Common Paper Writing Mistakes, Part One: Where To Put Citations

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This one seems to come up frequently. One of my classmates or students will email me a copy of their paper and ask me to take a look at it before they hand it in. I oblige, because I actually like editing (I’m one of those people) and I like giving friends a hand. Looking over the paper, the text itself seems pretty good, and I reword a few things for them or catch a couple of grammatical errors– basic stuff. But there’s one problem that is rampant throughout the paper: the writer clearly doesn’t know where to put his or her citations, so he or she puts them everywhere. Or, there aren’t any citations at all, and at the end they stick in a works cited page.

I can’t really blame them for not knowing; I can only assume they have never been taught. So I explain to them how to cite properly, fix it for them and move on. Well, to prevent future questions, I thought that I’d put together an article explaining when and where your citations belong in your paper. 

Before I get to the actual teaching part, let me explain that college professors hate incorrect citing. Hate. Especially History professors, or– Heaven forbid– English professors. If you over– or under– cite your paper, most professors (in my experience, especially at higher levels) will automatically knock off ten points. If your paper is worth twenty percent of your grade, that’s two points off your average. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re trying to keep a scholarship, that can be the difference between an “A” and and “A-.” That can make a big difference in your GPA if it happens in a couple of classes. Really, this is something that’s so simple it honestly isn’t worth ignoring.

Okay, so, now that you’ve decided you want to learn, let’s get right down to it.

First, I’m going to assume that you’re using one of the two most common college citation formats: APA or MLA. This will cover papers in science, psychology, English, foreign language, mathematics and arts– in other words, most disciplines, excepting a few sciences and, notably, History. The vast majority of professors will request that you use in-text parenthetical citations when using these styles. They actually are both compatible with footnotes or endnotes, but again, most professors don’t want you to bother. History and Art History, on the other hand, use Chicago style, which is exclusively footnotes or endnotes.

Got it? Okay. On with APA/MLA.

The first rule of when you should cite your source is that each time you take someone else’s words– for example, a direct quote– you should cite it. So, if I’m writing a paper about citations, and I want to quote this article, I would write:

“The vast majority of professors will request that you use in-text parenthetical citations when using these styles,” (Bostwick, 2015). 

Seems straightforward, right? Moving on.

The second rule is that you should cite every time you use an idea that isn’t your own. This includes paraphrasing, people! You can’t just reword a quote and get away with not committing plagiarism! For example, a paraphrase of the above quote should look like this:

Most college professors prefer it when you attribute sources using parentheses at the end of a section that uses the source in question (Bostwick, 2015). 

If you read this article, and used the above example without citing it, guess what? You’re guilty of plagiarism! Now, am not going to hunt you down and demand attribution, and basically no author is going to do that if you’re doing it for a college paper, but be careful.

Every semester of my college career, across both my History and English Literature programs, there was always, without fail, at least one student who got in serious trouble due to plagiarism. Sometimes, the professor will be lenient and let you off with a warning; this is if it’s due to improper citation and an honest mistake was made– for example, if you had listed this article in your works cited page but neglected to include an in-text citation. You’d likely lose points, but nothing crazy would happen. But if you actually steal work, not even God can help you.

I mean it. I have seen four students expelled. Significantly more were failed out of the class– not given incompletes; they were forced to take the failing grade and torpedo their GPA. And they should consider themselves lucky it wasn’t worse.

I was accused of plagiarism for about two minutes by my American History 2 professor. I turned in a paper that had used some words he didn’t think I knew, and he thought I stole the paragraphs from somewhere else. I defined the words in front of him, and had to show evidence that I had used them in other papers. He was satisfied that I was being honest, and apologized for the mistake, but it was still nerve-wracking for me. Accusing someone who writes as much as I do of plagiarism is like accusing an average person of murder. Yes, we take it that seriously. 

Just… don’t plagiarize. It’s a rotten thing to do to begin with, and even if you’re okay with theft, the consequences can be catastrophic to your future. And it’s so easy to catch people at it now! One of my English professors was notorious for copying and pasting whole sentences into Google to check for plagiarism. More and more professors are using services like Turnitin.com– a website that requires you to upload your paper, and compares each sentence with all other uploads and an extensive library of source material– to combat it.

