4.6 Citational Practice: Writing from Sources

Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt

The word “source” can seem a bit intimidating or mysterious, so let’s define what is meant when your instructor asks you to find sources. There are three different types of sources that you need to consider when you are performing academic research: primary sources, secondary sources and tertiary sources.

Primary Sources: Primary source material is generally raw data that is under analysis. Primary source material can include, but is certainly not limited to, original manuscripts, archival documents, measurement of phenomena, survey results, lab results, data others have gathered, and a myriad of other forms and types of materials that define your topic. For example, if your topic is pine beetle infestations, then your data will likely come from what academic researchers have found in specific geographical areas.

Secondary Sources: These source materials interpret and discuss primary source materials. These can be used to assist in the problem solving of a research question and to provide commentary about a field of interest. Secondary sources often generalize, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate the original primary sources. As an undergraduate student, you will likely spend most of your time finding, reading, and analyzing secondary materials, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, for your research.

Tertiary Sources: These are general or popular forms of information that synthesize primary and secondary sources, usually in a way that will be understood by an audience that doesn’t have expertise in the field. These sources may come in the form of blogs, popular books, magazine and newspaper articles, encyclopedia articles (think Wikipedia), or links from a Google search. Use these sources as a way to investigate your interests in a topic area; they can help you find out exactly what it is you want to discuss in your research. These sources, however, are not the best options to support a scholarly argument as the information in these sources tends to be generalized and (over)simplified.

Once you have found your primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you then need to cite those sources in your writing. In many classes, the sources you will consult when researching will be recorded in some kind of form, most often in written form. Using sources in a way that both respects the source and your own work requires understanding citational practice. You might have never heard this phrase before in your life. Here’s a rather technical definition that we will unpack:

Citation is a constitutive dimension of human language and social life in the sense that we constantly reproduce what we hear in order to fashion ourselves. Found everywhere to different “degrees and kinds” (Barber 2008, p. 209), citation occurs across all media and in virtually every type of linguistic performance and must be considered “a perpetual rather than secondary dimension of human living” (Finnegan 2011, p. 264). All of language can be understood as citational—from grammatical structure to particular phrases, genres, or registers to implicit metapragmatic frames.[1]

This quotation might seem a little dense, but we include it to show you that citation is a consistent linguistic practice. Here’s what this quotation is getting at: We are consistently citing when we speak with each other.

In everyday conversation, you might reference what “they” say without ever identifying “they.” That is a form of citation—it’s not reliable, but it doesn’t have to be when you are hanging out with your friends. This reference to “they” marks that you are reproducing what you might have heard from somewhere else in order to share information and also to express who you are.

If you are urging your friends to go to a new Thai place where you want to eat, you might mention good online reviews from a reliable resource to prove your point. Here you are showing your friends that you know what you are talking about and that you can be trusted. Voila, this is a form of citational practice.

In university and college classes, we also cite our sources to show what we are talking about, but we also cite to build upon the knowledge of others, correct and test facts, counter ideas, and solve problems. This is all to say that citational practice in post-secondary research has a lot of work to do and is, therefore, more standardized and exacting. Why? Because oftentimes, we (in academia) are the “they” others cite in the popular press, popular culture, and everyday life, so we better know what we are talking about!

As an undergraduate student, you are now a researcher and part of a community that relies upon this academic form of citational practice. In section 2.5 Reading Academic Writing, we said you are like an apprentice, learning the ropes of academic research and writing. In your career, you may well become one of those “theys” that are cited widely, so by learning academic citational practices, you are also learning to be a reliable researcher and communicator.

There are a number of different ways to cite your sources, but cite them you must. If you don’t then your work will be seen as committing an academic integrity violation. We realize that phrase “academic integrity” can seem quite strange to those outside of the academic sphere. It might conjure ideas of punishment and fear, but nothing could be further from the truth. Academic integrity is part of citational practice and ethics, which we discussed earlier in the chapter [#4]. Let’s have a chat about academic integrity, shall we?

4.6.1 Academic Integrity: The Core Values of Research

Most of the time, students think of academic integrity as plagiarism and cheating. These two words may well cause anxiety as you complete your assignments. A common question we often hear from students is: How do I know if I have violated the rules? What if we told you that plagiarism and cheating are just two relatively small aspects of what academic integrity is? Would you be surprised?

Academic integrity is the practice of “honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage” in your academic work.[2] We are all members of an academic community, and part of a larger scholarly conversation. As part of this community, we adhere to shared values and ethical behaviour. This common ground is important because it allows your work to be evaluated fairly, ensures that you’re really learning and developing skills needed for your future careers, and addresses the many kinds of value that everyone’s work holds.

The fact is that information has value. This value is contextual (in our Canadian jurisdiction and within an academic context).

Information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world. Legal and socioeconomic interests influence information production and dissemination.[3]

At its heart, all this passage means is that information has different types of value depending on who you are. If you are working in a research and development division for a corporation, then research is a commodity. If you are just about anyone else, research can help you influence others and convince them that your opinion is correct. If you are a student, you are learning how to be an ethical researcher, and there are guidelines to learn and new ways of knowing.

