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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.


A citation is a formal reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper. It refers to a source of information that supports a factual statement, proposition, argument, or assertion or any quoted text obtained from a book, article, web site, or any other type of material. In-text citations are embedded within the body of your paper and use a shorthand notation style that refers to a complete description of the item at the end of the paper. Materials cited at the end of a paper may be listed under the heading References, Sources, Works Cited, or Bibliography. Rules on how to properly cite a source 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 rules [e.g., law].

Citations: Overview. OASIS Writing Center, Walden University; Research and Citation. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Citing Sources. University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

Citing Your Sources

Reasons for Citing Sources in Your Research Paper

English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, once wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”* Citations support learning how to "see further" through processes of intellectual discovery, critical thinking, and applying a deliberate method of navigating through the scholarly landscape by tracking how cited works are propagated by scholars over time and the subsequent ways this leads to the devarication of new knowledge.

Listed below are specific reasons why citing sources is an important part of doing good research.

  1. Shows the reader where to find more information. Citations help readers expand their understanding and knowledge about the issues being investigated. One of the most effective strategies for locating authoritative, relevant sources about a research problem is to review materials cited in studies published by other authors. In this way, the sources you cite help the reader identify where to go to examine the topic in more depth and detail.
  2. Increases your credibility as an author. Citations to the words, ideas, and arguments of scholars demonstrates that you have conducted a thorough review of the literature and, therefore, you are reporting your research results or proposing recommended courses of action from an informed and critically engaged perspective. Your citations offer evidence that you effectively contemplated, evaluated, and synthesized sources of information in relation to your conceptualization of the research problem.
  3. Illustrates the non-linear and contested nature of knowledge creation. The sources you cite show the reader how you characterized the dynamics of prior knowledge creation relevant to the research problem and how you managed to identify the contested relationships between problems and solutions proposed among scholars. Citations don't just list materials used in your study, they tell a story about how prior knowledge-making emerged from a constant state of creation, renewal, and transformation.
  4. Reinforces your arguments. Sources cited in your paper provide the evidence that readers need to determine that you properly addressed the “So What?” question. This refers to whether you considered the relevance and significance of the research problem, its implications applied to creating new knowledge, and its importance for improving practice. In this way, citations draw attention to and support the legitimacy and originality of your own ideas and assertions.
  5. Demonstrates that you "listened" to relevant conversations among scholars before joining in. Your citations tell the reader where you developed an understanding of the debates among scholars. They show how you educated yourself about ongoing conversations taking place within relevant communities of researchers before inserting your own ideas and arguments. In peer-reviewed scholarship, most of these conversations emerge within books, research reports, journal articles, and other cited works.
  6. Delineates alternative approaches to explaining the research problem. If you disagree with prior research assumptions or you believe that a topic has been understudied or you find that there is a gap in how scholars have understood a problem, your citations serve as the source materials from which to analyze and present an alternative viewpoint or to assert that a different course of action should be pursued. In short, the materials you cite serve as the means by which to argue persuasively against long-standing assumptions promulgated in prior studies.
  7. Helps the reader understand contextual aspects of your research. Cited sources help readers understand the specific circumstances, conditions, and settings of the problem being investigated and, by extension, how your arguments can be fully understood and assessed. Citations place your line of reasoning within a specific contextualized framework based on how others have studied the problem and how you interpreted their findings in support of your overall research objectives.
  8. Frames the development of concepts and ideas within the literature. No topic in the social and behavioral sciences rests in isolation from research that has taken place in the past. Your citations help the reader understand the growth and transformation of the theoretical assumptions, key concepts, and systematic inquiries that emerged prior to your engagement with the research problem.
  9. Underscores sources that were most important to you. Your citations represent a set of choices made about what you determined to be the most important sources for understanding the topic. They not only list what you discovered, but why it matters and how the materials you chose to cite fit within the broader context of your research design and arguments. As part of an overall assessment of the study’s validity and reliability, the choices you make also helps the reader determine what sources of research may have been excluded.
  10. Provides evidence of interdisciplinary thinking. An important principle of good research is to extend your review of the literature beyond the predominant disciplinary space where scholars have previously examined a topic. Citations provide evidence that you have integrated epistemological arguments, observations, and/or methodological strategies of other disciplines into your paper, thereby demonstrating that you understand the complex, interconnected nature of contemporary research topics.
  11. Forms the basis for bibliometric analysis of research. Bibliometric analysis is a quantitative method used, for example, to identify and predict emerging trends in research, document patterns of collaboration among scholars, explore the intellectual structure of a specific domain of research, map the development of research within and across disciplines, or identify gaps in knowledge within the literature. Bibliometrics data can also be used to visually map relationships among published studies. An author's citations to books, journal articles, research reports, and other publications represent the raw data used in bibliometric research.
  12. Supports critical thinking and independent learning. Evaluating the authenticity, reliability, validity, and originality of prior research is an act of interpretation and introspective reasoning applied to assessing whether a source of information will contribute to understanding the problem in ways that are persuasive and align with your overall research objectives. Reviewing and citing prior studies represents a deliberate act of critically scrutinizing each source as part of your overall assessment of how scholars have confronted the research problem.
  13. Honors the achievements of others. As Susan Blum recently noted,** citations not only identify sources used, they acknowledge the achievements of scholars within the larger network of research about the topic. Citing sources is a normative act of professionalism within academe and a way to highlight and recognize the work of scholars who likely do not obtain any tangible benefits or monetary value from their research endeavors. Your citations help to validate the work of others.

