1.3 Acknowledging Sources with Citations

Acknowledgment of Sources is a Rhetorical Act

To an inexperienced writer, citing and documenting sources may seem like busywork. Yet, when you cite your external sources in the text of your paper and when you document them at the end of your piece in a list of works cited or a bibliography, you are performing a rhetorical act, making your writing more effective and convincing. Complete and accurate citing and documenting of all external sources help writers achieve three very important goals:

  1. It enhances your credibility as a writer. By carefully and accurately citing your external sources in the text and by documenting them at the end of your paper you show your readers that you are serious about your subject, your research, and the argument which you are making in your paper. You demonstrate that you have studied your subject in sufficient depth, and by reading credible and authoritative sources.
  2. It helps you to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s ideas or writing as your own. It is a serious offense that can damage the reputation of a writer forever and lead to very serious consequences if committed in an academic or professional setting. Later on in the chapter, we will discuss plagiarism and ways to avoid it in detail.
  3. The presence of complete citations of sources in your paper will help you demonstrate to your readers that you are an active participant in the community of readers, writers, researchers, and learners. It shows that you are aware of the conversations that are going on among writers and researchers in your field and that you are willing to enter those conversations by researching and writing about the subjects that interest you. By providing enough information about the sources which you used in you own research and writing, you give other interested readers the opportunity to find out more about your subject and, thus, to enter in a conversation with you.

The Logic and Structure of a Source Citation

Every time writers cite and document their sources, they do it in two places in the paper—in the text itself and at the end of the paper, in a list of works cited or bibliography. A citation is incomplete and, by and large, useless to the readers, if either of the parts is missing. Consider the following example, in which I cite an academic journal article using the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation system. Please note that I give this example at this point in the chapter only to demonstrate the two parts of a citation and that although the examples provided are for MLA style citations, the same principles also apply to American Psychological Association (APA) style.

Part 1: In-text citations

In-text citations are also known as parenthetical citations or parenthetical references because, at the end of the citation, parentheses are used. is to identify and acknowledge specific details and information in a composition that a writer borrowed from an external source. See the example below:

In her essay “If Winston Weather Would Just Write to Me on E-mail,” published in the journal College Commposition and Communication, one writer and teacher shares her thoughts on the nature of writing: “I see…writing as a mixture of mess and self-discipline, of self-history [and] cultural history.” (Bishop 101).

In this example, the parenthetical citation refers to the last name of the author of the source as well as to the  page number in the source on which the quotation cited can be found. The parenthetical listing of the author’s last name refers readers to the second part of a citation.

Part 2: The Citation in the Works Cited or References List

The citation in the Works Cited or References list may also be called a ‘source citation’ or ‘documentation.’ Such source citations are placed in a list, called a Works Cited (for MLA style) or References (for APA style). See the example below.

Bishop, Wendy. “If Winston Weather Would Just Write to Me on E-mail.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 46, no. 1, Feb. 1995, pp. 97-103.

As opposed to an in-text citation, which signals that specific details and information in a composition was borrowed from an external source, the purpose of a source citation is to give their readers enough information to enable them, if necessary, to find the same source on their own. For instance, if we look at the kinds of information provided in the citation just above (authors, titles, volume and issue numbers, dates of publication, page numbers, etc.), we should be able to use that information to find the same source in a library, bookstore, or online.

When to Cite and Document Sources

The brief answer to this question is “always.” Every time you use someone else’s ideas, arguments, opinions, or data, you need to carefully acknowledge their author and source. This means both citing in-text AND documenting it with a source citation in a Works Cited or References list. Keep in mind that you are not just borrowing others’ words when you use sources in your writing. You are borrowing ideas. Therefore, even if you are not directly quoting the source, but instead paraphrasing or summarizing it, you still need to cite it both in the text and at the end of the paper in a works cited or references list.

The only exception is when you are dealing with what is known as “common knowledge.” Common knowledge consists of facts that are so widely known that they do not require a source reference. For instance, if you say in your writing that the Earth rotates around the Sun or that Ronald Reagan was a US President, you do not need to cite the sources of this common knowledge formally. “Common knowledge” can be tricky to identify, so if you happened to get the information or facts from a source, it is often better just to cite and document the source, just to be sure you’ve done what you need to do to acknowledge your sources.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a problem that exists beyond college, university, and high school campuses. In recent years, several high profile cases, some involving famous writers and journalists have surfaced, in which these writers were accused of either presenting someone else’s work as their own or fabricating works based on fictitious or unreliable research. A recent example is Monica Crowley, who was appointed as a senior director of national security by then president-elect Donald Trump but declined the appointment after it was found out that she plagiarized large portions of her book What the (Bleep) Just Happened? as well as portions of her dissertation for her PhD from Columbia University (Namako).

With the advent of the Internet, it has become relatively easy to download complete papers. Various people and organizations, sometimes masquerading as “writing consultants” promise students that they will write a paper on any subject and of any level of complexity for a hefty fee. Clearly, the use of such services by student writers is dishonest and dishonorable. Your college or university has probably adopted strict policies for dealing with plagiarizing writers. Punishments for intentional plagiarism are severe and may include not only a failing grade for the class but even an expulsion from the university.

In addition to intentional plagiarism, there is also the unintentional kind. Experience shows that beginning writers sometimes include passages in their compositions which could be called plagiarized simply because such writers often do not know how to cite and document external sources properly or do not understand that importance of following proper citation practices.

Observing the following practices will help you avoid plagiarism:

As you research, keep careful notes of your sources. As you take notes for your research project, keep track of what materials in those notes comes from external sources and what writing and ideas are yours. Keep track of all your sources, including interviews and surveys, photographs and drawings, personal e-mails and conversations. Be sure to record the following information:

  • authors
  • titles
  • dates of publication
  • volume and/or issue numbers
  • Publishers
  • web addresses

Remember that when you use external sources, you are borrowing not only the words of another writer but also his or her ideas, theories, and opinions. Therefore, even if you summarize or paraphrase a source in you own words, you must be sure to give it full credit by citing in-text and documenting it in your works cited or references list.

Anti-Plagiarism Activity

Read the following four paragraphs. The first is from a research source, an article in The New Yorker magazine. The other four are from student papers which attempt to use the article as an external source. As you read, consider the following questions:

  • Would you call the student’s passage or its parts plagiarized from the original? Why or why not?
  • If any parts of the student’s passages are plagiarized, what needs to be changed in order to avoid plagiarism? (Keep in mind that the whole paragraph may need to be re-written.)
  • Which of the student passages will require more significant rewriting than others and why?

Source Paragraph (from the article “Personality Plus,” by Malcolm Gladwell. New Yorker, Sept 20, 2004).

One of the most popular personality tests in the world is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a psychological assessment system based on Carl Jung’s notion that people make sense of the world through a series or psychological frames. Some people are extraverts, some are introverts. Some process information through logical thought. Some are directed by their feelings. Some make sense of the world through intuitive leaps. Others collect data through their senses.

Student Paragraph 1

The Myers-Briggs Test is a very popular way to assess someone’s personality type. Philosopher Carl Jung believed that people make sense of the world in different ways. Some are extraverts and some and introverts. According to this idea, people process information either by logical reasoning or through intuition or feelings.

Student Paragraph 2

According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, One of the most popular personality tests in the world is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a psychological-assessment system based on Carl Jung’s notion that people make sense of the world through a series or psychological frames. Gladwell states that the test is based on the idea by Carl Jung that people make sense of the world through a series of psychological frames. According to Jung, some people are extroverts and some are introverts. Some process information through logical input, and some through feelings. Some make sense of the world through intuitive leaps. Others collect data through their senses.

Student Paragraph 3

One of the most popular personality tests in the world is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a psychological assessment system based on Carl Jung’s notion that people make sense of the world through a series or psychological frames (Gladwell 43). The test is based on Jung’s theory that people understand the world differently. This is why we have extroverts and introverts and people who act either based on reasoning or feelings (Gladwell).

Student Paragraph 4

Ever think of yourself or someone you know as an extrovert, always engaging with others and the life of the party, or an introvert, preferring a good book to a night out? Ever think of yourself as rational rather than emotional? Intuitive rather than objective? According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, we may have the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test that uses the psychological theories of Carl Jung to categorize individuals based on the “psychological frames,” through which they “make sense of the world,” to thank for these ideas about human personalities.


Avoiding plagiarism and acknowledging your external sources completely and accurately are vital parts of the writing process. Your credibility as a writer and the reception that you work will receive from readers may depend on how well you acknowledge your sources. By following the guidelines presented in this chapter and by seeking out more knowledge about the rules of citing and documenting from the publications listed in this chapter, you will become a more competent, more professional, and more credible writer. This chapter covers only the basics of source citing and documenting. For more resources this topic and the various styles of documentation, see the Appendix to this book.

Works Cited

Namako, Tom. “A Plagiarism Scandal Just Took Down a Top Trump Appointee.” BuzzFeed News, Buzzfeed,

16 Jan. 2017, www.buzzfeed.com/amphtml/tomnamako/a-plagiarism-scandal-just-took-down-a-top-trump-

appointee. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017.