Go The Distance: Academic Writing – Citation skills

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1. Ready to reference?

Welcome back to Academic Writing – the course with the tips and tools to get you on course for writing success. This time we're looking at how to refer to other people's work – sometimes called 'source material' – in your academic writing.

Let’s imagine you’re writing an essay. You’re doing well: you’ve already done all the research and decided how to structure your argument. But there’s a problem. You need to reference other people’s work in your essay – this is known as 'citation'. You’re just not sure how to do it correctly. You know that you can’t just copy it directly without acknowledging the source: that’s what we call 'plagiarism', and plagiarism can get you into serious trouble. So what should you do? Scroll down for our activities to get you referencing like a professional – starting by having a look at quoting!

2. How to quote correctly

Let's say you're writing an essay about the significance of fire in early human society. You want to refer to a book called 'Sapiens', by historian Yuval Noah Harari. You think he expresses a relevant point on page 13:

Original text

“When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks.”

Quoting from the original text

How could you include this in your text? The simplest way is to quote it directly – remember to copy the text word for word and use quotation marks ("...") to identify the beginning and end of the quote. You also need to include the author's surname, the publication date and the page number, like this:

Harari (2014, p.13) emphasises the significance of fire as a tool for humans, calling it an “obedient and potentially limitless force”.

When to use a quote

We choose to quote because the original text expresses something in a particularly original, colourful or memorable way. Perhaps you like the concise and unusual description of fire as being both "obedient" and "potentially limitless".

Formatting your quote

Getting the format right is important. You should always include the author's name, the year the material you're quoting was published and the page number (if there is one) Should you use single '…' or double "…" quotation marks? Do you use a comma or a colon before the quote? Check your institution's rules.

3. Challenge 1: Choose a quote

Short and long quotes

Our 5-word example quote is quite short: Harari (2014, p.13) emphasises the significance of fire as a tool for humans, calling it an "obedient and potentially limitless force". Now let's compare it with something longer:

"When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force." (Harari, 2014, p.13)

Citing right: Harari (2014) or (Harari, 2014)?

Notice how, in the short quote, we gave the date of the work's publication, and page number, in brackets (parentheses) after the author’s name. But in the second, longer quote, the author's name, date and page number were all inside the brackets. Can you work out why?

It’s because we used Harari's name within our own sentence with the short quote. What about page numbers? We include the page number when we quote directly – and when we paraphrase or summarise a specific idea. If, on the other hand, we're referring to the content or central idea of the book as a whole, we don't need to cite the page number.

To do

OK, let’s imagine you are writing a paper on climate change. Let’s look at this passage from page 8 of 'The Weather Makers' by Tim Flannery (2005):

One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliché before it has even been understood. What we need now is good information and careful thinking, because in the years to come, this issue will dwarf all others combined. It will become the only issue.

If you want to emphasise that Flannery thinks climate change is going to be a big problem in the future, which part of the text would you choose to quote? Choose from Quote A, B, or C below, then scroll down to check your answer.

Quote A

Flannery (2005, p. 8) believes climate change will "dwarf" all other issues in the coming years.

Quote B

Flannery (2005, p. 8) believes climate change has "become a cliché before it has even been understood".

Quote C

Flannery (2005, p. 8) believes climate change is one of the "biggest" issues of our time.

4. Challenge 1 answer: The best quote

Now click on Quote A, B or C to check your answer.

Quote A

You selected

Quote A

This is the best answer. It's a very short quote: just the word "dwarf" – meaning 'make everything else look small'. It's visual and sticks in the mind.

Quote B

You selected

Quote B

Quote B misses the point. It doesn’t say how big a problem climate change will be; instead it talks about why climate change isn’t taken seriously.

Quote C

You selected

Quote C

This is a trick answer: "biggest" doesn't refer to the size of climate change, but about the size of the problem to solve before we tackle climate change.

5. Use the right reporting verb

To do: When you include a reference in your text – whether it's a quote, paraphrase or summary – you will probably use a reporting verb – but they all have different meanings. Click the image to find out more.

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So reporting verbs can indicate strength, weakness or neutrality - and their meaning can apply to your own position as well as that of the writer whose work you're referring to! So choose your reporting verbs carefully!

6. Challenge 2: Find the neutral reporting verbs

Click on the image to try to find some more neutral reporting verbs. Use a dictionary to help you.

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7. Review – and more practice

Soon you'll be citing sources like a superhero

Now you've had a good look at quotes and reporting verbs, let's take another look at what we've learned so far:

  • There are three ways to refer to source material in your writing: quoting, paraphrasing and summarising. Use a combination of these to add interest.
  • Use a quote when the original text is particularly concise or makes a point in a very original or memorable way.
  • When quoting, use 'single' or "double" quotation marks to signal the beginning and end of the quote – check the requirements with your institution.
  • You may also need to give the page number when you quote – check your institution's style guide to format this correctly.
  • Use reporting verbs like 'contend', 'argue' and 'examine', to give extra information about the original writer's – and your – intention.

Paraphrasing, summarising and the reference list

There's a lot more to making sure you have great reference skills – so much that we have not one, but TWO free activity pdfs for you this time! You can practise your paraphrasing, summarising and getting your list of references perfect – just click on the 'Downloads' button!