Documenting and Attributing Sources

by Dr. Suzan Harrison

Documentation (the footnotes and bibliography or citations and works cited page) and attribution (the introduction of the author in the text of your paper) are both vital components of academic writing.

Reasons for Documentation

  • Documentation tells your readers exactly where they can go to read the source material for themselves.
  • Documentation gives credit to the original authors.

Reasons for Attribution

  • Attribution or a signal phrase gives more specific credit to original authors by naming them right in the text of your paper.
  • Attribution also clearly establishes the boundaries between your ideas and a quote,, paraphrase, or summary of someone else's ideas. That way, credit goes where it's due.
  • Most professors want to see your mind at work on the topic. If you don't use attribution properly, you may inadvertently give up credit for your own ideas. If your citations and attributions are clear, your own thinking will stand out as distinctively your own, so that it can be rewarded.

Styles of Documentation

Different academic disciplines use different styles of documentation.

For instance, literary criticism follows the style manual of the Modern Language Association or MLA, while historians use the Chicago Manual of Style. Psychologists and sociologists usually use the style manual of the American Psychological Association or APA, while biologists use the Council of Biology Editors Style Manual. To discover which style manual to use in documenting a paper, ask your professor.

Basic Guidelines

  1. Every idea and/or statement in your paper that is not your own or is not common knowledge should be given attribution in the text and provided with a parenthetical citation or footnote that refers the reader to your list of works cited. Common knowledge does not mean that you have to know the information first; this term refers to information that is not the idea of any one person. For instance, Abraham Lincoln's birthday is common knowledge, even if you don't know it offhand. The rule of thumb is if the information occurs in at least three sources, it's common knowledge.
  2. When you quote a source directly, reproduce the quotation exactly as it appears in the text and enclose it in quotation marks. ("The exact quote.")
    1. If you want to use parts of a long statement, indicate with ellipsis dots (…) the parts you've left out. ("When you want to leave…out, use ellipsis dots.")
    2. If you need to change a verb tense or pronoun for syntax or clarity, enclose the changed word(s) in brackets ([]). ("Somehow, [these] thing[s] make sense.")
    3. Attribute and document your direct quotations.
  3. If you paraphrase or summarize someone's ideas, you need attribution and a parenthetical citation just as you do with a direct quotation. Moreover, you must substantially change the diction and style of the original. Simply changing a word here and there is not sufficient. You must use your own style, your own words, your own sentence structure and your own organization.
    1. If you find words or passages you can't reword satisfactorily, or if you especially like a phrase in the original, you may quote the word(s) directly in the midst of the paraphrase. Just enclose the exactly reproduced word(s) in quotation marks. The citation should go at the end of the entire paraphrase.
    2. A summary includes only the main ideas of a passage; a paraphrase reproduces the substance of the whole passage.
  4. For more detail on how to avoid plagiarism and how to document and attribute correctly, see the Hacker handbook, any handouts from the professor, and official style guidelines.