Documenting Your Research

Using sources in your research paper is an important part of building and supporting your argument. An essential part of the writing process involves documenting your research and acknowledging the ideas of others. When you begin writing your paper keep these central points in mind:

  • Present rational arguments
  • Organize your thoughts in a logical progression
  • Edit your work using guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
  • Make sure that you acknowledge the ideas, quotations, or images that you find in other electronic and print sources

This Compass Point focuses primarily on the last point, the importance of citing all your sources, and explains why citing sources properly is necessary to promote ethical practices and avoid plagiarism.

Acknowledge the Ideas of Others

It is crucial that you cite your sources and acknowledge the ideas of others who have influenced your thinking about your topic. With the proliferation of full-text, online resources, it is very easy to cut and paste text and images into your own work. But you should be aware of the ethical and legal issues involved in using someone else's work without proper attribution. If you are not cautious, you may unwittingly plagiarize someone else's ideas.

Intellectual Property

Honest and thorough citations are important for at least two reasons:

First, the ideas and words of an author are his/her intellectual property. Intellectual property, like any kind of property, has a commercial value - so taking someone's ideas or words as your own is a form of theft. If you plagiarize, you could face disciplinary action from the university or, if you continue these habits and publish plagiarized work later in your life, you could face legal consequences.

Second, academic scholarship is a system in which authors publish their opinions so that they can be read by a community of scholars. These scholars evaluate an author's arguments and then write new works to support or refute what they have read. Your work is also a part of this system: your research and writings will become available to the community, which will read them, criticize them, and perhaps someday build upon them. This is why it is so important for your readers to be able to check your sources and fully evaluate the strength of your arguments. Students sometimes believe that they should minimize their citations because they fear that using too many sources will make their work appear unoriginal. On the contrary, papers with thorough and correct citations make your work appear thoughtful and well-researched.


Plagiarism is the failure to acknowledge ideas or words that are not your own. You are plagiarizing if:

  • You insert exact words or phrases from another author's work into your own work.
  • You use another author's ideas EVEN IF YOU PUT THEM INTO YOUR OWN WORDS.

You must be sure to differentiate your own thoughts from those that you read in other sources, and you must credit authors even if you do not quote them directly.

Following is a set of examples showing common mistakes that can help you recognize and avoid plagiarism. These examples have been taken from The Writing Tutorial Services web page, Indiana University Bloomington, (November 25, 2003)

Rewording a sentence (paraphrasing)

This is one of the most common mistakes that students make. You cannot simply reword a sentence. For example, consider the following sentence from Angelici (Synthesis and Technique in Inorganic Chemistry, p 46):

"Those complexes that contain unpaired electrons are attracted into a magnetic field and are said to be paramagnetic, while those with no unpaired electrons are repelled by such a field and are called diamagnetic."

The following permutations are unacceptable changes in wording:

"Complexes that contain unpaired electrons are those that are attracted to a magnetic field. These are called paramagnetic, while those with no unpaired electrons are repelled by a magnetic field and are said to be diamagnetic."

"Those complexes that contain paired electrons are repelled by a magnetic field and are said to be diamagnetic, whereas those with no paired electrons are attracted to such a field and are called paramagnetic."

"Compounds that have unpaired electrons are attracted to a magnetic field and are called paramagnetic. Compounds with no unpaired electrons are repelled by this field and are said to be diamagnetic."

How to recognize unacceptable and acceptable paraphrases

Here's the original text, from page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams et al.:

"The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived) which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade."

Here's an unacceptable paraphrase that is plagiarism:

The increase of industry, the growth of cities, and the explosion of the population were three large factors of nineteenth century America. As steam-driven companies became more visible in the eastern part of the country, they changed farm hands into factory workers and provided jobs for the large wave of immigrants. With industry came the growth of large cities like Fall River where the Bordens lived which turned into centers of commerce and trade as well as production.

What makes this passage plagiarism? The preceding passage is considered plagiarism for two reasons:

  • The writer has only changed around a few words and phrases, or changed the order of the original's sentences.
  • The writer has failed to cite a source for any of the ideas or facts.

Cite Your Sources

You should cite all sources (both printed and online) correctly and fully so that those who read your work can find and refer to your citations. When you are gathering sources for your topic, make sure that you note the following information for your citations:

  • Author
  • Title, subtitle
  • Editor (if any)
  • Edition
  • Volume
  • Place of publication (city or state name)
  • Publisher
  • Date of publication
  • Page numbers of article

For online resources, also add:

  • URL
  • Date of access
  • Webmaster (if given)
  • Database name (if given)

In order to cite and format your sources correctly, refer to one of the many online or print style and citation guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual. In addition, some software programs, such as EndNote, will format your citations automatically in a variety of styles. Style guides differ by academic discipline. The academic field of history uses the Chicago Manual of Style while the academic field of literature uses the MLA Style Manual. There are differences between these two guides in how items are cited in footnotes and in bibliographies so make sure you know which style you should be using. The most important rule is to be consistent. If you use MLA, be consistent throughout your paper. Don't mix styles.

Here are examples of citation styles in different subject disciplines courtesy of the Bedford Handbook website:





Social Sciences