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Introduction to library research in the arts: Cite your sources

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objective

  • Identify the attributes of a source that affect its citation.

Why do we cite sources?

Many of us first learned to cite our sources because we were required to for class. However, citing sources is not simply about following rules. There are two main principles behind the convention for citing sources.

  1. When we cite sources, we are being honest with readers about the origin of the ideas that we present. We are giving credit to the efforts of other people who have researched these topics and recognizing them for their work. We also uphold the academic honesty standards of the University of Redlands.
  2. When we cite sources, we are helping our readers learn more about our topic. Citations show your readers where they can go to learn more about the topic. This is a convenience to them and a way to increase the visibility of high quality resources that more people should know about.


Where do citation formats come from?

There are several major citation styles. Each style was developed to meet the needs of researchers working in different disciplines. The styles you are most likely to need to use at University of Redlands include:

  1. Modern Language Association (MLA). This style was created for humanities scholars who often need to do close reading of a specific passage and reference conversations or debates between multiple authorities. This format emphasizes citing authors' names and page numbers.
  2. American Psychological Association (APA) This style was created for scientific research, where new research findings can contradict older research, making it less valid. APA format emphasizes the authors' names and year of publication.
  3. Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) is used in many social science disciplines. It offers authors the choice between putting citations in parenthesis or in footnotes to avoid disrupting the flow of the authors' own ideas. Chicago style emphasizes the authors' names and year of publication.
  4. Turabian style was derived from Chicago style and is very similar.


Citation is not about memorizing rules

Don't worry about memorizing every detail of each style. Instead:

  • Recognize when you need to cite a source
  • Pay close attention to the document you are citing, to recognize which attributes may have citation rules associated with them.
  • Refer to the style guide or examples found online, to guide you through how to format the citation for your source.

When do I need to cite?

You don't need to cite a source for ideas that are considered common knowledge, such as that Frederick Douglass was a well known orator, statesman and leader of the antislavery movement, or that Francis Crick and James Watson are known for discovering the structure of DNA.

However, anytime you reference specific ideas, such as the words of Frederick Douglass as set down in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) or Crick and Watson's article "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribonucleic Acid" published in Nature, you do need to cite those ideas and give credit to their source.

Plagiarism is considered one of the worst ethical breaches a researcher can commit, so it is better to err on the side of caution in deciding whether to cite a source. Your instructor and librarian can help you think through situations where you are not sure whether you need to cite a source.

What attributes do I need to cite?

All citations have some common elements, regardless of what kind of document you are trying to cite and what style you are citing in. The most common elements are:

  1. The title of the source
  2. Who created the source
  3. When the source was published
  4. Who published the source (e.g. a publishing company or government agency)
  5. How to get to the source (if it's published online)
  6. Specific page numbers (if you are directly quoting a source)

Each document that you cite will have attributes corresponding to multiple rules in the style guide. For example, you might be citing a document that is a book, written by two authors, and was published as an ebook that you found in a library database. There are rules covering each of these elements and you will need to consider all four of them in constructing your citation.

Citation style guides have excellent indexes. Use the index to look up each rule that pertains to the document you are trying to cite and then put them all together, using an example citation as your starting point.

Activity: Creating citations

Practice creating citations for these sources in a style of your choice.

  1. What type of document are you looking at? (A book? An article? A website?)
  2. Consider important elements of these documents, such as the number of authors, the online or physical format, and whether they are in a commercial library database.
  3. Identify appropriate rules for those attributes using a style guide (or examples found on an online website if you don't have access to a style guide)

Manage your citations with Zotero

zotero logo

Learn to use Zotero: free, open source citation management software compatible with major browsers and word processors.

Turabian Style

More information about citing sources

Key points

  • Citing sources is essential to acknowledge the work of other scholars and to help your readers learn about your topic.
  • To cite a source in a particular style, recognize the important attributes of your document and look up the rules related to those attributes in a citation style guide.