*Vernon. Jamie L. "On the Shoulder of Giants." American Scientist 105 (July-August 2017): 194.

**Blum, Susan D. "In Defense of the Morality of Citation.” Inside Higher Ed, January 29, 2024.

Aksnes, Dag W., Liv Langfeldt, and Paul Wouters. "Citations, Citation Indicators, and Research Quality: An Overview of Basic Concepts and Theories." Sage Open 9 (January-March 2019):; Blum, Susan Debra. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009; Bretag, Tracey., editor. Handbook of Academic Integrity. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2020; Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; D'Angelo, Barbara J. "Using Source Analysis to Promote Critical Thinking." Research Strategies 18 (Winter 2001): 303-309; Donthu, Naveen et al. “How to Conduct a Bibliometric Analysis: An Overview and Guidelines.” Journal of Business Research 133 (2021): 285-296; Mauer, Barry and John Venecek. “Scholarship as Conversation.” Strategies for Conducting Literary Research, University of Central Florida, 2021; Öztürk, Oguzhan, Ridvan Kocaman, and Dominik K. Kanbach. "How to Design Bibliometric Research: An Overview and a Framework Proposal." Review of Managerial Science (2024): 1-29; Why Cite? Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University; 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; Vosburgh, Richard M. "Closing the Academic-practitioner Gap: Research Must Answer the “SO WHAT” Question." Human Resource Management Review 32 (March 2022): 100633; When and Why to Cite Sources. Information Literacy Playlists, SUNY, Albany Libraries.

Structure and Writing Style

Referencing your sources means systematically showing what information or ideas you acquired from another author’s work, and identifying where that information come from. You must cite research in order to do research, but at the same time, you must delineate what are your original thoughts and ideas and what are the thoughts and ideas of others. Citations help achieve this.

Procedures used to cite sources vary among different fields of study. If not outlined in your course syllabus or writing assignment, 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 your major [e.g., use Chicago style if you are majoring in history; use APA if its an education course; use MLA if it is literature or a general writing course].


1. Are there any reasons I should avoid referencing other people's work?
No. If placed in the proper context, referencing other people's research is never an indication that your work is substandard or lacks originality. In fact, the opposite is true. If you write your paper without adequate references to previous studies, you are signaling to the reader that you are not familiar with the literature on the topic, thereby, undermining the validity of your study and your credibility as a researcher. Including references in academic writing is one of the most important ways to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of how the research problem has been addressed. It is the intellectual packaging around which you present your thoughts, ideas, and arguments to the reader.

2. What should I do if I find out that my great idea has already been studied by another researcher?
It can be frustrating to come up with what you believe is a great topic only to find that it's already been thoroughly studied. However, do not become frustrated by this. You can acknowledge the prior research by writing in the text of your paper [see also Smith, 2002], then citing the complete source in your list of references. Use the discovery of prior studies as an opportunity to demonstrate the significance of the problem being investigated and, if applicable, as a means of delineating your analysis from those of others [e.g., the prior study is ten years old and doesn't take into account new variables]. Strategies for responding to prior research can include: stating how your study updates previous understandings about the topic, offering a new or different perspective, applying a different or innovative method of gathering and interpreting data, and/or describing a new set of insights, guidelines, 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, you use 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, such as, [adapted from Smith, 1996], then cite the original source in your list of references. You can also use other terms in order to specify the exact relationship between the original source and the version you have presented, such as, "based on data from Smith [1996]...," or "summarized from Smith [1996]...." Citing the original source helps the reader locate where the information was first presented and under what context it was used as well as to evaluate how effectively you applied it to your own research.