Okay, plagiarism lecture over. Back to citations.

So, now that you’ve decided you’re going to properly give attribution to sources as you use both their quotes and their ideas, what else is there to know?

Well, there’s this: don’t over-cite. It really screws with the flow of your paper. What do I mean by that? Here’s an example:

In his article, Bostwick discusses how easy it is for professors to catch plagiarists (Bostwick, 2015). Resources like Google and Turnitin.com are used frequently to catch students in the act (Bostwick, 2015). He warns that, not only are there moral implications to the crime, but that the results can be “catastrophic to your future,” (Bostwick, 2015). 

I can go on, but I think you get the idea. I often edit papers in which the author is so nervous over being accused of stealing that he or she puts attribution at the end of nearly every sentence.

This isn’t really necessary. I mean, technically it isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t look very good, and it really is quite distracting. If you’re using the same source by the same author multiple times in a given paragraph, then you can simply cite it at the end of said paragraph. In the above example, it would look like this:

In his article, Bostwick discusses how easy it is for professors to catch plagiarists. Resources like Google and Turnitin.com are used frequently to catch students in the act. He warns that, not only are there moral implications to the crime, but that the results can be “catastrophic to your future,” (Bostwick, 2015). 

That is much cleaner without all of the breaks for citations. (That said, if everything you use in a paragraph is from another source, you really should write more in that paragraph about what you actually think; sources are meant to give evidence, not make your argument for you. But that’s a different article, so I’ll stop now.)

Here’s a curveball: what if you use multiple sources in the same paragraph? This happens often, especially (in my experience) when you’re writing history papers. In that case, you would have citation when you finish with one source and begin another. For example:

In his article, Bostwick discusses how easy it is for professors to catch plagiarists. Resources like Google and Turnitin.com are used frequently to catch students in the act (Bostwick, 2015). Turnitin.com, a service that provides “originality checking, online grading and peer review” is easily accessible, and is an invaluable aid to professors wishing to quickly check their students’ papers for plagiarism (Turnitin.com, “About,” n.d.). Bostwick also warns that, not only are there moral implications to the crime, but that the results can be “catastrophic to your future,” (Bostwick, 2015).

So that’s how you switch between sources within the same paragraph. As you might have noticed, I went from “Bostwick” to “Turnitin” and back to “Bostwick.” The final citation is important, because, again, I switched to a different source after using Turnitin. (Incidentally, “n.d.” stands for “No Date,” because the original date of publication on Turnitin.com’s “About” section of their website isn’t listed).

Those are the basic rules for when TO use a citation, and how often they should appear. Here are a last few notes:

  • Your body paragraphs are where you should find the lion’s share of your citations. Your introduction and conclusion should, generally speaking, be your own thoughts and ideas, and should therefore contain no citations. Obviously there are going to be exceptions to this– many English papers are going to require you to do things like respond to a quote, and you’re obviously going to cite that. That said, if your introduction and conclusion have as many citations as your body paragraphs, you need to rewrite.
  • You should be using an average of about two sources per page in a decent college-level research paper. That doesn’t mean that you need to gather ten sources for a five page paper– that’s a little overkill, even for the history majors among us. What it does mean is that you will likely have a couple of body paragraphs per page, and each body paragraph should discuss at least one source.
  • I didn’t mention this in the main article, but seriously, you really shouldn’t be putting citations in the middle of sentence. You shouldn’t be pulling information from two sources in a single sentence, so even if you’re using a direct quote that ends in mid-sentence, just stick the citation at the end. It just looks weird otherwise.
  • For Chicago styles and other formats that use footnotes or endnotes, you should still follow the same basic rules, but you can, if you wish, go a little crazy and add in a few extra footnotes where you wouldn’t put a parenthetical citation. They don’t disrupt the narrative flow too much, and if you’re dealing with a lengthy work that spans a whole lot of pages, you might make it easier on someone who checks your sources if you cite different page numbers.

 

Questions? Comments? Let me know in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to get back to you.

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