Citing Sources:
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

By Jennifer L. Greer and Julia S. Austin
The Graduate School
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)

A source citation is a formal academic marker located in a paragraph near where the evidence or source material is introduced. To be valid, it must match a source reference, usually at the end of a paper (in the bibliography or list of references). Together, the source citation and the reference tell the reader who conducted the prior research or produced the knowledge, when and where it was published or presented. Importantly, these markers provide readers with a map of the writer’s scholarship, or knowledge-building efforts. Citation styles/formats vary from profession to profession and journal to journal. The two most prominent styles are author-date (Greer, 2009) and numbers, either superscript, 1,2,8, or parenthetical (1). Writers structure citations based on what they want to emphasize. For example, some citations feature the published author prominently; others feature the information more prominently. Click here for details on Citation Prominence

According to academic writing scholars John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak (2004), we cite for a variety of important reasons, all of which help research writers build credibility, contacts, and knowledge. These reasons include:

  • To acknowledge another author’s intellectual property rights, act ethically, and avoid plagiarism.
  • To respect the research and achievements of scientists who have come before us and build on their knowledge (a core principle of scholarship).
  • To recognize an influential thinker among our peers, or a contributor to our article or our research.
  • To give our arguments more credibility by association with respected, established science.
  • To prove that we know the rules of scholarly integrity and honor them, hence can be trusted in the academic community.
  • To show gaps in the knowledge and open up a valid question for our new research.

Click here to read other scholars’ thoughts on Why We Cite.

Swales, J. M., Feak, C. B. (2004) Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills: Second Edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

You use citations whenever you are including information from other people’s research articles, lectures, or data, or your own previously published research. This convention does not mean that everything needs to be cited. Common knowledge, such as bare-bone facts from the dictionary or history, does not need to be cited. An example of common knowledge is this sentence: In 1969, the United States landed the first man on the moon. Much of the non-fiction writing that you do in college, graduate school, or the research world, however, builds on the work of other scholars, which does need to be cited. This includes original research, ideas, language, supporting evidence, statistics, data, methods, tests, techniques, terms, and interpretations. In research papers, citations typically abound in Introduction and Discussion sections that reference other scholarship, while they are often scarce in Methods and Results sections, which focus on the writer’s new study. Click here to learn more about common knowledge and download a quick study guide, Ethics for Authors.

You can find citation guidelines in at least four places:

  • Your professional association – American Psychology Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), etc. at an online site or in a published guidebook.
  • The website of the journal where you plan to publish will have author’s guidelines.
  • UAB’s Mervyn H. Sterne Library at the online link, Citing Your Sources,
  • Tip: You can quickly learn the basics of citing from a model article (written or recommended by your advisor or a professor) in a published journal (not necessarily an article written by a student, which may not be accurate). For the finer points of citations and formatting for high-stakes artifacts (theses and dissertations), you will need to consult a guidebook or a reference librarian in your field.

As indicated, citation styles vary, based on the writer’s discipline, audience, and purpose. One overriding principle, however, remains constant. When using original information or evidence from sources, follow the 3-Step Rule:

  • Summarize, paraphrase, or mark it (with quotes or block indentations). Note:Quotations, or marked excerpts, are common in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, but very rare in the lab sciences, technology, math, or engineering fields.
  • Cite the source(s) in the same paragraph.
  • Cite the source(s)again in your list of References or Bibliography.

Click here for examples using the 3-Step Rule.

When in doubt, ask your professor, advisor, or a reference librarian. It is always wiser to ask for help in advance than to ignore a question, turn in a paper and be suspected of plagiarism. UAB’s Mervyn H. Sterne Library offers group or personal citation clinics. For an appointment, call 934-6364 or visit the website at

This is a common question, and it reflects a hidden problem in research writing today: Citation inflation. As a reader, you rely on the author of the article you are reading to provide the most accurate interpretation of the published literature. Yet if the author has not actually read all of the sources he or she cites, he may inadvertently mislead you on important points. So, the answer to your question is “yes, but…” Always cite the source that you actually read. If you have not read the original source, you must cite the review article as a secondary source. Follow your citation guidelines for formatting a secondary citation. In APA style, for example, a secondary citation for Greer might look like this: (Greer, as cited in Austin, 2010). College professors prefer primary citations to secondary citations because they know that you learn more when you read the original source. If your professor stipulates “primary sources only” and you cannot read the original work, you are better off omitting the information and the source than inflating your knowledge of it. In short, it is intellectualy dishonest to cite a source that you have not read as a primary citation. Note: This norm changes with context, however. Journal editors welcome some secondary citations of review articles (especially those in their own journals) to streamline the reference lists for readers (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to increase their citation indices.)