some explanatory notes, you’ll have to add them as a special set of citations. They are usually marked with a superscript number.

If you are writing in the sciences and already using superscripts for the citation-sequence system, you’re better off avoiding explanatory notes entirely. If you really need to include one or two, mark them with an asterisk or other symbol. In this system, you cannot use numbered citations for anything except references.

Q: I sometimes use articles from Time or Newsweek. Should they be cited like journal articles or newspaper articles?

That depends on how long and how significant the articles are. Short pieces in newsweeklies are usually treated like newspaper articles. You can include the author, but you don’t have to. Either way, short articles are not usually included in the bibliography. Major articles with author bylines are treated more like journal articles and are included in the bibliography.

Q: Some styles, notably Chicago-style references, use shortened citations after the first citation for an item. What’s the best way to shorten a title?

There are some standard ways. One is to use only the author’s last name: Strunk and White instead of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. You also drop the initial article in the title and any other needless words. The Elements of Style becomes Elements of Style. Drop the edition number and all publishing information, such as the publisher’s name. For articles, drop the journal title and volume. So:

Long form    99 William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000), 12.
  100 Stefan Elbe, “HIV/AIDS and the Changing Landscape of War in Africa,” International Security 27 (Fall 2002): 159–77.
Short form    199 Strunk and White, Elements of Style, 12.
  200 Elbe, “HIV/AIDS,” 162.

The shortened title for Elbe’s work might be confusing if your paper dealt mainly with HIV/AIDS and was filled with similar citations. For clarity, you might decide on an alternative short title such as, “Landscape of War.”

If the title has two parts, put on your surgical gloves and remove the colon.

Long form    99 Robert A. Kaster, Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  100 Kenneth Shultz and Barry Weingast, “The Democratic Advantage: Institutional Foundations of Financial Power in International Competition,” International Organization 57 (Winter 2003): 3–42.
Short form    199 Kaster, Guardians of Language.
  200 Shultz and Weingast, “Democratic Advantage.”

You might need to shorten a title by identifying a few key words. Take Francis Robinson, ed., Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. There is no single right way to shorten this, but the best title is probably: Robinson, History of Islamic World. (Note that Robinson is simply listed as the author; his title as editor is dropped.)

In the first full note, you can also tell readers how you will shorten a title. After giving the full title for Senate Banking Committee hearings on terrorist money laundering, for instance, you might say: (subsequently called “2004 Senate hearings”).

Q: What about citing a work I’ve found in someone else’s notes? Do I need to cite the place where I discovered the work?

This issue comes up all the time because it’s one of the most important ways we learn about other works and other ideas. Reading a book by E. L. Jones, for example, you find an interesting citation to Adam Smith. As it turns out, you are more interested in Smith’s point than in Jones’s commentary, so you decide to cite Smith. That’s fine—you can certainly cite Smith—but how should you handle it?

There’s a choice. One way is to follow the paper trail from Jones’s footnote to Adam Smith’s text, read the relevant part, and simply cite it, with no reference at all to Jones. That’s completely legitimate for books like Smith’s that are well known in their field. You are likely to come across such works in your normal research, and you don’t need to cite Jones as the guide who sent you there. To do that honestly, though, you have to go to Smith and read the relevant parts.

The rule is simple: Cite only texts you have actually used and would have found in the normal course of your research, not obscure texts used by someone else or works you know about only secondhand. You don’t have to read several hundred pages of Adam Smith. You do have to read the relevant pages in Smith—the ones you cite. Remember the basic principle: When you say you did the work yourself, you actually did it.

Alternatively, if you don’t have time to read Smith yourself (or if the work is written in a language you cannot read), you can cite the text this way: “Smith, Wealth of Nations, 123, as discussed in Jones, The European Miracle.” Normally, you don’t need to cite the page in Jones, but you can if you wish. An in-text citation would look different but accomplish the same thing: (Smith 123, qtd. in Jones).

This alternative is completely honest, too. You are referencing Smith’s point but saying you found it in Jones. This follows another equally important principle: When you rely on someone else’s work, you cite it. In this case, you are relying on Jones, not Smith himself, as your source for Smith’s point.

Follow the same rule if Jones leads you to a work that is unusual or obscure to you, a work you discovered only because Jones did the detailed research, found it, and told you about it. For example, one of Jones’s citations is to a 1668 book by Paul Rycaut, entitled The Present State of the Ottoman Empire. I’m not an expert on the Ottoman Empire and certainly would not have discovered that book myself. Frankly, I’d never even heard of it until Jones mentioned it. So I’d cite it as (Rycaut 54, cited in Jones). I can do that without going to the Rycaut book. On the other hand, if I were a student of Ottoman history and Jones had simply reminded me of Rycaut’s work, I would cite it directly. To do that honestly, however, I would need to go to the Rycaut volume and read the relevant passage.

