“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”
―Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Research. Reference. Citation. MLA. APA. Turabian. These are concepts that you are bound to encounter in your English Composition classes and many other classes throughout your college career. They’re dull, confusing, and slightly off-putting academic terms that can seem like more trouble than they are worth, chock full of over-specific rules. But they are essential to your academic life. College means research, and research means citation.
Citation can be a challenging thing to learn, let alone do correctly. Even more so when you’ve never needed to use any kind of formal citation guidelines before. When your professor says, “Write this paper in MLA,” do you panic? Blank out? Or does your mind whirr with questions: What is MLA? Why do I have to write in it? What does MLA even mean? Parenthetical what now? If so, don’t worry: you aren’t alone. This chapter will help introduce you to the practice of reference and academic citation, hopefully making it a bit less daunting.
First, let us consider the word “reference.” Even in casual conversation, we reference things all the time ― whether it be a news article we just read, a tweet that was shared with us, or pop culture references of songs, shows or movies. Information is constantly being exchanged and shared, both in casual and academic settings. I’m sure most of us can think of someone we know who is constantly dropping movie quotes at parties. They can casually create punchlines and talking points out of these cultural references with sometimes amazing ease. But have you ever had a friend drop a reference you don’t know? Or make a joke using the latest internet trend that you haven’t heard of? Frustrating, right? With so much information out there, almost endless media, entertainment, publications, and references inside of references, it’s pretty much impossible to easily know where everything comes from. But if the millions of documentation styles and their various rules prove anything, it’s that academia sure has tried.
Consider the vast world of nerd-dom that is the Marvel Universe. If you have a friend who is really into Marvel, odds are they will constantly be bringing up quotes, events, or even knowledge that is exclusive to the comic books, bragging and lauding their own knowledge of how this or that object in the background of Avengers: Age of Ultron is really a nod to volume 12 of blah blah blah. If you are just a casual watcher of the movies, you are probably at a loss. But what if you actually wanted to get on that same level of lore knowledge? What if you also wanted to be able to make references to every character and plot within the massive Marvel universe? Having your friend tell you where they got their information might be a good start. You might ask, who, where, or what are they referencing exactly? These questions bring us to citation, which is ― put simply ― telling your audience where you got your information.
“Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”
―Guardians of the Galaxy
Social media is another casual-yet-common example of reference and citation in everyday life. Every time you share your friend’s hiking pic on Facebook or retweet a joke from a celebrity, you are in fact taking part in the exchange of information. You are also engaging in the practice of citation. Luckily, the citation part of this exchange is largely automatic on social media, as the original post is embedded within the share, so it is easy to see who made the post. Still, it illustrates the practice of citation perfectly. By showing the original post, it gives credit to the original poster and leads a viewer directly to that person’s page or profile, where more of their “work” can be found. Alternatively, there is the dreaded and oft-unauthorized “repost,” where your carefully crafted thanksgiving post is copy/pasted, or a picture you took is downloaded and re-uploaded on to someone else’s wall. Rude, right? Even on the seemingly wild and lawless plains of the internet, it’s considered common decency to at least “tag” the person who came up with the content.
At its most basic, citation is the method by which a writer shows where the information in their work comes from, or where their referenced material originates. If your friend drops the quote “I choose to run towards my problems, and not away from them. Because that’s what heroes do,” and afterwards helpfully tells you the quote is from the hit Thor: Ragnarok, that is a form of citation, though a casual one. You then don’t have to search and search to find said movie if you happened to be interested in seeing it. Now you can experience the film yourself, see if it’s really as good as your friend claims, or make sure that the quote really did come from that movie (even I sometimes think there are too many Marvel movies). Similarly, academic citation allows the reader to find your source, read it for themselves, and verify the information within: namely if it is valid, used correctly, and where it fits with the rest of the research on the subject.
