Citing: The Basics


Writers who are new to academic writing, or those who write independently or creatively, can have some trouble knowing when and how to cite in a formal, academic, or research document. Customs differ depending on lots of factors including the venue in which you are writing, the type of writing you do, the type and extent of information you reference, and whether you paraphrase or quote.

In this blog post, I will outline some of the basics of citing sources that are common to most academic and formal publications in North America. In another, upcoming post, I will outline the differences between a few citation styles, including two of the most common—The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format (CSE) and The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

What do I need to cite?

In general, remember these two rules to remember for basic citation:

1) Any thought or language that is not unique to you should be cited.

2) A citation only covers the sentence in which it appears.

So how do you write a document with valuable information that is comprehensible without providing a citation at the end of every single sentence? After all, if we accept John Locke’s premise that we are all born tabula rasa, or as blank slates, then no thought can be unique to us, and everything we write must be cited.

First, for documents with a high burden of proof (such as legal briefs, scientific journal articles, or regulatory documents), numerous citations are the norm.

Second, there is an exception to rule #1 called “common knowledge.” If your statement is a fact that is well known, either among the general population or among practitioners in your discipline, it may not have to be cited.

For example, most Americans know that America declared its independence from England in 1776. That is an example of common knowledge. Most English teachers know the definition of a comma splice. And most Fish and Wildlife Service employees know that the Lacey Act allows the United States government to restrict interstate commerce for species that are declared “invasive” or “injurious.”

However, writers should evaluate their purpose, their context, and their audience carefully to determine if the “common knowledge” exception applies. For example, an English teacher creating course material would want to provide a definition of comma splices for her students. She may even wish to cite her definition to give her students faith in her credibility as a teacher and to demonstrate a good best practice.

Fish and Wildlife Service writers would probably want to define and cite the Lacey Act almost any time they write about it, because their work is either in the public domain or subject to the Freedom of Information Act, meaning anyone can access to it for any reason.

How do I cite it?

Most style guides use a dual-citation system. That means the writer includes an abbreviated citation inside the body of the text that refers the reader to a full citation contained elsewhere within the text. (One exception to the dual-citation system that has become increasingly popular recently is the use of hyperlinks online to connect the reader directly to the source.) Three types of abbreviated citations are common:

1) Endnotes – Endnotes are consecutively numbered and placed at the end of an article, a chapter, or a book. In the case of a book, endnotes can be placed at the end of each chapter or at the end of the entire book. When endnotes are placed at the end of the book, they might be consecutively numbered throughout, or numbering may start over with each chapter.

2) Footnotes – Footnotes are consecutively numbered and placed at the bottom of the page on which they appear. Like endnotes, footnotes in a book may be consecutively numbered throughout, or numbering may start over with each chapter.

For both footnotes and endnotes, the number inside the text is the abbreviated citation. The note itself provides the full bibliographic reference as well as any commentary the writer wishes to add.

3) Parenthetical citations – A parenthetical citation is placed at the end of the sentence in which cited material appears. It contains sufficient information so that the reader can locate the citation on a list of references, usually the author’s last name. If the cited material is a direct quote, the parenthetical citation also includes the page number.

Parenthetical citations can be replaced with in-text citations. Because all that is required is a reference to the reference list, the writer can use the author’s last name in the body of the sentence, thus fulfilling the citation requirement.

The list of references appears at the end of the text, on a separate page. It goes by different names, depending which citation style you use.

In the next blog post, I will cover a few of the most common citation styles and the differences between them. Please let me know if you found this information useful. And if you have any questions, be sure to ask!

Michelle Baker is the Conservation Writing Pro. She teaches environmental scientists how to write more clearly. Contact her for all your writing training needs:


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