What's the Citation Frequency, Kenneth? *
In the Writing Center, we often see papers filled with great insight and solid analysis but missing proper citations. Usually, students have written these papers for early coursework, and these assignments don’t always require strict adherence to APA rules, which makes sense: in academic writing, the way that you structure ideas and connect your research to your conclusions matters far more, overall, than whether you remembered, for example, to include the publication year when you mentioned an author’s name in your text. However, citing frequently enough is a fundamental aspect of APA style, and citing infrequently enough can lead to extra revision, lower grades, and plagiarism charges—outcomes you definitely want to avoid. Consequently, learning this skill sooner rather than later will pay off as you tackle bigger projects later on, such as theses, KAMs, dissertations, or doctoral studies.
Though APA style includes several exceptions to and variations of its rules, you can follow a few general principles to keep your citations on track. First and foremost, cite every time you use the words or ideas of another author. Even if you’ve already cited the author once in the same paragraph, you still need a citation if you’re using that author’s ideas. In practice, this can result in paragraphs with citations in nearly every sentence, which might seem cluttered or excessive, but it ensures that your readers will clearly see where your ideas came from. (Note, though, that you can simplify your citations if you’re citing one author throughout a paragraph—see Amber’s blog post and Anne's blog post for more information.)
Similarly, you should cite whenever a reader could reasonably question the validity of your claim. For example, if you state that the sky is blue, then you wouldn’t need a citation, as this is common knowledge (and easily verified by looking out a window). However, if you state that some parenting styles (for example) affect the psychological health of children differently than other styles, you would need a citation to show that this idea comes from a scholarly source. Students sometimes assume, because their instructors and peers read their work, that they don’t need to cite information common to the group—if you all read a book by Bronfenbrenner, let’s say, you might think that you can talk about Bronfenbrenner’s ideas without citations. This might be true and acceptable for a discussion post (I’ll leave that to your instructors), but for virtually all other academic projects you can’t assume that your readers will have the same knowledge or experiences you have. More importantly, you shouldn’t expect your readers—who, after all, are critical thinkers themselves—to trust your arguments without seeing any evidence cited to support them.
To illustrate these principles, I’ve taken a paragraph of a real paper and removed the citations. Rhetorically, this paragraph looks pretty good: the student effectively synthesizes his research to support his own ideas. Take a look through it—without scrolling down and seeing the corrections, if you can help it—and try to determine where this student would need citations.
- Stragalas argued that providing employees with details about an organizational change will help to eliminate difficulties. Similarly, Steele-Johnson et al. reported that sharing the details of a change process can help those involved better understand and support the change. Additional research showed that transparency through extensive communication can allow for a wider acceptance of the change. Maintaining clear communication with employees during an organizational change, then, can contribute to those employees’ acceptance of the change.
As you read, consider where this student presents other authors’ ideas, where he presents his own, and where they overlap. Then decide where you would put citations if this were your paper.
Here’s the corrected version:
- Stragalas (2010) argued that providing employees with details about an organizational change will help to eliminate difficulties. Similarly, Steele-Johnson et al. (2010) reported that sharing the details of a change process can help those involved better understand and support the change. Additional research showed that transparency through extensive communication showed that transparency through extensive communication can allow for a wider acceptance of the change (James & Quinn, 2011; Nahata et al., 2010). Maintaining clear communication with employees during an organizational change, then, can contribute to those employees’ acceptance of the change.
Notice that the student added publication years after Stragalas and Steele-Johnson et al. because (a) he used their ideas and therefore needed to cite them, and (b) he used their names in his text (e.g., “Stragalas argued…”) so he only needed to include the years. He also added a citation to the sentence that begins “similar research showed…” to demonstrate which research, in particular, supports his claim. Lastly, this student did not need a citation in his final sentence because it’s fully his idea; it builds on the ideas presented earlier in the paragraph, but the author draws this conclusion on his own.
Of course, Chapter 6 of the APA manual also covers the details of how and when you’ll need to cite sources, and I encourage you to read through these pages if you haven’t already—when in doubt, consult the manual first. However, following these basic principles (cite whenever you use other authors’ ideas, and cite when readers could question your claims) will help you develop an intuitive understanding of proper citation, avoid plagiarism in your writing, and become an authority yourself.
Example text adapted from a paper by Adam Jones. Used with permission.
* Reference to the R.E.M. song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"