Some scholars, unfortunately, sneak around this practice. They don’t give credit where credit is due. They simply cite Rycaut, even if they’ve never heard of him before, or they cite Smith, even if they haven’t read the passage. One result (and it really happens!) could be that Jones made a mistake in his citation and the next scholar repeated the error. It’s really a twofold blunder: an incorrect footnote and a false assertion that the writer used Smith as a source.

The specific rules here are less important than the basic concepts:

Follow these and you’ll do just fine.

Bibliography

Q: Do I need to have a bibliography?

Yes, for all styles except complete Chicago notes. If you use complete Chicago citations, not the short versions, the first note for each item gives readers complete information, including the title and publisher, so you don’t need a bibliography. (You are welcome to include a bibliography if you use Chicago style, but you don’t have to, unless your professor requires it.)

All other styles require a bibliography for a simple reason. The notes themselves are too brief to describe the sources fully.

Q: Should my bibliography include the general background reading I did for the paper?

The answer depends on how much you relied on a particular reading and which reference style you use. MLA, APA, and science bibliographies include only the works you have actually cited. Chicago-style bibliographies are more flexible and can include works you haven’t cited in a note.

My advice is this: If a work was really useful to you, then check to make sure you have acknowledged that debt somewhere with a citation. After you’ve cited it once, the work will appear in your bibliography, regardless of which style you use. If a particular background reading wasn’t important in your research, don’t worry about citing it.

Q: Does the bibliography raise any questions about my work?

Yes, readers will scan your bibliography to see what kinds of sources you used and whether they are the best ones. There are five problems to watch out for:

These are not really problems with the bibliography, as such. They are problems with the text that become apparent by looking at the bibliography.

Old sources are great for some purposes, but antiquated for others. Many consider Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the greatest historical work ever written. But no one today would use it as a major secondary source on Rome or Byzantium. Too much impressive research has been completed in the two centuries since Gibbon wrote. So, if you were writing about current views of Byzantium or ancient Rome, Decline and Fall would be out-of-date. Relying on it would cast a shadow on your research. On the other hand, if you were writing about great historical works, eighteenth-century perspectives, or changing views about Byzantium, using Gibbon would be perfectly appropriate, perhaps essential.

“Old” means different things in different fields. A work published ten or fifteen years ago might be reasonably current in history, literature, and some areas of mathematics, depending on how fast those fields are changing. For a discipline moving at warp speed like genetics, an article might be out-of-date within a year. A paper in molecular genetics filled with citations from 1994 or even 2004 would cast serious doubt on the entire project. Whatever your field, you should rely on the best works and make sure they have not been superseded by newer, better research.

Bias, omission of key works, and overreliance on a few sources reveal other problems. 1 Bias means you have looked at only one side of a multifaceted issue. Your bibliography might indicate bias if it lists readings on only one side of a contested issue. Omitting an authoritative work not only impoverishes your work; it leaves readers wondering if you studied the topic carefully.

The remedy for all these problems is the same. For longer, more complex papers, at least, you need to read a variety of major works in your subject and indicate that with citations.

However long (or short!) your paper, make sure your sources are considered solid and reliable. Your professors and teaching assistants can really help here. They know the literature and should be valuable guides.

Quotations

Q: I am using a quotation that contains a second quote within it. How do I handle the citation?

Let’s say your paper includes the following sentence:

According to David M. Kennedy, Roosevelt began his new presidency “by reassuring his countrymen that ‘this great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.… The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.’”
Of course, you’ll cite Kennedy, but do you need to cite his source for the Roosevelt quote? No. It’s not required. In some cases, however, your readers will benefit from a little extra information about the quote within a quote. You can easily do that in your footnote or endnote:
99 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 134. The Roosevelt quote comes from his 1933 inaugural address.

Q: I am quoting from some Spanish and French books and doing the translations myself. How should I handle the citations?

Just include the words “my translation” immediately after the quote or in the citation. You don’t need to do this each time. After the first quotation, you can tell your readers that you are translating all quotes yourself. Then cite the foreign-language text you are using.

In some papers, you might want to include quotes in both the original and translation. That’s fine. Either the translation or the original can come first; the other follows in parentheses or brackets. For instance:

In Madame Pompadour’s famous phrase, “Après nous, le déluge.” (After us, the flood.) As it turned out, she was right.
Electronic Materials and Microfilm

Q: Some citations list “microfilm.” Others list “microform” or “microfiche.” What’s the difference? Do I need to mention any of them in my citations?

