How to Cite Sources

Ok, so now we know why we cite, so let’s learn how to cite. Citation and source use are all about balance. If you don’t use enough sources, you might struggle to make a thorough argument. If you cite too much, you won’t leave room for your own voice in your piece.

To illustrate this point, think of a lawyer arguing a case in a trial. If the lawyer just talks to the jury and doesn’t call any witnesses, they probably won’t win the case. After all, a lawyer isn’t an expert in forensics or accident reconstruction or Internet fraud. The lawyer also wasn’t there when the incident occurred. That’s where witnesses come in. The witnesses have knowledge that the lawyer doesn’t.

But if the lawyer just lets the witnesses talk and sits there quietly, they’ll likely also lose the case. That’s because the lawyer is the one who’s making the overall argument. The lawyer asks the witnesses questions and shows how the testimony of different witnesses piece together to prove the case.

To cite sources, you should make two things clear:

  • The difference between your words and the source’s words.
  • The difference between your ideas and the source’s ideas.

This diagram illustrates the difference:


Chart distinguishing between your words and a sources. Image description available.
Figure 10a.2 The distinction between your own words and a sources. [Image Description]

Attributing A Source’s Words

When you quote someone in your document, you’re basically passing the microphone to them. Inviting another voice into your piece means that the way that person said something is important. Maybe that person is an expert and their words are a persuasive piece of evidence. Maybe you’re using the words as an example. Either way, you’ll likely do some sort of analysis on the quote.

When you use the source’s words, put quotation marks around them. This creates a visual separation between what you say and what your source says. You also don’t just want to drop the quote into the document with no explanation. Instead, you should build a “frame” around the quote by explaining who said it and why it’s important. In short, you surround the other person’s voice with your own voice.

Tip: The longer the source, the more analysis you’re likely going to do.

Here’s an example of a way to integrate a quote within a paragraph.

According to Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliot, “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” (2019, pg. 18) Here, Elliot shows that when Indigenous people have the opportunity to learn Indigenous languages, which for generations were intentionally suppressed by the Canadian government, they can connect with their culture in a new way.

As you can see, Elliot’s words are important. If you tried to paraphrase them, you’d lose the meaning. Elliot is also a well-known writer, so adding her voice into the document adds credibility. If you’re writing about Indigenous people, it’s also important to include the voices of Indigenous people in your work.

You can see that in this example, the author doesn’t just pass the microphone to Alicia Elliot. Instead, they surround the quote with their own words, explaining who said the quote and why it’s important.

Attributing the Source’s Ideas

When the source’s ideas are important, you’ll want to paraphrase or summarize. For example, Elliot goes on to say that when over half of Indigenous people in a community speak an Indigenous language, the suicide rate goes down (2019, pg. 18). Here, it’s the idea that’s important, not the words, so you should paraphrase it.

What is paraphrasing? Paraphrasing is when you restate an idea in your own words. It’s this last bit — the “own words” part – that is confusing. What counts as your own words?

When you’re paraphrasing, you should ask yourself, “Have I restated this in a way that shows that I understand it?” If you simply swap out a few words for synonyms, you haven’t shown that you understand the idea. For example, let’s go back to that Alicia Elliot quote: “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” What if I swapped out a few words so it said “We know our cultures have value and importance, and that culture lives and exhales inside our languages.”?

Does this show that I understand the quote? No. Elliot composed that line with a lot of precision and thoughtfulness. Switching a few words around actually shows disrespect for the care she took with her language.

Instead, paraphrase by not looking at the source material. Put down the book or turn off your computer monitor, then describe the idea back as if you were speaking to a friend.

Here’s another example from Alicia Elliot’s book A Mind Spread Out On the Ground. See if you can paraphrase it. First, read the quote:


I’ve heard people say that when you learn a people’s language, you learn their culture. It tells you how they think of the world, how they experience it. That’s why translation is so difficult—you have to take one way of seeing the world and translate it to another, while still piecing the words together so they make sense. (2019, pg. 18)


Before you paraphrase it, think about what it means to you. Maybe you’ve had the experience of learning the slang or curse words in a new language and finding out what that culture sees as valuable or taboo. Maybe you’ve felt frustrated by not being able to make yourself clear in a different language. Maybe you’ve had to translate for a friend or family member, and haven’t been able to exactly capture what was said.