This practice of citation on social media, not to mention the internet at large, is also essential amid the current cultural climate of “fake news.” Because of the ease at which misinformation spreads, understanding how reference and citation work is more important than ever. However, it can also be more easily misused. “Facts” can spread without verification at alarming speeds, and rumors quickly become accepted as truth. Marvel fans may remember the lead up to Avengers: Endgame as a particularly chaotic time on the internet. Marvel Studios kept information tighter than a drum, preventing any leaks or spoilers. Fans were determined to get even a crumb of what to expect, which led to rumors upon rumors. This particular group of nerds (myself included) became expert-level researchers, digging into every possible hint. Nebula becomes the real villain instead of Thanos? False, just some person’s conspiratorial blog post. One of the biggest and most-loved characters dies at the end? True. Straight from the mouth of Tom Holland, our dear spoiler-spewing Spiderman. Obviously, an actor in the film is going to have more credibility than a random fan, and knowing where the information originated helps verify any claim. If you are sharing that last tidbit of information with your friends, saying you heard it from Tom Holland means you are more likely to be believed, becoming more credible yourself. The fan’s Nebula theory, based only on personal speculation, is not going to have that same weight, even if it might be interesting to discuss. Getting into the practice of always checking the original source of information, then deciding whether that source is credible, helps avoid false information. If a source is not provided, the information should always be looked at with skepticism.
In academia, these same practices done so casually on the internet are simply given a more specific form and function. That “form” is the various formats you may encounter: APA, MLA, Turabian, etc. The function still adheres to the basics: telling your audience where you got your information. As stated in the MLA Handbook, “the purpose of any documentation style is to allow authors to guide their readers quickly and unobtrusively to the source … of borrowed material” (19).
“I know my worth.”
―Marvel’s Agent Carter
Consider again your Marvel friend. What does he gain by constantly referring to obscure plot points from volume 78 of Spiderman? Clout, for the most part. The right to situate themselves within this particular plane of knowledge and prove that they are well-versed in it. Failing to provide context for a particular reference is, at worst, plagiarism and, at best, self-aggrandizing. It’s going to be pretty obvious that your Marvel friend is not the main source from which the vastly popular comic universe springs. Not telling you where a particular Thanos quote came from because “you should just know” indicates a hefty level of pride, or could even hint that they don’t actually know either, and are just throwing around obscure information to make themselves look knowledgeable. It’s irresponsible, and just plain rude. Again, it’s a kind of fraud, greatly decreasing any credibility your friend may have as a Marvel fan.
We’ve all heard professors break out that horrible word: plagiarism. It is the absolute no-no of the academic world. Every student is told to avoid it at all costs. If caught, you could face a zero grade on your assignment, fail the class, or worse, be expelled or suspended. So what exactly is plagiarism? Here is SLCC’s definition: “Presenting within one’s own work the ideas, representations, or words of another person without customary and proper acknowledgment of that person’s authorship is considered plagiarism. Students who are unsure of what constitutes plagiarism should consult with their instructors. Claims of ignorance will not necessarily excuse the offense.” The offense of plagiarism directly violates the student’s responsibility towards academic integrity, and, depending on the circumstance or institution, has a variety of consequences, such as the ones listed earlier. Additionally, the MLA Handbook explains, “plagiarism is presenting another person’s ideas, information, expressions, or entire work as one’s own. It is thus a kind of fraud: deceiving others to gain something of value” (6–7). Granted, for most students plagiarism is accidental, usually because they are simply unaware of what constitutes plagiarism, but it is a serious topic to consider. Failing to tell your reader your sources, whether by accident or on purpose, makes it seem like you are claiming that information as your own, which as mentioned earlier, is a kind of fraudulent behavior. Proper citation shows that “the writer knows the importance of giving credit where credit is due” (MLA 6). In other words, it is respect for the author’s work and a form of thanks for their contribution to your own work.
The same can be said for academic reference. Dropping quotes without sources or names without context is phony knowledge. Citation practices like MLA and APA exist to avoid and prevent this very type of situation. Citing, and thereby giving credit where credit is due, shows that you have done the research and can contribute to the ongoing academic conversation, and it proves you value and respect the exchange of knowledge and creativity. With so much information running rampant through the world, particularly in the age of the internet, it is especially important to cite as accurately as possible. Citation puts each source in context, and shows how individual sources build on and interact with each other. In her article “Citing References: The Big Picture,” Jasmine Bridges states: “Citing sources is an acknowledgement that even original findings build on prior knowledge” (391). For your Marvel friend who doesn’t take responsibility for their references, they are likely doing so to claim some kind of superiority, though the effect is actually the opposite.