This new experience of engaging with research in complex ways can be overwhelming, but worth it. Believe us, learning to be information literate is perhaps one of the most important skills in your post-secondary career. Research is about learning to learn, and that is a skill prized both in and out of school.

Part of being a skilled researcher is respecting others’ work and intellectual property in a number of specific ways. Academic integrity policies in every post-secondary context reflect the standards understood across Canada. Post-secondary institutions have a list of precepts (or principles) and practices aimed at ensuring the lines of communication between researchers and readers remain open.

For example, the University of Victoria’s Academic Integrity Policy states that student researchers must “cite all ideas or excerpts from the work of others” and that they cannot submit for evaluation work or a paper that has been written by someone else or extensively revised by someone else. Why are these guidelines in place? Well, for one thing, as a student you are being evaluated on the work that you submit, which means that your instructors need to know which parts of your submissions are your voice—your unique ideas!—and which belong to other researchers in your field.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t incorporate ideas from elsewhere. Not by a long shot. In fact, as rhetoricians Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein remind us, “[a]cademic writing in particular calls upon writers not simply to express their own ideas, but to do so as a response to what others have said.”[4] In other words, academic writers make it clear that they are joining an ongoing conversation on a particular topic. A major part of academic integrity is ensuring that this conversation—your conversation with the other researchers in your field—remains clear.

Neglecting to cite the work or ideas of others (fellow researchers, friends, colleagues, etc.) means that you are depriving them of deserved recognition. (And in the world of research and scholarship, this lack of recognition can have dire consequences for a researcher’s career.) A lack of citations also serves to obscure the scholarly conversation we mentioned above, which means that your reader is likely to be confused and frustrated since (1) they’re unable to fulfill their curiosity by following up with your sources and (2) they can’t confirm your findings. For these reasons (and more!) it is important to practice what some folks call good “research hygiene”—meaning you need to keep careful track of (and cite!) your sources.

“Hygiene” generally means maintaining cleanliness to avoid disease. What happens if you don’t brush and floss your teeth? Gum disease and tooth decay. What happens if you do not keep track of your research? It becomes unhealthy in the sense that page numbers might get mixed up or you might lose a source. Taking care to quote, paraphrase, and summarize your sources accurately ensures that the conversation you’re joining can continue in a respectful, accurate, relevant, and productive way. Even in instances where you intend to disagree with someone, you want to ensure that you’re not misrepresenting someone’s work. If you pay attention to detail as you gather sources and cite them, you will save yourself a lot of headaches down the road.

You might be tempted to skip some of this work in the hope that no one finds out. We know that life can get busy. You may feel overwhelmed by your workload or assignments that are difficult. Instead of buying an assignment, having someone edit your work (by changing your words and writing in their own words), or cutting and pasting, please ask your instructor for help. If you feel you can’t approach your instructor, then go to your writing centre. The staff there are incredibly helpful.

Before we move on from citational practice and good research hygiene, we want to save you even more headaches by covering an academic integrity issue that we see quite often: patch-writing. Read the following section carefully so you can avoid this issue!

4.6.2 Writing from Sources Versus Writing from Sentences

Once you have found your sources, you need to read them and write about them. This can be a difficult process, although if you read the advice about summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing in chapter two, then you understand that there are basic conventions for using parts of a written text in the context of academic writing. One of the major rules is that ideas from the sources you summarize and paraphrase must be reframed in your own words, and these sources must be cited.

Let’s talk about the reframing process a bit more. In chapter two we explained that patch-writing involves taking a chunk of text from an original source without changing its language enough to make it your own. Examples of not changing the language enough include using synonyms for a few words or simply rearranging the original order of words and phrases. Presenting such minimally reworked passages as your own writing, even if you cite the original, is a problem. In fact, it’s a type of academic integrity violation because you’re basically passing off another writer’s words and sentence structures as your own original text. Accurate citations are simply not enough to change the fact that you have patch-written—a type of problem that occurs when you use sources by focusing on sentences instead of the source as a whole.

In an excellent article by Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigues, “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences,”[5] the authors explain that many students (and, yes, professors) tend to write by trying to rework certain sentences they find in an article rather than encapsulating the idea of the source in their own words. Picture it: you have your peer-reviewed source beside you. Your fingers are poised on the keyboard, and you start looking at the highlighted sections of the article. You find a great quotation and start to paraphrase. You shift a few words around, add a synonym or two, add a citation, and then move on to the next highlighted section of the article.

If you approach paraphrasing or summarizing in this fashion, then you are likely writing from sentences. You risk patch-writing with this method. Instead follow this method (or any similar method) to avoid patch-writing :

  • Read the source.
  • Take notes and then put it aside.
  • Write a draft of your paraphrase or summary without looking at the original.
  • Now, return to the original and your notes.
  • Correct any factual discrepancies and cite.