4. What should I do if several authors have published very similar information or ideas?
You can indicate that the topic, idea, concept, or information can be found in the works of others by stating something similar to the following example: "Though many scholars have applied rational choice theory to understanding economic relations among nations [Smith, 1989; Jones, 1991; Johnson, 1994; Anderson, 2003; Smith, 2014], little attention has been given to applying the theory to examining the influence 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 more likely, they will conclude that you have not conducted a thorough review of the literature. Referencing all relevant authors of prior studies 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 significant number of prior studies on the topic [i.e., ten or more], describe the most comprehensive and recent works because they will presumably discuss and reference the older studies. However, note in your review of the literature that there has been significant scholarship devoted to the topic so the reader knows that you are aware of the numerous prior studies.

5. What if I find exactly what I want to say in the writing of another researcher?
In the social sciences, the rationale in duplicating prior research is generally governed by the passage of time, changing circumstances or conditions, or the emergence of variables that necessitate new investigations. If someone else has recently conducted a thorough investigation of precisely the same research problem that you intend to study, then you likely will have to revise your topic, or at the very least, review this literature to identify something new to say about the problem. 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 from the author directly, referencing the source. Identifying an author who has made the exact same point that you want to make can be an opportunity to validate, as well as reinforce the significance of, the research problem you are investigating. The key is to build on that idea in new and innovative ways. If you are not sure how to do this,
consult with a librarian.

6. Should I cite a source even if it was published long ago?
Any source used in writing your paper should be cited, regardless of when it was written. However, in building a case for understanding prior research about your topic, it is generally true that you should focus on citing more recently published studies because they presumably have built upon the research of older studies. When referencing prior studies, use the research problem as your guide when considering what to cite. If a study from forty years ago investigated the same topic, it probably should be examined and considered in your list of references because the research may have been foundational or groundbreaking at the time, even if its findings are no longer relevant to current conditions or reflect current thinking [one way to determine if a study is foundational or groundbreaking is to examine how often it has been cited in recent studies using the "Cited by" feature of Google Scholar]. However, if an older study only relates to the research problem tangentially or it has not been cited in recent studies, then it may be more appropriate to list it under
further readings.

7. Can I cite unusual and non-scholarly sources in my research paper?
The majority of the citations in a research paper should be to scholarly [a.k.a., academic; peer-reviewed] studies that rely on an objective and logical analysis of the research problem based on empirical evidence that reliably supports your arguments. However, any type of source can be considered valid if it brings relevant understanding and clarity to the topic. This can include, for example, non-textual elements such as photographs, maps, or illustrations. A source can include materials from special or archival collections, such as, personal papers, manuscripts, business memorandums, the official records of an organization, or digitized collections. Citations can also be to unusual items, such as, an audio recording, a transcript from a television news program, a unique set of data, or a social media post. The challenge is knowing how to cite unusual and non-scholarly sources because they often do not fit within consistent citation rules of books or journal articles. Given this, consult with a librarian if you are unsure how to cite a source.

NOTE:  In any academic writing, you are required to identify which ideas, facts, thoughts, concepts, or declarative statements are yours and which are derived from the research of others. The only exception to this rule is information that is considered to be a commonly known fact [e.g., "George Washington was the first president of the United States"] or a statement that is self-evident [e.g., "Australia is a country in the Global South"]. Appreciate, however, that any "commonly known fact" or self-evidencing statement is culturally constructed and shaped by specific social and aesthetical biases. If you have any doubt about whether or not a fact is considered to be widely understood knowledge, provide a supporting citation, or, ask your professor for clarification about whether the statement should be cited.

Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012; Blum, Susan Debra. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009; Bretag, Tracey., editor. Handbook of Academic Integrity. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2020; Carlock, Janine. Developing Information Literacy Skills: A Guide to Finding, Evaluating, and Citing Sources. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2020; 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; Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Why Cite? Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale Univeraity.

Other 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 is a useful guide concerning how to properly cite images in your research paper.

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

The links below lead to systems where you can type in your information and have a citation compiled for you. Note that these systems are not foolproof so it is important that you verify that the 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
  • Son of Citation Machine -- APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles

NOTE:  Many companies that create the research databases the USC Libraries subscribe to, such as ProQuest, include built-in citation generators that help take the guesswork out of how to properly cite a work. When available, you should always utilize these features because they not only generate a citation to the source [e.g., a journal article], but include information about where you accessed the source [e.g., the database].