Citation is a vital part of academic discourse. It not only helps your readers find information, but also elevates and validates you as a writer. You may have noticed that I have made a few references thus far. I do this for the same reasons stated above ― to add credibility to my writing and verify my knowledge. To further back me up, Ohio State University’s article “Choosing and Using Sources” states these three primary reasons to cite: “To avoid plagiarism and maintain academic integrity … to acknowledge the work of others … [and] to provide credibility to your work and to place your work in context.” Now you know I’m not the only nit-picky professor telling you how important citing is. See how that worked?
“Don’t do anything I would do, and definitely don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. There’s a little gray area in there, and that’s where you operate.”
So then, how the heck do you cite? If you’ve ever perused the MLA handbook, or done a tentative google search of “APA format,” what you found might have seemed intimidating: eye-crossing lists of rules for every little thing. However, no matter what format you are using, there are generally two main components to citation. One is an in-text indication of the source. For MLA, that is the in-text parenthetical citation, which gives the author’s last name and page number, if available, immediately after the referenced material, which could be a quote or paraphrase. The second component is a collective list of all your referenced material. Bridges explains these two essential components as first, a “reference in the body of the article that marks the place where information from another source is being used,” and second, an “entry on a reference page where complete information about the source is listed” (392). So, while there are indeed many rules for documentation styles, the practice still boils down to these two parts: the in-text citation, and the source list.
First, let’s go over in-text citation. Whatever you may be writing, every time you use information that is not yours, whether as a direct quote or summary, you must specify where that information came from. There are a few different ways to do this. The easiest method, which can always be used, regardless of format, is the attributive tag. Similar to tagging someone in a post online, the attributive tag gives the name of the author of your source (if an author is not listed, you give the title or publisher). When writing a paper, you introduce that attribution as part of your writing, so that it flows in the sentence. I’ve used a few attributive tags in this article so far, and would encourage you to go back and try to find them. Here, however, is one example:
The attributive tag in this particular example is “as stated in the MLA Handbook.” I named my source within the sentence, prior to giving the quote. This is an attributive tag. It is the simplest way to avoid plagiarism, and gives credit to the author while placing your source in context with your own writing. But what about the little “(19)” that I placed after the quote? The number in parentheses is an MLA-formatted parenthetical citation, indicating the page number on which I found the quote, marking the precise location. If I had not used an attributive tag, instead simply giving the quote with no introduction, I would use that same parenthetical citation to provide the name of my source. Here’s what it would look like in that case:
Using in-text citations and attributive tags immediately tells your reader where you got your information. It also helps indicate what information is yours, and what comes from your research. Additionally, the name given in the parenthetical citation and/or the attributive tag should lead your reader directly to the next essential element of citation: the list of sources.
The second vital component of citation is your list of sources. In MLA, this list is called the “Works Cited.” In APA, it is simply “References.” “Bibliography” is another common word used to refer to this list. More informal publications like internet articles don’t necessarily have to call it anything, but any properly documented, and therefore credible, piece of work should always include a collection of the referenced sources.
While different formats, again, have different rules for exactly how to write out your list of sources, all contain the same basic elements: the name of the author, the title of the source, some kind of location information (generally a publisher or name of a website), and the date of publication. This is considered the minimum amount of identifying characteristics that will help a reader locate the source. Similarly, while different formats vary, the basic order of information in a bibliographic citation is more logical than it seems at first glance. When referencing any piece of work, what is the most important information? Who created it, and what the piece is called. Virtually all citation formats begin with the author and are followed by the title (APA does, however, require the year of publication to be listed early on in the citation). Other identifying information such as publisher, year, volume number, edition, etc. are also important markers for your readers. It is generally good practice to provide whatever information is available about your source. Documentation styles vary on how to include these details in your list of sources, but once you know what you are looking for and why (helping the reader find the exact same source you did) the practice starts to make more sense.