This is a time-tested method to avoid writing from sentences and instead to write from sources. If you follow this practice, you will very likely avoid patch-writing, follow the principles of academic integrity, and best of all, represent your source ethically.

4.6.3 Style Guides

When you write as an undergraduate student, you are expected to follow a certain academic style. Different academic disciplines follow different style guides to format and present information about sources that need to be cited. These style guides also offer advice about how to format a document and even about certain punctuation and grammar rules. If you’re not sure how to present your written work or which rules you need to follow, figure out the style guide that’s normally used in the discipline in which you are writing, and follow the instructions given. Every course you take is part of a certain field or discipline. For example:

  • Academic writing about English literature and literary texts in other modern languages usually use MLA style,
  • Academic writing in psychology, sociology, and the social sciences usually use APA style,
  • Academic writing in engineering usually uses IEEE style,
  • Academic writing in biology, chemistry, and other science fields usually use CSE style and
  • Academic writing in history, art history, and theatre history usually use Chicago style.

Even so, you might find that instructors provide formatting and style instructions for you to follow. Sometimes this is a matter of personal preference. For instance, an instructor who happens to think sentences with active verbs are more effective might say that students must avoid passive voice. Another might provide a title page template that all students are asked to follow. In these cases, follow these instructions.

But take into consideration that sometimes instructors offer additional guidelines not because of their preferences but because the nature of an assignment or topic or project requires some additional features to be clarified. This isn’t different from what happens when academic writing gets published—although most journals and book publishers tell authors to follow a style manual (such as the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style or the 7th edition of APA[6]), they also provide information about what is called a “house style,” the particular formatting and style guidelines a publication or press follows. Often, these guides answer questions about very specific issues that will only come up when trying to write about specialized subject matter.

A good example is that only a journal that specializes in the works and history of William Shakespeare is likely to tell its authors that it requires the name of one of the characters in Cymbeline to be spelled Innogen, not Imogen. Another example is that only a medical journal would specify that only generic names of drugs should be used in the text of an article while brand names should be included, if necessary, in a methodology section. And note that these house style guides are one reason why you will sometimes see formatting, style, or citation practices in published work that don’t align with a standard style guide.

Following a style guide when putting the final touches on an assignment you are about to submit is the final step you can take to help build your scholarly ethos and to make your work easy for readers to access and understand. Therefore, this step is worth allowing time for—it’s the last bit of polishing that makes a draft really finished.

4.6.4 Citation Generators

Citation generators are handy tools that convert an article’s metadata (information about the article or other source) into a properly formatted citation. More colloquially, they create a citation for you—but nothing in life is free, so there are downsides to using citation generators. These programs are only as good as the data that goes into them, and they can easily introduce mistakes. Whenever you use a citation generator, you need to proofread any output carefully so that you don’t publish avoidable errors. (Pay close attention to spacing, punctuation, capitalization, and the formatting of names, as these are where you’ll typically find errors.)

The citation generators you find inside scholarly article databases are similar to one another, but can also add the permanent URLs that some citation styles require. Again, these tools are also only smart enough to use the data provided to them, so you should still proofread everything and correct as needed. Most libraries have approved citation generators listed on their web pages and if you can’t find them, you know what to do: ask a librarian!

Both types of generators are useful to show you what a citation in your preferred style should look like, and these tools can save you time in formatting citations, but they will not add page numbers or create the in-text citations that you’ll need when following some documentation styles to point to specific information you’ve used from your sources. In other words, you need to know what your style guide for your discipline says about citational practices. Citation generators save time, but they are not replacements for knowing what you are doing.

You may consider using a citation management platform to format your citations, manage your research findings, and act as a virtual filing cabinet for the sources you’ve discovered. Programs like Zotero, Mendeley, or Endnote are much more than citation generators; they not only house pdfs and images, but also allow you to create your own database of books, articles, and more, as well as to annotate, share, edit, sort, and repurpose these sources. Talk to your librarian about which tool is right for you, and how to get started with these useful research tools.

  1. Jane E. Goodman, Matt Tomlinson, and Justin B. Richland, “Citational Practices: Knowledge, Personhood, and Subjectivity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 450, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43049585.
  2. Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity,” International Center for Academic Integrity, accessed October 13, 2020, https://www.academicintegrity.org/fundamental-values/.
  3. Association of College and Research Libraries, Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, February 2, 2015, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework#value.
  4. Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein, They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 4th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018), xiii.
  5. Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigues, “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences,” Writing & Pedagogy 2, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 177-192, https://doi.org/10.1558/wap.v2i2.177; http://www.citationproject.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/HowardServissRodrigue-2010-writing-from-sentences.pdf.
  6. Visit the following link to check out Chicago Style https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/book/ed17/frontmatter/toc.html and https://apastyle.apa.org/products/publication-manual-7th-edition to learn more about APA. *Remember, too, that university libraries will often have these style guides available in full and for free in their collection. Most libraries also pay for a subscription to these style guides, which means that you, as a student, will have access to up-to-date online content as well.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada by Jemma Llewellyn; Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Tina Bebbington; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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