A citation is a reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper. The way in which you document your sources depends on the writing style manual your professor wants you to use for the class [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.]. Note that some disciplines have their own citation method [e.g., law].
Citations show your readers where you obtained your material, provides a means of critiquing your study, and offers the opportunity to obtain additional information about the research problem under investigation. The act of citing sources is also a defense against allegations of plagiarism.
Properly citing the works of others is important because:
In any academic writing, you are required to identify for your reader which ideas, facts, theories, concepts, etc., are yours and which are derived from the research and thoughts of others. Whether you summarize, paraphrase, or use direct quotes, if it's not your original idea, the source needs to be acknowledged. The only exception to this rule is information that is considered to be common knowledge [e.g., George Washington was the first president of the United States]. If in doubt regarding whether something is common knowledge, take the safe route and cite it, or ask your professor for clarification.
Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; Citing Information. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Harvard College Writing Program. Harvard University; Referencing More Effectively. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Using Sources. Yale College Writing Center. Yale University.
Referencing your sources means systematically showing what information or ideas you are quoting or paraphrasing from another author’s work, and where they come from. You must cite research in order to do research, but at the same time, you must indicate what are your original thoughts and ideas and what are the thoughts and ideas of others.
Procedures used to reference the sources you have relied uopn vary among different fields of study. However, always speak with your professor about what writing style for citing sources should be used for the class because it is important to fully understand the citation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently.
1. Should I avoid referencing other people's work?
No! Referencing other people's work is never an indication that your work is poor or lacks originality if placed in the proper context. In fact, the opposite is true. If you write your paper with no references to previous research, you are indicating to the reader that you are not familiar with the research that has already been done, thereby, undermining your credibility as an author and the validity of your study. Including references in academic writing not only defends you against allegations of plagiarism, but is a way of demonstrating your knowledge of pertinent literature about the research problem.
2. What should I do if I find that my idea has already been published by another researcher?
Acknowledge the other researcher's work by writing in the text of your paper something like this: [see also Smith, 2002]. Do not ignore another author's work because doing so will lead your readers to believe that you have either taken the idea or information without properly referencing it [this is plagiarism] and/or that you have failed to conduct a thorough review of the literature in your field.
3. What should I do if I want to use an adapted version of someone else's work?
You still must cite the original work. For example, maybe you are using a table of statistics from a journal article published in 1996 by author Smith, but you have altered or added new data to it. Reference the revised chart as: [adapted from Smith, 1996]. You can also use other terms in order to specify the exact relationship between the source and the version you have presented, such as, "based on Smith ...," "summarized from Smith ...," and so forth. Citing the original source helps the reader locate the original information and evaluate how you adapted it.
4. What should I do if several authors have published very similar information or ideas?
You can indicate that the idea or information can be found in the work of more than one author by stating something similar to the following example: "Though in fact many authors have applied this theory to understanding economic relations among nations [for example, Smith, 1989; Jones, 19991; Johnson, 1994], little work has been done on applying it to understand the actions of non-governmental organizations." If you only reference one author or only the most recent study, then your readers may assume that only one author has published on this topic, or, conclude that you have not reviewed the literature thoroughly. Referencing multiple authors gives your readers a clear idea of the breadth of analysis you conducted in preparing to study the research problem.
5. What if I find exactly what I want to say in the writing of another researcher?
It depends on what it is; if someone else has thoroughly investigated precisely the same research problem as you, then you likely will have to change your topic, or at the very least, find something new to say about what you're researching. However, if it is someone else's particularly succinct expression, but it fits perfectly with what you are trying to say, then you can quote directly, citing the page reference as well as the author and year of publication. Don't see this as a setback, though. Finding someone else who has stated or made the same point you thought of on your own is an opportunity to reinforce and add legitimacy to your own interpretation of the research problem.
Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Harvard College Writing Program. Harvard University; How to Cite Other Sources in Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Lunsford, Andrea A. and Robert Connors; The St. Martin's Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015; Research and Citation Resources. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Using Evidence. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.
The following USC Libraries research guide can help you properly cite sources in your research paper:
Listed below are particularly well-done and comprehensive websites that provide specific examples of how to cite sources under different style guidelines.
This guide provides good information on the act of citation analysis, whereby you count the number of times a published work is cited by other works in order to measure the impact of a publication or author.
Measuring Your Impact: Impact Factor, Citation Analysis, and other Metrics: Citation Analysis [Sandy De Groote, University of Illinois, Chicago]
Type in your information and have a citation compiled for you. Note that these are not foolproof systems so it is important that you verify that your citation is correct and check your spelling, capitalization, etc. However, they can be useful in creating basic types of citations, particularly for online sources.