What Are Citations?
Citations are essentially a little note that lets your reader know where you got a particular fact, idea, or image. The information that is included in each type of citation is different depending on the style you are using, but the intent is always the same – to provide enough information that the reader can find and look up the original source if they want to verify what you have said or if they want to learn more about the topic themselves. Always check whether there is a standard style of citation that is required before you begin – some common citation types are linked below under “Creating Citations.”
Citations can be found in the form of a parenthetical reference (a set of parentheses that includes the information), footnotes (where a little exponent directs you to a note at the bottom of the page), or endnotes (where a little exponent directs you to a list of notes at the end of the chapter or the end of the book). All the sources that are referenced in a work are collected together at the end into a list called the bibliography.
Why Are Citations Important?
Citations are important for three main reasons:
- They show your reader that you have done research into the topic and used good resources to do so. One of the first things a savvy reader will do is to look at your list of sources in your bibliography. They will want to see what sources you have used and, often just as importantly, which ones you have omitted. Using good sources means that you have a solid background on which to build your own ideas and conclusions. (Not sure what makes a good source? See the Research sections!)
- They let you credit your sources so you avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s words or ideas and presenting them without proper attribution so that they appear or are presented as your own work. While researching a topic you will absolutely learn things from previous researchers and writers, it is important to distinguish which parts of your documentation are directly the thoughts or findings of others. You can do this by including exact words as cited quotations or by changing the idea into your own words, but crediting the originator of the idea in a citation. Generally, no more than 20% of a completed work should be unoriginal, and all that needs to be properly quoted and cited. If you are not sure whether your use of information is too similar to the original source, there are plagiarism checkers available online where you can upload a sample of your text and have it automatically checked!
- They allow your reader to learn more about the topic you are discussing. This is, I think one of the most important functions of citations, since you hope that your paper or project is Just So Exciting that everyone who encounters it will want to play along. To me, the definition of winning is having lots of people to play with your favorite toy – so give them the resources to do so!
As mentioned above, each style of citation has a different set of rules for what information must be included and the format of that information, down to punctuation, spaces, italics, and underlining. It can be pretty confusing when you are just starting.
The very first thing to do is to determine whether there is a required citation format for the publication where you want to submit your article or for the competition you are planning on entering. If they have a required format, you will have to learn and use that format. Re-formatting citations can be time consuming, so do clarify this first.
If you are free to use whatever type of citation style you like, take a look at the examples below and see which makes sense to you. All the styles have the same aim – to allow the reader to relocate your sources – so which you choose does not really matter.
Common Citation Styles:
- Chicago Style Manual – one of my favorites, because it is easy to understand and has a free online guide.
- Chicago, MLA, and APA citation styles – Bib-Me has links to demonstrate how common resources should be cited in the Chicago, Modern Language Association, and American Psychological Association styles.
Bibliography Generators and Citation Managers
When it comes to formatting your bibliography, a citation generator can save you a lot of time. I like the Citation Machine, but there are many options available on the internet and some of the citation management systems, like Zotero, can allow you to generate your bibliography directly from your sources list.
- Citation Machine – Enter the style of citation you are using, search for the document you are citing from, confirm the details, and PRESTO! A properly formatted bibliographical entry!
- Zotero – Zotero (and other similar services) helps you collect and organize citations from many sources and can be helpful to some people.
A Special Tip on Citations and Bibliographies
One tip which just about every paper-writer will endorse but often do not follow, to their later sorrow – when you use a source, generate its correct in-text citation and bibliographic record RIGHT AWAY. This saves you from a huge block of time doing fiddly, mind-numbing citation-writing at the end of your project, often when you are under a time-crunch. Do it. Trust me.