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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: 11. Citing Sources

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.


A citation is a reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper. The way in which you document your sources depends on the writing style manual your professor wants you to use for the class [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.]. Note that some disciplines have their own citation method [e.g., law].

Importance of a Citing your Sources

Citations show your readers where you obtained your material, provides a means of critiquing your study, and offers the opportunity to obtain additional information about the research problem under investigation. The act of citing sources is also a defense against allegations of plagiarism.

Properly citing the works of others is important because:

  1. Proper citation allows readers to locate the materials you used. Citations to other sources helps readers expand their knowledge on a topic. In most social sciences disciplines, one of the most effective strategies for locating authoritative, relevant sources about a topic is to follow footnotes or references from known sources ["citation tracking"].
  2. Citing other people's words and ideas indicates that you have conducted a thorough review of the literature on your topic and, therefore, you are operating from an informed perspective. This increases your credibility as the author of the work.
  3. Other researcher's ideas can be used to reinforce your arguments, or, if you disagree with them, can act as positions from which to argue an alternative viewpoint. In many cases, another researcher's arguments can act as the primary context from which you can emphasize a different viewpoint or to clarify the importance of what you are proposing.
  4. Just as other researcher's ideas can bolster your arguments and act as evidence for your ideas, they can also detract from your credibility if they are found to be mistaken or fabricated. Properly citing information not unique to you prevents your reputation from being tarnished if the facts or ideas of others are proven to be inaccurate or off-base.
  5. Outside academe, ideas are considered intellectual property and there can serious repercussions if you fail to cite where you got an idea from. In the professional world, failure to cite other people's intellectual property ruins careers and reputations and can result in legal action. Given this, it is important to get into the habit of citing sources.

In any academic writing, you are required to identify for your reader which ideas, facts, theories, concepts, etc., are yours and which are derived from the research and thoughts of others. Whether you summarize, paraphrase, or use direct quotes, if it's not your original idea, the source must be acknowledged. The only exception to this rule is information that is considered to be common knowledge [e.g., George Washington was the first president of the United States]. If you are in doubt about whether a fact is common knowledge or not, protect yourself from any allegations of plagiarism and cite it, or ask your professor for clarification.

Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; Citing Information. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Harvard College Writing Program. Harvard University; Newton, Philip. "Academic Integrity: A Quantitative Study of Confidence and Understanding in Students at the Start of Their Higher Education." Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 41 (2016): 482-497; Referencing More Effectively. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Using Sources. Yale College Writing Center. Yale University.

Structure and Writing Style

Referencing your sources means systematically showing what information or ideas you are quoting or paraphrasing from another author’s work, and where they come from. You must cite research in order to do research, but at the same time, you must indicate what are your original thoughts and ideas and what are the thoughts and ideas of others.

Procedures used to reference the sources you have relied upon vary among different fields of study. However, always speak with your professor about what writing style for citing sources should be used for the class because it is important to fully understand the citation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently. If your professor defers and tells you to "choose whatever you want, just be consistent," then choose the citation style you are most familiar with or that is appropriate to the discipline [e.g., use Chicago style if its a history class; use APA if its an education course].


1. Should I avoid referencing other people's work?
No! Referencing other people's work is never an indication that your work is poor or lacks originality if placed in the proper context. In fact, the opposite is true. If you write your paper with no references to previous research, you are indicating to the reader that you are not familiar with the research that has already been done, thereby, undermining your credibility as an author and the validity of your study. Including references in academic writing not only defends you against allegations of plagiarism, but it is a way of demonstrating your knowledge of pertinent literature about the research problem.

2. What should I do if I find that my idea has already been examined by another researcher?
Do not ignore another author's work because doing so will lead your readers to believe that you have either taken the idea or information without properly referencing it [this is plagiarism] and/or that you have failed to conduct a thorough review of the literature in your field. You can acknowledge the other research by writing in the text of your paper something like this: [see also Smith, 2002] then citing the complete source in your list of references. Use the discovery of prior research is an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the problem being investigated and, if applicable, as a means of delineating your analysis from those of others. Reacting to prior research can include: stating how your study updates prior research, offering a new or different perspective, using a different method of data gathering, or describing a new set of recommendations, best practices, or working solutions.

3. What should I do if I want to use an adapted version of someone else's work?
You still must cite the original work. For example, maybe you are using a table of statistics from a journal article published in 1996 by author Smith, but you have altered or added new data to it. Reference the revised chart as: [adapted from Smith, 1996] then citing the complete source in your list of references. You can also use other terms in order to specify the exact relationship between the source and the version you have presented, such as, "based on Smith [1996]...," or "summarized from Smith [1996]...."  Citing the original source helps the reader locate the original information and evaluate how you adapted it.

4. What should I do if several authors have published very similar information or ideas?
You can indicate that the idea or information can be found in the work of more than one author by stating something similar to the following example: "Though in fact many authors have applied this theory to understanding economic relations among nations [for example, see Smith, 1989; Jones, 19991; Johnson, 1994], little work has been done on applying it to understand the actions of non-governmental organizations in a globalized economy." If you only reference one author or only the most recent study, then your readers may assume that only one author has published on this topic, or, conclude that you have not reviewed the literature thoroughly. Referencing multiple authors gives your readers a clear idea of the breadth of analysis you conducted in preparing to study the research problem. If there has been a lot of prior research on the topic, cite the most comprehensive and recent works because they will presumably discuss and cite the older studies but note that there has been significant scholarship devoted to the topic so the reader knows that you are aware of this.

5. What if I find exactly what I want to say in the writing of another researcher?
It depends on what it is; if someone else has thoroughly investigated precisely the same research problem as you, then you likely will have to change your topic, or at the very least, find something new to say about what you're researching. However, if it is someone else's particularly succinct expression, but it fits perfectly with what you are trying to say, then you can quote directly, referencing the page, the author, and year of publication. Don't see this as a setback, though. Discovering an author who has made the same point that you have is an opportunity to add legitimacy to, as well as reinforce the significance of, the research problem you are investigating.

Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Harvard College Writing Program. Harvard University; How to Cite Other Sources in Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Lunsford, Andrea A. and Robert Connors; The St. Martin's Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015; Research and Citation Resources. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Using Evidence. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.

Citation Research Guides

The following USC Libraries research guide can help you properly cite sources in your research paper:

The following USC Libraries research guide offers basic information on using images and media in research:

Listed below are particularly well-done and comprehensive websites that provide specific examples of how to cite sources under different style guidelines.

This guide provides good information on the act of citation analysis, whereby you count the number of times a published work is cited by other works in order to measure the impact of a publication or author.

Automatic Citation Generators

Type in your information and have a citation compiled for you. Note that these are not foolproof systems so it is important that you verify that your citation is correct and check your spelling, capitalization, etc. However, they can be useful in creating basic types of citations, particularly for online sources.

  • BibMe -- APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles
  • DocsCite -- for citing government publications in APA or MLA formats
  • EasyBib -- APA, MLA, and Chicago styles
  • KnightCite -- APA, MLA, and Chicago styles
  • Scholar Space -- APA, MLA, and Chicago styles including citing uncommon sources
  • Son of Citation Machine -- APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles