To Cite or Not to Cite?

Student deciding whether or not to cite a source.

Source: Woman doing a survey, Tombie, istockphotos

Before you can document sources within the text of your research paper, you must know what information needs to be cited and what doesn’t. The key to avoiding plagiarism—there’s that word again—is to make sure to give credit when it is due. Hopefully, this chart will help you figure out when that’s necessary.

Deciding when to give credit

You Need to Give Credit in the Text in These Instances:

  • When you use the same words or even a unique phrase from someone else’s work or writing (direct quotation)
  • When you paraphrase or summarize information that is not common knowledge (indirect quotation)
  • When you use or refer to another person’s words or ideas from a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • When you interview or talk to someone face-to-face, on the phone, or in writing (e-mail or otherwise), and use this information in part or in whole
  • When you copy any diagrams, illustrations, cartoons, charts, pictures, or other visuals
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available information, including images, audio, video, or other media from places such as e-books, Web sites, library databases, CDs, DVDs, iTunes, forums, and chat spaces

Basically, if your information is obtained from somewhere else or someone else, and isn’t something most people would know, document it.

You Don’t Need to Give Credit in the Text in These Instances:

  • When you share personal experiences, observations, or opinions
  • When you use common knowledge that’s available in at least five credible sources and is information you believe your readers already know—information that a person could easily find in general reference sources, or information that is not arguable or based on any particular way of thinking—for example, folklore, common sense observations, myths, and historical events (but not historical documents) (For example, July 4, 1776, is Independence Day and can be confirmed in more than five sources. Most people in the United States would know this fact.)
  • When you state generally accepted facts (For example, “Eating fruits and vegetables every day is better than eating the same amount of candy and chips.”)
  • When you use work that you have created such as posters, artwork, videos, and podcasts
  • When you write results that you obtained through your own experiments (for example, noting how many of your homeroom classmates wear black each day)

If you’re unsure about citing information, go ahead and cite.

Always identify the sources of direct quotations with parenthetical documentation (also called in-text or parenthetical citation). Whether the quotation is from someone’s spoken or written words—no matter how simple or unimportant they may seem—you must identify the source and page number, if applicable. Also identify the source and page number for indirect quotations (paraphrases), unless they consist of common knowledge.

Using what you learned from the chart above, decide if the following information requires documentation. If it does, click “Yes.” If it doesn't, click “No.”