Academic citation may not sound exciting, but once you get past the dry business of formatting, ethical questions of plagiarism, the origin/ownership of ideas, and common knowledge are actually fascinating topics…for another post. Formatting first!
The American Psychological Association, the modern Language Association, and the Chicago Manual of Style have each created a set of style guidelines for formatting research papers and citing sources. APA is most commonly used in the social sciences, MLA is popular in the liberal arts and humanities, and Chicago is common almost everywhere else. (There’s also Turabian, which is Chicago style modified for college students.) It’s a good idea to figure out which style you’re going to use most often in your major, and get familiar with it.
The official guidelines for each style try to cover every possible kind of source you might need to attribute–which means they are complicated, and they change. No one has all the rules memorized, and online citation-generators like EasyBib and CitationMachine produce lots of mistakes (such as when my students’ Works Cited pages claim that books we’ve read together in class have “n.p., n.d.” –no pagination, no date). Use common sense! And at least at first, plan to consult a handbook and/or a website like the excellent Purdue OWL every time you format a paper.
Lastly, don’t wait until right before the paper is due to format your citations, or you’re guaranteed to make mistakes–which can mean getting in serious trouble for plagiarism. Start your Bibliography (if using Chicago style), Works Cited (MLA) , or Reference List (APA) during the note-taking stage! With practice, you’ll get the hang of it. And once you understand how a style works, you can even figure out how to cite weird sources that have no official guidelines.
Amy Bennett-Zendzian is the Senior ESL Writing Fellow for the ERC.