What are citations? Why do we use them?

What are citations?

Citations have two parts.  One part is a direct quote taken from a text or online text.  The other part identifies the text in a particular way so your readers can find the original quote if they want to.

Why do we use citations?

Citations allow you, the writer, to show that experts agree with your thinking.  Your ideas are not yours alone; they are supported by respected experts.

Citations give credit to the expert sources you use.  Citations let your readers know where you found the experts who agree with you.  Citations allow your readers to trace back your sources which they might want to know more about.

Citations make your claims more believable.  By using citations, you are being up front with your readers, telling them exactly who your sources are.

Citations protect you against plagiarism.  If you quote or even paraphrase the ideas of others without identifying them, you can be accused of plagiarism, a serious offense in the academic world.

Who uses citations?

Beginning in middle school, students learn what citations are and how to use them, usually using sources that a teacher provides.  By high school, students are expected to write research papers in which they must identify sources they have searched for.  In college, graduate school and in postgraduate work, students and professionals use citations when they write scholarly papers, master’s degree theses and doctoral dissertations.

But you might think you aren’t going to college, so why do you need to learn citations.  First, you might change your mind about your career goals, so schools want you prepared.  Second, by knowing what citations are, and why they are used, you are better able to judge the credibility of what you read.  If a politician makes a claim, for example, you might wonder where his information comes from.  Or you might realize that a friend can’t tell you where his “facts” come from.  You will be more aware of fraudulent claims.

Examples of citations used in text

Here are some examples of citations I used in my master’s thesis, Do Teacher Comments on Homework Matter?  The first one paraphrases information without using a direct quotation, but the source is still given.

  • One of the earliest entries in 20th century literature regarding homework is a 1913 Ladies’ Home Journal cover feature calling on parents to abolish homework in the public schools. . . .The article quotes principal after anonymous principal who say that homework is a waste of time (Ladies’ Home Journal, 1913).

Here are two citations that use a direct quote:

  • Goldstein found that doing homework does contribute to educational achievement. “The data in most of the studies suggest that regularly assigned homework favors higher academic achievement, and a few of the best-designed experiments show this quite clearly” (Goldstein, 1960).
  • Cooper (1989). . . .writes that “homework probably involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device” (p. 87).

In the “References” section of my thesis, more complete information is given about each of the citations.  For example, the entry for Cooper reads “Cooper, H. (1989).  Synthesis of Research on Homework.  Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85-91.”

In the actual text part of a research paper, a short identification of the source is given.  In the References section (sometimes called Bibliography), a complete identification is given.  Both a short identification within the text and a complete identification in the References section are necessary for a complete citation.

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