Documenting Sources


When you have summarized, paraphrased, or quoted other people's material, it is important that the source of that information be given. Using other peoples' words and ideas is a normal practice in advanced writing: it helps lend authority to your arguments; it helps show that you are familiar with the discussion which surrounds your subject; it gives depth and variety to your paper.

So it's good to use sources, but if you don't follow the conventions for using them, you can end up in a lot of trouble, the worst being a charge of plagiarism. Plagiarism is the stealing of other people's words or ideas without giving them credit. It is considered intellectual dishonesty. Being caught in plagiarism can ruin a professional's career or can result in a student's failure of a class or even in dismissal from the college or university in some places. In some cases, students who are accused of plagiarism claim that they did not know how to document their sources. Ignorance of the conventions is not a suitable defense, so listen up.

There are many different "documentation styles" such as The Chicago Style, The APA Style, or The MLA Style. This page will not give you the details about how to follow these particular styles. To get that information, you should consult a recent writing handbook and you should ask your teacher or editor which style to follow. This page introduces you to the principles and general practices of documenting sources.

The objectives of documenting are

In order to achieve these objectives, documentation conventions have evolved a two-part system: the in-text marker and the list of references.

The in-text marker. The in-text marker identifies the boundaries of the inserted material and points to a reference in the reference list. To identify the boundaries of quoted words, writers insert "quotation marks" around the words being quoted. Different styles have different conventions about where to put a period at the end of a quotation (inside or outside the quotation marks) so it is important to check a good handbook. To identify summarized or paraphrased ideas, writers use an introductory phrase, something like these:

Whether identifying quoted words or borrowed ideas, the writer marks the end of the inserted material with a pointer to the reference list. In some systems, this pointer is a superscript number that refers to a footnote or endnote; in others it is a parenthesis that contains the author's name, the page number from which the material was taken, the date of the publication, or some other detail. Again, different styles call for different pointers, so read your handbook carefully and follow the conventions religiously. Nothing upsets an advanced reader more than to run into a poorly documented paper or one that displays an ignorance of the conventions.

The List of References. The list of references may be footnotes, which appear at the bottom of a page and a bibliography at the end, or it may be some form of endnotes. Most modern styles call for an endnotes list of some kind. In some technical styles, the list is called References and the items are numbered. In this style the items follow the numbers in the in-text pointer (the first reference made in the text is the first reference in the list). In most styles, however, the list follows an alphabetical order based on the author's last name. These references have a specific form to follow, so you need to look at the handbook carefully, but here is an example of a reference from the list at the end using the MLA style. In the MLA style the reference list is called "Works Cited" and the entries are alphabetized by authors' last names.

Here's a book entry.

Cameron, Averil. Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Normally the second line would be indented five spaces, forming a hanging paragraph, but it is hard to get that effect on a web page, so I left it out. Notice that the author's name comes first and that it is reversed in order. Notice that a period separates the author's name from the title of the book. Notice that the book's name is italicized or underlined and that it is followed by a period. Also notice that the publisher's location and name, along with the year of publication follow that. In the MLA style, the in-text pointer is usually a parenthesis with the author's name and the page number from which you are quoting, so the marker may have looked like this: "For Christian language, like Christian art, was trying to express mysteries that were essentially inexpressible except through symbol" (Cameron 59).

There are special conventions for books with more than one author, for books that have been translated, for books in revised edition, for articles, for interviews, for television shows, for web pages and so on. You need a handbook to check out the kind of reference you need for the material you are citing.

Documenting sources seems like a huge and tedious task often reserved for the last minute, but it is a very important part of any text that cites others. A good job of documenting sources reinforces the reader's high opinion of a good paper, but a poor job of documenting can cause a reader to begin to question the writer's authority and may even cause the reader to begin suspecting plagiarism. When that happens, writing teachers tend to mark down heavily. Good documentation can be the difference between an A and a D on a paper, so take it seriously.