How To Use & Cite Sources

This blog entry directly confronts the topic of citations, from using citations in essay writing to the different types of citation styles and when it’s appropriate to use them, versus when it might be a waste of time or simply unnecessary.


Understanding citations and their importance

Citations are central to academic writing. Those who have read my previous post detailing the nature of sources and what constitutes reliability will know that sources are at the core of all reliable academic writing. Citations are, put simply, how we express sources within our papers. This makes citing and citations one prevalent way we communicate with our readers (and, for that matter, our evaluators). You use citations to indicate where you got what information throughout your writing, and in that way citations are also expressive of your own learning and breadth of knowledge. They show readers that you’ve considered the relevant material, but at the same time they also provide a guide to those reading your work on how to find that information themselves.

In this way, citations in papers – your own included – act as beacons and waypoints for knowledge. Anyone reading an academic paper can use citations to locate and examine sources themselves, so citations will, with time, become one of the ways you yourself mine sources for your own papers and fact check for the scholarship you read. This makes how we write citations extremely important, even though it may sometimes seem like a bother at best, and overwhelming at worst. The good news is that you get used to writing them, and if you’re like me, you’ll have done it so much that you scarcely need to look up the rules!


Types of Citations

Speaking of rules, there are plenty of ways to cite information; however, in any given paper, you need to apply the same rules throughout all the citations of that paper within both the text and the reference section. This prevents citations’ information from getting muddled or confusing for the reader, as well as yourself when you inevitably revisit your paper to collect sources for further research. Rules fall under three overarching types (APA, MLA, Chicago) from which I’d argue most other types derive – even so, you’ll run into field-specific citation from time to time. I’ll put the three types of citation rules and a summary of their uses and an easy place to find their rules in a tidy table:

Abbreviation Derivative Appropriate Fields Rules
APA American Psychological Association, 1892 All sciences and social sciences, business, law
Chicago/Turabian University of Chicago Press, 1906 History, sometimes politics and law
MLA Modern Language Association of America, 1883 English and literature studies


Each citation style has several substyles, but it’s safe to say these overarching styles will cover any paper in any academic field, unless your assignment demands something more specific. A wealth of information can be found online in terms of specific rules and how to technically execute those rules. I’ve provided some links to get you started. SOS My Essay also offers reference creation and editing services for those interested in a more crisp and professional reference section.


When and how to use a citation

When to use a citation is perhaps the most straightforward thing about them. I follow a simple rule: use a citation any time you’re using information that is technically specific or that is not common knowledge. It’s typically acceptable to use a citation once every few sentences if you’re using the same source over again. Moreover, different countries and educational/academic systems have different expectations regarding frequency of citation, so it’s best to consult with your instructor or a professor/researcher in the field if you’re unsure.

With regards to how to use a citation, there’s only so much I can do in the context of a blog post to help you. Begin with the links I’ve provided to Purdue’s very helpful reference system – it covers all the basics of the major styles. Follow such rules specifically, noting when to italicize and when not, and when to place what sort punctuation depending on the type (journal, book, web, archival etc.) source you’re citing. The most important thing to remember when using citations is to apply rules consistently. Consistent citing is the key to clarity, and most professors won’t mind a reference section and citation so long as they’re consistent in terms of execution.

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