A guide to citations and references

It is important for students to learn to write well and cite properly

See below for a link to my other article that covers writing, here we cover citing.

Essential for good writing is doing your own work -- meaning writing the words yourself. But not every word or thought is original, we need to properly cite and credit the work of others where appropriate.

Students need to know when to cite or quote. Failing to properly cite or quote is bad. Students can only learn by doing their own work and writing, and students need to properly cite to learn and avoid potentially severe consequences.

Here are four important principles:

  • Remember to follow the spirit of the rules, write with academic integrity, do your own work, never plagiarize.
  • Always cite where appropriate (any borrowed thoughts).
  • Always quote and cite where appropriate (any copied text).
  • Cite so that the reader can find the material you cited.

I break citations down into two subcategories;

  • Citing is for thoughts or facts you are borrowing. You are crediting the original author, but you have not copied (quoted)
  • Quoting and citing is for when you have copied someone else's writing. You are giving proper credit to the original author.


Properly citing and quoting is an academic requirement and part of academic integrity. Failure to do so can constitute plagiarism, resulting in serious academic consequences, and could even arguably be a copyright violation.

Some of the citation rules can be complicated. Thanks to my educational pursuits and legal career, I have spent (and wasted) dozens of hours in my life worrying about citation format, and changing citation format from one to another and then back again. Even with that experience I know that citation is important.

Let's break these rules into two main parts:

  1. The spirit of the rules, and
  2. Technical requirements of the rules.

First we need to understand and follow the spirit of the rule, and this will keep students clear of any academic violations. Then, students can worry about technical requirements, the details of how to cite, and what format to use. This improves the quality of writing.

Rule 1: The spirit of citation rules, academic integrity, plagiarism

Most importantly, follow the spirit of the rules on citations. Simply put:

  • You must cite where appropriate (borrowed thoughts).
  • You must quote and cite where appropriate (copied text).

After understanding and following this essential general rule, we can then look to more technical requirements.

Students should write their own words from their own thoughts, not reword the writing of others. That said, any student that does this "rewording" must cite.

Cite to borrowed thoughts, ideas, and authoritative sources

Citing is telling the reader where you got it from, so the reader knows where to find it for more information, and knows it is not your original thought.

Since citations must allow the reader to find the cited work, the cite needs enough information, such as:

  • Author name
  • Name of the article/book
  • Page number (if applicable)
  • Name of the publisher/source
  • Internet webpage/URL (if available).

When you cite, you must have read the source you are citing. Do not cite to materials you have not read.

Quote and cite for any text that is copied

Quoting makes clear to the reader it is someone else's writing. Copied text must be in in quotes (or block text), and with a citation to tell the reader where you copied it from. Failing to do this is plagiarism.

I tell my students to be sparing in their use of quoted text. I prefer to see them do their own writing and thinking. But again, if one copies, one must quote and cite.

When students are researching and taking notes, they should incorporate quotations and citing into their note taking. This avoids any confusion later.

What about borrowed ideas and reworded text?

You should never “reword” anyone else’s writing. But if you were to do so, you must cite the original work. Rewording and substituting words is not original writing or thought, and does not improve you as a thinker or writer.

Instead of rewording, craft your own thoughts and put them into your own words. That is where the practice and learning is.

What about artificial intelligence (AI), ChatGPT, and other automated tools, they are OK, right?

Obviously, if you use automated tools to write something for you, that is not doing your own work. There is no learning value in that. The learning value is only with your own effort.

So don't use AI, ChatGPT, etc. If you do, you need to cite it. And if you cite it, you need to check everything that the tool cited, to ensure the tool cited it accurately. And of course the tool is a "black box" so you don't really know everything that went into it.

Formatting and technical requirements (I feel your pain)

Next is to be consistent and consider the more technical formatting requirements. I feel your pain because citation formatting guidance can be confusing and contradictory.

There are different ways to format citations and this can be confusing. Follow any guidance, or an approved citation format such as APA, MLA, Chicago, or Bluebook. In my recent book (Cybercrime Investigations) we adapted various formats to be reader friendly and accurate for a broad audience of non-lawyers and lawyers.

I prefer citations to be placed in footnotes. It keeps the main text cleaner, and the footnote can have more detail on where and how to find the cited material.

But some prefer (or require) in-line (in text) citations. In-line citations mean it is shorter than it would be in a footnote, and that means you will definitely need a reference list or bibliography. A list of references or a bibliography might also be needed to list every source you cited, and sources you consulted.

More details?

Actually, I will spare you too many details here, provide some general guidance and then leave you to find your own way. Each citation format is different.

Generally, think of the reader and try for consistent format and ensure they know who wrote it and where to find it.

For my courses

For my courses, here is what I would like to see:

  • Citations in footnotes (gets it out of main text to reduce clutter, yet easily available for the reader (me) to inspect without turning the page)
  • Consistency in format among your citations
  • Can I find your cited source easily?
  • Include all the important parts of a citation so that I can check the source you cited.
    • Author name
    • Name of the article/book
    • Page number (if applicable)
    • Name of the publisher/source
    • Date/year of publication
    • Internet webpage/URL (if available)
    • Where a source is cited multiple times, you can short cite or abbreviate, so long as it is clear what source you are citing
    • Feel free to consult official citation formats (APA, MLA, Chicago, Bluebook, etc.)
  • Include a fuller reference list/bibliography at the end of the paper (so I know all your research sources, even if you didn't cite some of them directly)
  • Citations and references do not count towards the total word count.

Maybe some day I will leave some examples.

Again, you want to be sure the reader (including me) can identify and find the source. So you need author, title of publication, page, link.


In sum, citations must be used after quoting (or copying), and when you are paraphrasing someone else’s argument. Failure to do so could constitute plagiarism.

First follow the spirit of the rule and the general requirements, then look to technical or formatting requirements (which can admittedly be a pain).

This is a brief overview with many simplifications. I am not an expert on citations, and you need to follow the rules of your school, organization, or teacher. That said, I think the above covers some important basics that many students need. After you master the basics, you can dive in to more details.

Additional resources

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Page posted 1/14/2022. Last Updated 8/02/2022.