Writing and Citing

"There is much difference between imitating a man and counterfeiting him."
                                                      Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790, American Scientist, Publisher, Diplomat


Pen and book

Do you know everything there is to know about marsupials?  What about fauvism in art?  Do you know how to take a computer apart and put it back together again?

Even if you were an expert in any of these fields, you wouldn't know everything about them.  Who could?  In the information age, every subject area contains more information than any one person can learn in ten lifetimes. 

How much information can you keep in your head? 

When an expert writes a paper, they cite the original works they used as sources.  Citing the sources demonstrates that they are familiar with, or even building on, the work that others have done.

Demonstrating that you have read what the experts have to say gives weight to your work.  It also allows your instructor to look at the sources you used to further their understanding of the topic, as well as to evaluate your understanding of it.

When you see someone's work in a book or on the Internet that captures exactly what you want to say in your research paper, is it right or wrong to use it without documenting its origin?

There are two reasons why you should bother citing your sources:

1)  It is illegal.  You could be caught and be expected to pay the price.

If an instructor finds out, it could mean more than just a zero or an 'F' grade on a paper.  Institutions impose penalties ranging from a failing grade on the assignment or for the course itself, to suspension, expulsion, and transcript annotations so that future schools or employers viewing your transcript will see a note indicating that you cheated.

In the "real" world, if the originator finds out, he or she could sue you.

2)  If you wrote a best-selling novel or invented a special fork for eating pasta, wouldn't you want to receive what is due to you based on its success?

Let's say you are a best-selling writer and you found a copy of your book of short stories on the Internet, available to anyone who wants to download it.  That means people are getting your work for free and you aren't getting paid in royalties from its distribution.

Or, let's says that you are an inventor.  Someone copies your pasta fork, calls it something else, and puts it up for sale at Target before you do.  They make all the money, and you are left penniless. 

This doesn't happen because copyright law protects you.


What it is and how to avoid it

 Definition #1:  Plagiarism is copying something without crediting the source.
 Definition #2:  Plagiarism is stealing.

Yavapai Community College in Prescott, Arizona has created a cleaver video on how to avoid plagiarism entitled "Diagnosis Plagiarism" using the theme of a plagiarized paper as a patient in need of emergency medical care.

The University of Albany at the State University of New York has developed a helpful tutorial entitled
Plagiarism 101 that is also worth taking a look at.

The difference between quoting and paraphrasing

When you write a paper, you read a lot of material about the topic.  This helps you to examine the various aspects of a topic to understand it.  By the time you have thoroughly researched what has been written, you will have started to form ideas of your own, see patterns, and be able to think about the topic in your own words.

Along the way, you probably took a lot of notes, copied articles, and searched the Web looking for information.  The material you found and included in your paper is what you have to list (or reference) in your bibliography.


What is quoting?  To quote is to state what someone else has written, word for word, using their words.

Sometimes something you read is exactly the point you want to make, and is written so well you want to use it directly.  You can do so legally by quoting.  Anything you directly quote must be put in quotation marks and referenced.


What is paraphrasing?  To paraphrase is to say the same thing, but in your own words.

Sometimes you like the content of a paragraph or section of something you read, and want to paraphrase, or restate it in your own words for your paper.  Although it is not illegal, paraphrasing in scholarly papers must be cited as a professional courtesy.  You need not use quotation marks unless the statement is word-for-word as it appears in your source, but if you paraphrase in papers required for school, you must acknowledge your are doing so with a footnote/endnote or parenthetical citation.

How do you avoid plagiarizing?

  • Give the author of the material credit by "documenting" or "citing" your sources (terms which mean you credit your source.
  • Give credit whenever you use a direct quote by placing it in quotation marks and giving the author credit.
  • Give credit when you paraphrase (state/write in a different way) a thought, idea, or words within the research paper and at the end of the paper in the bibliography.
  • Give credit within a research paper through footnotes or parenthetical remarks.
  • Give credit at the end of a research paper in the bibliography. 

    Watch this helpful powerpoint on Incorporating Other Writer's Work Into Your Own.
Common Knowledge
You don't have to cite some things because they're common knowledge and are not considered the work of any particular person.
Examples of common knowledge are:
  • There are four seasons in the year.
  • There are 365 days in a year.
  • The U.S. entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • The state flower of California is the poppy.

How can you tell is something is common knowledge?

Common knowledge is information that the majority of people either know or can find in a number of sources.  Common knowledge is factual information that is beyond dispute.  Sure, you might not remember (or ever have known) what California's state flower is, but you can easily look it up in an almanac, encyclopedia, the state's website, or other resource. 

If you're not sure whether something is common knowledge or not, go ahead and provide a reference for it.

Using MLA or APA Format to Correctly Cite Your Sources

Be sure to follow your instructor's guidelines on the type of citation style he or she want you to use in your research papers.  Purdue University's Online Writing Lab has made available excellent guides for citing your sources:

MLA Guide
APA Guide 

Also, check out Napa Valley College McCarthy Library's Guide to Citation Generators for some great free online resources.

Solano College has created a handout with numerous examples of MLA style.

Writing a Research Paper in 15 Easy Steps

We've put together a helpful guide to assist students in the steps to follow in writing a research paper.  While it may appear somewhat elementary, it does illustrate how to break down this sometimes daunting task into easy to understand "chunks." 

Download Writing a Research Paper in 15 Easy Steps

Want to write "A" papers?  Check out this list from UC Santa Barbara English teachers, adapted from Jerome Beatty's The Norton Introduction to Fiction entitled World's Most Comprehensive Checklist for Papers.

Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
Unit 3:  Information Formats
Unit 4:  Defining Search Terms 
Unit 5: Conducting a Literature Review
Unit 6: Science Information Sources

History Information Literacy Modules
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated June 14, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor