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Citation: Getting Started

An overview of citation, plagiarism, and reference software.

Why Cite?

Citation is often approached as an afterthought, something done at the end of the paper solely because the professor requires it. However, citation should be an integral part of the research process. It is designed to help you as well as your readers. Here are some of the ways that happens:

  • Your paper does not exist in a vacuum. Even when your ideas are original, they are in response to other ideas. Your questions take their place among other questions. In effect, your paper is part of a larger conversation. Citation highlights the back-and-forth of that conversation.
  • The information on which your paper is built comes from many sources. Because those sources all deal with a similar subject, the subject of your paper, they may start to sound the same. How will you keep track of which source a particular piece of information came from? The answer is citation.
  • Don't forget your readers. Along with your original ideas, your paper also provides links back to other authors. If your readers are interested in what you have to say, they likely are interested in what those other authors have to say as well. Citation helps your reader to explore your topic more fully.
  • One of the things you learn to do in college is read critically. Part of doing that is trying to establish the credibility of authors. Guess what! When you write a paper, you are an author too. Your readers need to figure out if you are credible and citation helps them do that by showing who you called on as an "expert witness."
  • When you cite, you show how you incorporated other authors' ideas. But you also show which ideas are your own, because your readers have an understanding that ideas that are not cited come from you. This highlights your original thought.
  • Citation is not just something you do, it is something you use. Whenever you use a bibliography or "Suggestions for Further Reading" or when you use a footnote, you are using citation. Your readers will use your paper in a similar way.
  • An overview of plagiarism is provided to the right. Citation is one of the main ways to avoid plagiarism.
  • Citation styles are different from one discipline to another. That is because disciplines are communities that have their own interests and needs. Each citation style priveleges the information that matters to that community and leaves out extraneous information. In other words, there is a point to the format, and using that format helps you understand the community.
  • Citation reflects what you have gathered. You never have everything, but everything you use affects your writing.



Plagiarism is basically stealing someone else's words or ideas and using them as though they are are your own. Even if this is done unintentionally, it still is plagiarism.

As mentioned to the left, citation helps to show how your paper fits into broader conversations about your topic. With this in mind, consider the conversations you have with friends. You never just repeat what they said. Or when you do, you preface it by saying "So and so said..." The same is true in research and writing. Your thoughts build on other people's thoughts, but you need to acknowledge those links. If you do repeat something, say you did so. Give credit where it is due. To do otherwise is plagiarism.

Broader Context

Plagiarism is just one aspect of broader academic dishonesty, laziness, ignorance, or misunderstanding. A closely related problem is "patch writing," which is much more common. This entails using slightly different language or rearranging words to restate a thought expressed in a sources. Both problems indicate that a student is not thinking or speaking for him or herself. To continue our conversation analogy, consider the fact that when you have something to say, you don't let your friends speak for you. In research and writing, the point is to articulate original thoughts. Other authors cannot and should not write your paper for you. Don't surrend the main thrust of your paper to outside voices.


For those who commit plagiarism, the range or possible consequences is broad. At the professional level, it can lead to loss of job as well as professional humiliation. For students, it can leave a mark on their transcript. However, even if an individual is not caught, there still are consequences. When someone plagiarizes, they don't think independently or critically. They also don't contribute to or learn from the broader conversation in which they could be engaged. Essentially, they lose out on learning the very things they were supposed to learn. Legal repercussions are also a possibility because plagiarism breaks copyright law.

There are also consequences for those who are plagiarized. They lose intellectual control over their own ideas, meaning that they can be misrepresented or superseded in the academic conversations in which they take part. This may hurt their professional or student identities or cost them opportunities for further writing or professional advancement.

Plagiarism also hurts Hillsdale College and fellow students, especially since it breaks the Honor Code. For more information on the college's plagiarism guidelines, please click here.


Manage your time wisely. Don't leave citation as the last step in an already last-minute paper. Instead, incorporate it into each step of your research and writing. Not only will it mean you have less work at the end, it will keep the rest of the process organized and contribute to your understanding of sources' relationships to each other.

Try putting yourself in your readers' shoes. Would they like to have the option of knowing more about something written in your paper? If so, leave them a citation to use as a starting place. However, if what you wrote is common knowledge so that your reader knows it and will not need to look it up, you do not need to cite it.

Ask your professor or a librarian with help, whether it is trying to figure out how to properly format a source in a citation style or trying to understand how an idea fits into your paper.

Other Resources

Purdue OWL: Avoiding Plagiarism