Some Advice for Writing Essays: Acknowledging Sources

Reading any academic book or serious journal article, we soon discover that the authors freely acknowledge the sources of their information and ideas. Unlike many kinds of writing (such as diaries and personal letters), academic writing depends upon us, as authors, carefully examining our sources and carefully reporting to our readers how those sources were used. Studying in college is primarily an exercise in analyzing the words of previous writers, integrating those writers’ thoughts into our own thinking, and effectively communicating our thinking to our readers.

As academic writers, we provide documentation (parenthetical citations, footnotes, bibliographies, etc.) for several important reasons:

  • We want to help the reader understand our message. For most assignments, the more relevant information we can provide, the better. Documentation often provides significant, useful information for readers interested in the subject.
  • We acknowledge sources because we need to establish our integrity and honesty as writers. The proper use of a documentation system is a means for demonstrating that we understand and respect the conventions of academic writing. To fail to document sources is dishonest, a form of stealing (the word 'plagiarism' derives from the Latin word for 'kidnapping').
  • Many academic assignments require the writer to clarify what has been previously said on the subject. For these assignments, we might imagine ourselves walking into a room where people, perhaps for hundreds of years, have been discussing our subject. An author's primary responsibility is to make clear what has already been said on the subject and who said it. Documentation systems such as those developed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are efficient and surprisingly simple procedures for communicating that information.

What to Document? For most papers, students can use the following guidelines for determining when to provide documentation for identifying sources.

  • Quoting. A quotation should be placed in quotation marks and duplicate the source exactly. Even when the quote is a phrase or unique terminology, the passage should appear in quotes with a documented citation. We can not indiscriminately mix our own words with language from the original source and then pass it off as our own writing.
  • Paraphrasing and Summarizing. If we are restating facts or opinions that are unique to a particular author or text, we must provide documentation for the source. A useful rule of thumb is that we should document any facts, ideas or evidence that we did not have when starting our research. We should also document data that varies from source to source or from year to tear. Obviously, it is not necessary to document information that is common knowledge or could be readily discovered in reference resources. When we are repeating information that could be found in three or more available sources (and we are not quoting directly) we have the option of not providing documented citations.

Some final comments on plagiarism and the inappropriate use of sources. According to one English Handbook, plagiarism is the intentional and unacknowledged "use of another person's work, in the form of original ideas, strategies, and research as well as another person's writing, in the form of sentences, phrases, and innovative terminology." Plagiarism is intellectual theft and absolutely unacceptable.

Most errors in the use or sources occur because students fail to understand the conventions of academic writing. Whenever you are unsure how to handle a source, you can study guidelines in any good English Rhetoric (for example Brenda Spatt's Writing from Sources, available in the Writing Center) or discuss the matter with your instructor or a consultant in the Writing Center. Ignorance of the rules is no defense in your favor. It is your responsibility to know the proper guidelines and procedures.

A second cause of errors in documentation comes from sloppy note taking, writers failing to distinguish clearly between their own thoughts and what the original source said. When taking notes from a source, you must careuflly distinguish between what was written in the source (always use complete quote marks when copying passages) and what is written in your own words.

A third cause of inadequate documentation derives from an insecurity that all writers occasionally experience. We all have a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that we can never do justice to a subject. In some instances this occurs because we find ourselves writing about a subject where the primary reader (such as an instructor) obviously knows far more about the subject than we learned in a few weeks of research. Such a situation can sometimes lead to a desperate "appropriation" of someone else's text. The inadequacy may also occur when we confront an excellent piece of writing on a subject and we recognize that the piece "says what needs to be said and says it better" than we can. If you experience such an anxiety about a writing assignment, speak with your instructor or the Writing Center Director. Don't jeopardize your college career and your future life by failing a course or being dismissed from college because you plagiarized.

Some material in this handout was adapted from St. Martin's Guide to Writing (Second Edition) by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper and Writing from Sources by Brenda Spat.

This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.