Now, pretend that someone asked you what Alicia Elliot said. How would you describe it?

Maybe you wrote, “According to Alicia Elliot, it’s hard to translate from one language to another because a language is about so much more than just the words on a page.” Maybe you wrote, “According to Alicia Elliot, knowing another language shows how other people see the world.” Paraphrasing this way not only helps you analyze the quote, but also gives Alicia Elliot credit for her ideas.

What’s the Difference Between Paraphrasing and Summarizing?

When you paraphrase, you take a single point within a source and restate it. What you did above is paraphrasing. Usually, the paraphrased version is about the same length as the original source. The goal of paraphrasing is usually to take someone else’s idea and restate it so that it fits the tone of whatever you’re writing. For example, you might take a complicated sentence from an academic journal and restate it so that your classmates could more easily understand it.

When you summarize, you are simply trying to capture the main points of a larger source in a short way. Your summary will be shorter than the original source. For example, an abstract summarizes the contents of an entire report or article. You might read a book and summarize it by telling friends the main points.

What Information Do I Cite?

Citing sources is often depicted as a straightforward, rule-based practice. In fact, there are many grey areas around citation, and learning how to apply citation guidelines takes practice and education. If you are confused by it, you are not alone – in fact you might be doing some good thinking. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate citation practices.

Cite when you are directly quoting. This is the easiest rule to understand. If you are stating word for word what someone else has already written, you must put quotes around those words and you must give credit to the original author. Not doing so would mean that you are letting your reader believe these words are your own and represent your own effort.

Cite when you are summarizing and paraphrasing. This is a trickier area to understand. First of all, summarizing and paraphrasing are two related practices but they are not the same. Again, summarizing is when you read a text, consider the main points, and provide a shorter version of what you learned. Paraphrasing is when you restate what the original author said in your own words and in your own tone. Both summarizing and paraphrasing require good writing skills and an accurate understanding of the material you are trying to convey. Summarizing and paraphrasing are not easy to do when you are a beginning academic researcher, but these skills become easier to perform over time with practice.

Cite when you are citing something that is highly debatable. For example, if you want to claim that an oil pipeline is necessary for economic development, you will have to contend with those who say that it produces few jobs and has a high risk of causing an oil spill that would be devastating to wildlife and tourism. To do so, you’ll need experts on your side.

When Don’t You Cite?

Don’t cite when what you are saying is your own insight. Research involves forming opinions and insights around what you learn. You may be citing several sources that have helped you learn, but at some point you are integrating your own opinion, conclusion, or insight into the work. The fact that you are NOT citing it helps the reader understand that this portion of the work is your unique contribution developed through your own research efforts.

Don’t cite when you are stating common knowledge. What is common knowledge is sometimes difficult to discern. Generally quick facts like historical dates or events are not cited because they are common knowledge.

Examples of information that would not need to be cited include:

  • Partition in India happened on August 15th, 1947.
  • Vancouver is the 8th biggest city in Canada.

Some quick facts, such as statistics, are trickier. For example, the number of gun- related deaths per year probably should be cited, because there are a lot of ways this number could be determined (does the number include murder only, or suicides and accidents, as well?) and there might be different numbers provided by different organizations, each with an agenda around gun laws.

A guideline that can help with determining whether or not to cite facts is to determine whether the same data is repeated in multiple sources. If it is not, it is best to cite.

The other thing that makes this determination difficult might be that what seems new and insightful to you might be common knowledge to an expert in the field. You have to use your best judgment, and probably err on the side of over-citing, as you are learning to do academic research. You can seek the advice of your instructor, a writing tutor, or a librarian. Knowing what is and is not common knowledge is a practiced skill that gets easier with time and with your own increased knowledge.

Image Description

Figure 10a.2 image description: This chart illustrates the concept that you should use quotation marks and in-text citation to distinguish between the words of the source and your own words. You should use paraphrasing and in-text citation to distinguish between your ideas and the source’s ideas. [Return to Figure 10a.2]


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