Writing a Research Paper, Part 3: Citing Sources and Plagiarism

by James A Goering II

Correctly citing sources is often one of the least-understood parts of writing a research paper. This article will investigate reasons for citing sources, examine some misconceptions about plagiarism, discuss the definition of plagiarism, and give some advice for helping your students write properly-cited research papers.

Reasons for Citing Sources

When a student’s research paper contains direct quotes, paraphrases, or summaries from multiple sources, the reader gains confidence the paper has been well-researched. When including information from outside sources, students should strengthen their paper by citing the source.

There are two main reasons to cite sources in a research paper. First and important, citing sources adds authority to a paper. The citations tell the reader that the writer has information that supports any statements or assertions they are making. Second, citing  sources tells the reader that not all of the information in the paper is original with the writer. Correctly citing supporting sources is a critical part of writing a good research paper. If writers don’t properly cite their sources, they commit plagiarism. This begs the question, what is plagiarism?

What is Plagiarism?

Broadly speaking, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. Plagiarism is a form of cheating that is just as serious as copying answers off another student’s test. Plagiarism is taken so seriously in some schools and colleges that it can result in expulsion and a permanent mark on a student’s academic record.

There are several misconceptions about plagiarism. The two that I’ve heard most often have been:

  • As long as you don’t copy a sentence word-for-word, you aren’t plagiarizing.
  • If you didn’t mean to plagiarize, you aren’t plagiarizing.

Paraphrasing or summarizing information from a source without citing the source is still plagiarism. Even if the exact words were not copied, the sentence structure and information—the kernel ideas of the source—were copied. If students use any information from a source, they must cite it to give due credit to the source and to avoid plagiarism.

In the same way a police officer can rightfully give someone who didn’t know the speed limit a speeding ticket, so a student is still guilty of plagiarism, even if done accidentally. As the teacher, you are responsible to teach your students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it by correctly citing sources.

How to Keep from Plagiarizing

Now that you know what plagiarism is, how can students keep from plagiarizing accidentally?

  • Don’t procrastinate. Many students plagiarize because they run out of time. If your students begin and continue working on their papers well before the due date, plagiarizing won’t be nearly as tempting.
  • Take good notes. If students take detailed notes while researching, they will have all the information needed to properly cite their sources later. At minimum, their notes should include the source of the information and the page number of the source.
  • Know when to cite. Students should learn the requirements of when and how to cite their sources. (This topic is addressed later.)

How to Cite Sources

There are three main types of citation information in a research paper: in-text citations, Works Cited, and Bibliography.

Types of Citations

In-text citations. An in-text citation is a small piece of information that indicates which source the information came from. An in-text citation should follow any quote, paraphrase, or summary that students use in their paper.

In her book Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf states, “In the first quarter of our century we daily conflate information with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom—with the resulting diminution of all three.” (Wolf, 192)

Works Cited The Works Cited contains information about every source that is cited in the text such as author, title, publisher, and publication date.

Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York, NY: Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2018.

Bibliography The Bibliography contains information about any sources used while researching for the paper, but that weren’t cited in the text. A bibliography entry contains the same information included in a Works Cited entry.

The in-text citations, Works Cited, and Bibliography may be formatted in various ways, depending on which style guide you use. A style guide, such as MLA (Modern Language Association) or Chicago Manual of Style, specifies what information should be included and how it should be formatted. Many English curricula use a certain style guide; check your curriculum to see which one they use. If they don’t specify one, then either MLA or Chicago Manual of Style would work well.

Educate Your Students

Spend at least one class going over your style guide. Explain how to do in-text citations and how to enter different types of sources (books, periodicals, online sources) into the Works Cited and Bibliography. It is not possible to cover all the different citation situations in this article, so you will have to become familiar with your style guide of choice.

When to Cite Sources

Students often ask me whether they need to cite a source or not. It is a complex subject, but here are some basic guidelines for when students should cite a source and when they don’t need to.

When to Cite

A student should cite a source if they quote, paraphrase, or summarize a section of a source. If they include a direct quote from a source, the quote should be placed inside quotation marks and be cited with an in-text citation after the quote. Paraphrases and summaries should be cited in a similar way. Factual information, data, and statistics that are not considered common knowledge should also be cited.

When Not to Cite

Students worried that they might accidentally plagiarize will sometimes over-correct and begin citing every single sentence or paragraph in their paper just to be safe. Students can reduce their number of citations by knowing which types of information they don’t need to cite.

These types of information don’t need to be cited.

Historical information. If many different sources give the same information about a historical event, that information doesn’t need to be cited. For example, a student doesn’t need to cite a historical fact such as who the American colonies fought in the Revolutionary War.

Original information. Students do not need to cite their own ideas or findings.

Conclusions. If information was cited earlier in a paper, it doesn’t need to be cited again in a conclusion paragraph later in the paper.

Common knowledge. Information that is considered common knowledge (knowledge that is found in numerous sources and is generally accepted) doesn’t need to be cited. Common knowledge can include historical facts or observable phenomena about the world. Common knowledge isn’t necessarily information everyone knows, merely well-known or well-established information. You can find more information about what is considered common knowledge at the following link: What is Common Knowledge?

Tips and Tricks

It can be frustrating for students to have to pour over a confusing style guide to make sure they correctly formatted their citations. Thankfully, there are some digital tools that make this process easier.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found is the Citation Machine website. It allows a student to pick the correct style guide and enter some information about their source. Citation Machine then produces a citation that is ready to copy and paste into a word processor. Citations from Citation Machine will not always contain all the necessary information, so it should be used as a starting point.

If your students use Microsoft Word, they can use the citation tools built into Word. If you look under the References tab you will find some powerful tools that can make constructing in-text citations, Works Cited, and Bibliographies almost fool-proof. You can find tutorials on how to use Word on the Microsoft website at the following links: Create a bibliography, citations, and references, Insert footnotes and endnotes.

If your students are using online sources, there are Chrome browser extensions that can produce a properly-formatted citation from a web page. One of the best ones I’ve found is the MyBib Citation Generator. It will format the citation in the style of your choice, and even gives you the probable credibility of the source.

These digital tools are no substitute for a good style guide, but they can make citing sources a little less frustrating.


In summary:

  • Educate your students on what and how serious plagiarism is .
  • Give them tips on how to avoid accidentally plagiarizing.
  • Pick a style guide and learn how to use it.
  • Teach your students how to use the style guide and how to cite their sources using in-text citations, Works Cited, and Bibliographies.

If you follow each of these points, your students will have the information and tools necessary to properly cite their sources.

Helpful Sources

In an article that addresses plagiarism, I must point out that not all the information in this article was my own. I pulled from several different online and print sources. Below is a listing of some of the sources I used. These sources contain quite a bit of information that couldn’t fit into this article; I suggest you look at some or all of these sources if you need more information about either plagiarism or citations.

Abeka Grammar and Composition Handbook

The Everyday Writer by Andrea Lunsford

Davidson Library Guides: Citing Sources

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Research and Citation Resources

Columbia College: MLA Citation Guide

Columbia College: Plagiarism Tutorial

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