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Citations 101: Why We Cite

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Photograph of three open hardcover books piled atop each other

My first experience writing a research paper was in either 7th or 8th grade. Armed with several books from the school library I set forth to write what I am sure was a ground-breaking treatise on the history of Broadway. At this same time, I first learned that you had to make sure you gave a list of every source you consulted. Over the (many) years that followed, my understanding of why we do this expanded and became more nuanced than 'so you don't fail.' This has helped me to see citations (dare I say it?) as something I almost enjoy doing.

As an adult, I've spent many years helping people from a wide variety of fields of study and an equally broad range of educational experience with their writing. Although when we talk about citations, people most often think of academic writing, citations exist all over the writing landscape. Whether you're writing a blog post, newspaper article, novel's author's note, or something else, you should always give credit to those whose works you have consulted. So, when citations come up, the same several questions generally arise, the foremost of which is: Why do we cite? It's an important question, especially for new writers. The remainder of this post offers some of the many reasons that citations are not just important but critical to the writing process.

6 Reasons We Cite

  • To give credit where it is due. Did all of your work spring from your mind without influence from anything or anyone else? Probably not. Do you want someone to take your work and use it without giving you credit? I doubt it. At its most basic, citations are where you let everyone know whose ideas influenced you, whose works you've quoted or paraphrased, and any sources you consulted. You do this because stealing someone else's ideas is wrong--and if you don't think that stealing ideas matters now, I promise you will when it happens to you.

  • To show you've done your research. One of the first questions an engaged reader will ask is 'how does this author know what they know?' It's asked for good reason, too. People need to have reason to believe you are a legitimate source. Ideas and theories are all well and good, but if you don't consider work done in the field before you, how can you prove you know what you're talking about? There's no rule saying you need to agree with everything ever written on the topic you're covering, in fact if you did then you probably wouldn't have much to contribute. That said, it's important to show that you are aware of what other work has been done, who has done it, and what has been accepted or argued about up to this point. I think about this a lot when I am listening to podcasts. If I start listening to a history podcast and the host does not either provide a list of sources on their website (Footnoting History does this by including a section labeled Further Reading for each episode) or mention their sources in the episode itself, I wonder how valid their opinions are or if they even got their facts right. How do I know they didn't get their information from Wikipedia or someone who told them something that might or might not be true? You never want to give people a reason to think you didn't do your homework before professing to have any level of expertise on a topic. If you want to be taken seriously, you must show that you took the time to study your topic before you attempt to teach others or make strong points about it.

  • To comment on the work of others. Was someone's work particularly influential on yours? Do you want to make sure people see a specific selection of sources to read about a particular argument? Citing them with commentary is one way to make sure people know that. However, not every citation has to be done in the spirit of positivity. Sometimes you will engage with sources that you find problematic, disagree with, or discover are offensive. When you write, it can often be important to include these sources to explain those important aspects. It is especially common to cite someone's work so you can argue against them. Everything in a work has meaning, and citations are a part of that. When appropriate, don't shy away from citing sources as direct parts of your work, you'll see very quickly how much this can add to your project.

  • Help readers find additional resources. Whenever I read something, if I want to know more about the topic I take a look at what the author read in order to write their work. In academic (or other non-fiction) writing this often means I'll look at the notes or bibliography/works cited/references. In a genre like historical fiction, it often leads me to the author's note at the end of the story. By providing the sources you've found useful (or harmful, as mentioned above), you are helping your readers learn more about the topic by helping them discover those who influenced your writing and/or helped build your field of study. It's a compliment to you when a reader is inspired by your writing enough to want to learn more and trusts your research skills enough to want to read the same sources you did, so you should always want to set those people up for success.

  • To lift up other researchers. Citation is exposure and exposure is something every writer and researcher needs. It's important not only to cite, but to be intentional about who you cite. Many fields have several stalwarts--people who get cited over and over again for any number of reasons. Sometimes these people have contributed a great deal to the field or they've sold a lot of books or maybe it's just because they've been really good at networking. Every citation is an opportunity for someone else's work to be discovered and recognized for its contribution to your piece. To all scholars-- but especially to scholars who are new, undervalued, overlooked, or underappreciated--a citation in your work will not only make them feel good but it will help their work get discovered by your readers. Lifting up others is always a good idea and whenever you have the opportunity to help good work be found by more people, you should absolutely go out of your way to include it.

  • To stay relevant and keep the conversation going No researcher works in a vacuum and no work is the final word on a topic. Every time you write something and engage with research you are adding a link to the chain of that topic's consideration. Who you cite, when and how you cite them, and what you say about them is all part of your contribution to the broader understanding of a topic. Readers will look at the sources you consulted and consider how you used them or commented on them when they seek to build on your work. The more thorough and intentional you are in every aspect of your work, including your citations, the more likely you are to see it used when someone else wants to add their contribution.

Citing and giving credit may not be the most exciting task--everyone has had experiences of sighing at the tedious nature of conforming to one of the various citation methods. That said, it is my hope that by pausing and considering why we cite, writers will want to take the time to do it well.

Tell me, what reasons did I miss? Why do you think it is important to cite your sources? Let me know in the comments below!


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Curt Hansman
Curt Hansman
Aug 11, 2023

This is clear, elegant, and persuasive. Thank you. Curt Hansman, History of Art, De Paul University

Replying to

Thank you for the kind praise! I am so glad you feel that way.

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