Citations are a pain, let’s be honest. But they are also important. This isn’t just because they “show evidence you didn’t plagiarize,” as teachers like to tell students, frightening them out of their wits. Rather, knowing how to cite is worthwhile for several reasons all of which will help you become a more informed writer, reader, and human being. What follows are some tips on how to go about citing sources, whether you are a researcher, a student, a writer, or simply someone who wants to tell people where you got a fad, figure, or quote.
Citation’s Original Sources
Citation isn’t a new practice to make sure you didn’t copy your into from a Wikipedia page, but an old practice, invented by priests, philosophers and scholars to identify sources of information.
This was mainly for the purposes of location, not because certain sources carried more authority than others, although that was also a factor. Citations would help members of a learned audience get from one book to the next, or from one part of a book to another part. That’s right: the citation is no different than the internet hyperlink, really.
Biblical scholars used citation to distribute knowledge to the public more early, referring people to chapter and verse so they could remember where to consult in their Bibles. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, citations became a crucial way to democratize the written word and increase the transparency of worship: if a priest claimed something, they made sure to say where it was from, so you could look it up yourself and consult your own conscience on the issue.
Why There Are So Many Formats
The secularization of institutions of higher learning during the Renaissance did not alter these practices: it only spread them wider, until they became the ubiquitous methods of citation we know today. But the standardization of citation by different colleges and organizations over the next few hundred years also led to the bewildering amount of formats for citation which crush us all and confuse us utterly. Oxford cited differently than the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago cited differently than the Modern Language Association. The Modem Language Association cited differently from the Associated Press… and so on. Some of these differences (as with the AP style) emerged out of techniques adapting to new practices of distributing information. Some developed as inventors tinkered with different cataloging systems for libraries in the 19th century.
No one seemed to care what the ultimate effect was everyone did whatever seemed best for them. The plethora of styles that confront us today is the result: while they all share the same basic function, nearly all of them look different from the others and follow different rules.
Confronting the Difficulties of Citation
The first step in simplifying your citation practices involves using this history for your benefit. Since the content that makes up most citations is easy to find, and it is only the formats that differ, start by gathering that basic information and noting it in whatever form feels comfortable to you. Only then begin to think about how to use that information. While you are reading note the essential elements name of the author, date and place of publication as well as the name of the publishing house or imprint. All of these are available, usually, on the inside cover of the book, in the Publication Information section.
If you are reading an article in a magazine or some other publication, note the issue number and the pages the article takes up. If you are dealing with an internet article, note when you accessed it and hunt around for the original publication date of the article, which will usually be underneath its title. You now have a base of information from which you can work when it comes time to choose your format.
Putting Together Your Citations
Next, find out what source your audience expects you to use. Print and online publications usually have style-sheets with this information readily available for you to consult: search on their website or send an email to an editor asking them for one. Getting a style-sheet is better than just finding out what format your venue prefers, since it will also be able to tell you any other formatting information that may come up in the process of composing your work. It also further acclimates you to the reasons publishers may go with one style rather than another—sometimes it is just for fashion reasons sometimes because they want to send a particular message with their magazine or journal about what they think constitutes intellectual authority.
If you are writing just for informal purposes, simply choose the style that is most useful to you. The Modem Language Association generally has the easiest form of citation to use and is the most portable form of citation across different media platforms. Whether it be email, print, or online article format, you probably won’t run into trouble if you use MLA.
Issues of Authority, Consensus, and Controversy
Once you become familiar with citation practices, you enter a world of dialogue and discussion that is wonderful to explore. But certain issues still remain as to whose voice speaks louder than others and more authoritatively. Citation is not about authority, in other words—except for when it is. Because citation leads readers to an author to allow them to further consult a piece of information for themselves, leading them to the right authors is not only good practice but a duty.
Taking Advantage of Citation Tools
Once you decide what format is right for you, take advantage of citation tools on the internet that can easily format the information you have for you. Certain tools allow you to simply enter the author’s name and the publication, and will even search this information for you and find it out—there’s no need even to rifle through the pages of the book. This should produce a handy, clean works cited document for you quickly and efficiently.