Let’s use one of my sources as an example: From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Practical Guide by Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. Since I use quotes and various writing advice from this book in this article, it must therefore be listed in my Works Cited section at the end (which if you take a quick peek, it certainly is). But let’s go over what that citation would look like right now as well, shown in both MLA and APA format:
Greene, Stuart and April Lidinsky. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Practical Guide. 3rd ed, Bedford/St Martin’s, 2015.
Greene, S. & Lidinsky, A. (2015). From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Practical Guide. (3rd ed). Bedford/St Martin’s.
For both MLA and APA, the author is the first identifier in the citation, with the last name listed before first. As mentioned earlier, one of the uses of the in-text citation is to direct your reader to the full citation in your list of sources. Therefore, the information given in the in-text citation, usually the last name of the author, is the first piece of information in the bibliographic citation. If you notice that I use a quote and either give an in-text parenthetical citation, (Greene), or write the attributive tag, “according to Greene,” then you know you can scan my Works Cited at the end, search for “Greene” and easily find the right source. Within the bibliographic citation itself, all the most important identifying information is given, in order to guide your reader to the right place.
“Part of the journey is the end.”
If this seems overwhelming still, consider this advice from Greene: “the important thing is to adhere faithfully to your chosen (or assigned) style throughout your paper.” The key therefore, is not necessarily accuracy, but consistency. Whether or not there is a comma in your in-text citation, or if the year comes before or after the title in the Works Cited, is far less important than making sure your citations are clear and understandable. This concept supports the overall goal of citation: to have your sources be easy to find. Having a clear and consistent style will give your readers the best chance of locating what they need. This is also why there are so many different styles relative to each discipline. MLA, APA, Turabian, etc. are simply patterns of citation that work best for different types of research and writing.
While it is important to practice the conventions of academic citation formats, clarity and consistency is the more crucial, and more attainable goal. As Ole Bjorn Redkal puts it, “good citation practice is about being as honest, accurate, and thorough as possible” (570). It can help to think of the practice of citation as a roadmap, guiding your reader to whatever information they need. Therefore, when you are citing, be sure that you are accurately citing the necessary information to the best of your ability. Not giving enough information, say, not providing a page number, “is like inviting someone to your house and just giving them the street name but not the house number” (Redkal 572). Granted, the proliferation of online sources that have no page number complicates this, but the principle remains the same: make sure your readers know what house to look for. To bring our metaphor back to Marvel, say you make a Spiderman reference to your friend that they don’t recognize. They’ll probably want to know which Spiderman film to even begin looking at. Spiderman 2? The Amazing Spiderman? Far From Home? What about the comics? With at least a couple dozen spider-heroes, telling your friend whether you are discussing Toby Maguire’s spidey or a scene from the animated series would be immensely helpful. Even better, what episode? Or what time in the movie? Make sure you give enough information to keep your readers from getting lost. If you are successful, your reader won’t wander into the wrong Spiderverse.
Hopefully you now have a little more insight into the method behind the madness that is academic citation. As you absorb all of this knowledge, keep in mind the ultimate goal of citation. As a final stab at credibility, here is that goal according to The Norton Field Guide to Writing: “As a writer, you need to acknowledge any words and ideas that come from others ― to give credit where credit is due, to recognize the various authorities and many perspectives you have considered, to show readers where they can find your sources, and to situate your own arguments in the ongoing conversation” (Bullock 370). So go forth and practice citation, so we can all find the right Spiderman.
Avengers: Endgame. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo. Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, 2019.
Bridges, Jasmine. “Citing References: The Big Picture.” Radiologic Technology, vol. 89, no. 4, March/April 2018, pp. 391-393.
Bullock, Richard. The Norton Field Guide to Writing. W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo. Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, 2014.
Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research. University Libraries, The Ohio State University, 2018.
Greene, Stuart and April Lidinsky. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Practical Guide. 3rd ed, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn. Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, 2014.
Marvel’s Agent Carter. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. Marvel Television and ABC Studios. 2015.
MLA Handbook. 8th ed. The Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
Rekdal, Ole Bjorn. “Academic Citation Practice: A Sinking Sheep?” Libraries and the Academy, October 2014.
Spiderman: Homecoming. Directed by John Watts. Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, 2017.
Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi, Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, 2017.