Citations Part One: Finishing Touches that Can Make or Break Your Paper

You’ve done countless hours of research. Your arguments are rock solid. Your prose will make your professor weep in ecstasy. The world will be a better place for the thoughts that you are about to share with it. And now you’re forced to come down from the mountain so that you can muck through the swampy terrain of source formatting. “Seriously,” you think, “why do I even need to bother with this stuff? It takes up valuable time that I could be spending catching up on all the sleep I’ve missed from writing this paper. Besides, do people really even look through a reference list? And what’s up with all these different styles? After all these years, can’t they just agree on one standard that everybody can use?”

Believe me, friend, I’ve been there with you. I’ve spent many long evenings holed up in the back of the library, laboring over footnotes and endnotes. But as I’ve continued my studies, I’ve come to respect — and, dare I say, even appreciate — the citation process. And with that in mind, I share with you now a few nuggets of rationale and strategy that I’ve discovered.

First of all, as you’ve undoubtedly wondered over your years of academic training (as I know I have), why do we bother citing sources in the first place? There are actually a number of reasons:

  • To give credit where credit is due. We’ve all heard the plagiarism horror stories; in the Western educational model, taking ideas that aren’t your own is just as ethically wrong as stealing property that isn’t yours. By citing your sources, you allow those who discovered and/or created these great ideas to retain ownership of them.
  • To demonstrate that these ideas aren’t merely your own. As Derek Sivers demonstrates in his Ted Talk, one guy dancing in a field is a curiosity that people laugh at — but a group of people dancing in a field is a movement that people run to join. By citing those who agree with your ideas, you’re more likely to start a movement.
  • To help others in their research. This is undoubtedly the reason I’ve become such a fan of citations — they make my own research process much, much easier. Online database searches can often be hit-or-miss, but if I find an article that shares my specific focus, all I have to do is look through its reference list and I unlock a storehouse filled with quality, on-topic sources.

So at this point, you may be grudgingly willing to admit that citations are important. But why are there so many blessed styles? Why can’t we just have one standard format? The answer is apparent if we think of a citation style as a language. Just as a language develops and transforms over years of use, so too does a citation system. Likewise, the reason that the language develops and transforms is to accommodate certain important ideas — and it’s the same with citations. By putting the information in the order and position that it does, each system highlights what’s important to the discipline in which it’s used (and I only mention the main styles here, for the purposes of brevity):

  • Modern Language Association (MLA). This style is used in the fields of language and humanities, in which the person or organization speaking and/or coming up with the ideas is important to consider during analysis. Thus, they’re given prime real estate when it comes to citations.
  • American Psychological Association (APA). Psychologists, sociologists, and educators use this style; since their research needs to reflect the most up-to-date findings in the field, the date of the source is given precedence.
  • Chicago/Turabian. Since this style is used both by those in humanities and social sciences, both author and date are given equal weight in citations. Also, because it encompasses two disciplines, Chicago actually has two separate styles: humanities incorporates footnotes, while the social sciences incorporates a parenthetical, author-date format. (If you’re wondering, the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL] is a derivative of the Chicago humanities style.)

Need some one-on-one assistance? Contact the library or visit the reference desk!

Stay tuned — in the next installment, we’ll be talking about which style you should use, and what resources Rolfing has to assist you in your efforts

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