Proper Citations Ensure Everyone Knows Your Work is Well-Researched
Citations are a central requirement of quality research-based writing. For seasoned academics who have mastered the mechanics of citing others’ work, this process doesn’t require much thought, and can even be a refreshing break from the more intensive aspects of writing. But following relevant citation guidelines can be a source of stress and worry for those who have not had much experience writing papers that require detailed references. Getting a little more familiarity with the practice, however, can help relieve some of these concerns and make it into just another natural part of the writing process. This article will give an overview of the why and how of academic citations, and points to some resources that can be helpful to consult when drafting papers that require formal citations.
Academic Citation Requirements
Perhaps the most stressful part of learning proper citation practices is mastering the detailed requirements adopted by the various formatting style guidelines. Students and inexperienced writers often worry that they will mess up the punctuation or improperly insert the citation into the main text.
But in reality, the precise details of the formatting are of secondary importance. Far more important is the information that is conveyed to readers through the use of citations. The aims of citations are to convey to the reader which sources have been consulted, and which information came from which source. These two things are what really matter, and the formatting guidelines are in place simply to help standardize the presentation of this information.
While still a student, it may be important to really buckle down on the particular formatting detailed requested by each instructor. But in more professional settings, the most important things to do are keep track of the publication information of the sources consulted, and reference each source at the appropriate place in the text.
Common Citation Styles
Once the drafting phase is done, it won't be too hard to go back through the text and polish it up so that it meets the formatting guidelines in play for the writing. Here are some great websites that have useful templates that can be helpful when making sure all citations meet the relevant formatting requirements:
- The OWL at Purdue—general guide to academic references
- The American Psychological Association—offers guidelines for APA format
- The Modern Language Association—guide for MLA citation style
- The Chicago Manual of Style—guide for Chicago citations
Different fields and publication venues tend to use particular citation styles. In general, APA formatting is used in the social and natural sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology). In the humanities, it is more common to find publications making use of either MLA or Chicago style. But there are many exceptions to these generalizations, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with each of them.
Getting Citations Checked
There are many convenient online tools that help writers with the formatting of their references. These programs are easy to use, and many of them simply require that users enter relevant information the source information. The site then generates a complete reference that can be inserted into one's text. Here are a few sites that help format references for authors:
When using these services, make sure to double-check the outputs. Sometimes, there can be little quirks in the results of these programs that wouldn't appear with normal use (for example, a reference peppered with 'n.d.' in odd places). Because of this, these programs may be best for double-checking citations that have already been written.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many venues require in-text citations that point to references that are contained in a reference list at the end of the document. These in-text citations will often not be included in the formatted reference generated by these websites, but it is important to make sure to include these in-text references in the appropriate places.
With some additional context, the process of citing sources becomes a little more natural. But in addition to reading directly about citation practices, perhaps the best way to get a sense for how citations function in professional work is to simply read as much as possible in one's field. Seeing how other professionals use citations helps develop an intuitive sense of what the relevant norms and practices are. And after time, citations become second-nature for experienced writers. All it takes is a little time and patience.