A guide to citations and references

I teach a number of places and have recognized the importance for students to learn to write well and cite properly. Another article 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.

I find it important to teach students about when they need to cite or quote. Failing to properly cite or quote is a terrible thing if it occurs. Students can only learn by doing their own work and writing, and students need to properly cite to learn and avoid potentially severe consequences.

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 dozens of hours in my life worrying about citation format, and changing citation format. Often I feel that was wasted time, but such format is actually important, to an extent.

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.

The spirit of citation rules, academic integrity, plagiarism

The most important thing is to 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 general rule, we can then look to more technical requirements.

What does it mean to cite?

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.

What does it mean to quote and cite?

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 their own writing and thinking.

When students are researching and taking notes, they should incorporate quotations and citing into their note taking.

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.

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

Formatting and technical requirements

Next is to be consistent and consider the more technical formatting requirements. I feel your pain because this 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. For our recent book, we actually adapted various formats to be reader friendly.

I personally prefer citations 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 many 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 the details. Each citation format is different. But think of the reader and try for format, consistency, so they know who wrote it and where to find it.


In sum, citations must be used after quoting (or copying), or when you are paraphrasing someone else’s argument. Failure to do so could constitute plagiarism. First follow the spirit of the rule, then look to technical or formatting requirements.

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.

Additional resources

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Page posted 1/14/2022. Last Updated 05/16/2022.