They are all tiny photographic images, read with magnifying tools. Libraries use these formats to save money and storage space for large document collections. All these images are called microforms, no matter what material they are stored on. When they are stored on reels of film, they’re called microfilm. When they are stored on plastic sheets or cards, they’re called microfiche.

When you use materials that have been photographically reduced like this, you should say so in the citation, just as you do for Web sites or electronic information. (If the microforms simply reproduce printed material exactly, some citation styles allow you to cite the printed material directly. But you are always safe if you mention that you read it on microfilm or microfiche. The same is true for citing print items that are reproduced electronically.)

Q: The URL I’m citing is long and needs to go on two lines. How do I handle the line break?

Here’s the technical answer. If the URL takes up more than one line, break after a

break before a Here are some examples:

Full URL    http://www.charleslipson.com/index.htm
Break after slash    http://www.charleslipson.com/
index.htm
Break before other   
punctuation   
http://www.charleslipson
.com/index.htm


These “break rules” apply to all citation styles.

There’s a rationale for these rules. If periods, commas, or hyphens come at the end of a line, they might be mistaken for punctuation marks. By contrast, when they come at the beginning of a line, they are clearly part of the URL. To avoid confusion, don’t add hyphens to break long words in the URL.

You can produce such breaks in two ways. One is to insert a line break by pressing the shift-enter keys simultaneously, at least on Windows-based systems. Alternatively, you can insert a space in the URL so your word-processing program automatically wraps the URL onto two lines. (Without such a space, the word processor would force the entire URL onto one line.)

Even though you are technically allowed to break URLs before periods, commas, and hyphens, I try to avoid such breaks because these punctuation marks are easy to overlook and confuse readers. Instead, I try to break only after a slash or double slash, and then only when I am printing the final version of the paper. When I’m sending it electronically, I try to avoid breaks altogether. That way, the recipient will have “live” hyperlinks to click on.

Tips on citing Web pages: As you take notes, write down the
  • URL for the Web site or Web page
  • Name or description of the page or site
  • Date you accessed it
Writing the name or description of a Web site is useful because if the URL changes (as they sometimes do), you still can find it by searching.
As for the access date, some citation styles, such as APA and MLA, require it. Others, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, make it optional. They tell you to include it only when it’s relevant, such as for time-sensitive data.
If sites are particularly useful, add them to your “favorites” list. If you add several sites for a paper, create a new category (or folder) named for the paper and drop the URLs into that. A folder will gather the sites in a single location and keep them from getting lost in your long list of favorites.

Science Citations

Q: In the sciences, some citations include terms like DOI, PII, and PMID. What are they? Do I need to include them in my citations?

They identify articles within large electronic databases. Just like other parts of your citations, they help readers locate articles and data you have used. In fact, you may use them yourself to return to an article for more research.

Not every scientific journal includes them in citations or lists them for its own articles. Some do; some don’t. My advice: When you do research, write the numbers down and consider including them in your own citations. They appear at the very end of each citation, right after the pagination and URL.

What do the various letters mean? DOI stands for digital object identifier. It’s an international system for identifying and exchanging digital intellectual property. Like a URL, it can be used to locate an item. Unlike a URL, it remains the same, even if the item is moved to a new location.

PII stands for publisher item identifier. It, too, identifies the article and can be used for search and retrieval.

PMID appears in many medical and biological journals. It stands for PubMed identification. The PubMed database includes virtually all biomedical journals plus some preprints. It is available online at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez and has a tutorial for new users. This invaluable database was developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine.

Other specialized fields have their own electronic identifiers. MR, for example, refers to articles in the Mathematical Reviews database. Physics has identifying numbers for preprints (prepublication articles), which classifies them by subfield.

You are not required to list any of these electronic identifiers in your citations, but doing so may help you and your readers.

Q: In the sciences, I’m supposed to abbreviate journal titles. Where do I find these abbreviations?

The easiest way is to look at the first page of the article you are citing. It usually includes the abbreviation and often the full citation for the article. You can also go to various Web sites assembled by reference librarians, listing journal abbreviations in many fields. One useful site is “All That JAS: Journal Abbreviation Sources,” compiled and maintained by Gerry McKiernan, Science and Technology Librarian and Bibliographer at Iowa State, http://www.abbreviations.com/jas.asp.


  1. Ralph Berry, The Research Project: How to Write It (London: Routledge, 2000), 108-9. back to text

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