Mythbusters:  The Truth about Quotations and Citations in Academic Papers


Myth #1:  If you don't completely understand what an author is saying, it's a good idea to quote that section directly rather than paraphrasing it. In fact, there's no such thing as too many quotations.


Nope. Quotations are not a crutch to avoid understanding. If you're having trouble understanding an author's argument, you need to spend more time deciphering its meaning. If you can't grasp it on your own, you should see your professor or ask another student to help you make sense of it.  Using quotations well is key to a good academic paper. And after all, if you don't really know what a passage means, chances are you aren't going to use it well in your paper. A paper filled with quotations that are properly cited would not be in violation of academic integrity. However, it probably would be a lousy paper. Professors ask you to write papers because they want to see your mind at work-how well you read, understand, sift evidence, present arguments. Limited and strategic use of quotations in the context of using your own words to present your ideas and others' will best demonstrate these skills.  Strings of quotations at best demonstrate your typing skills.


Myth #2:  In research papers professors want you to repeat what others have said on a topic; they don't want you to offer your own opinions.


Wrong. In a research paper you should demonstrate that you know what some major thinkers have said about a topic, but your thesis-the overarching idea that holds your paper together-should encapsulate your judgment on the topic. You may end up agreeing with one author over another, or you may synthesize the views of multiple authors to come to a new position.  A thesis, though, is different from your "opinion." Opinions are assertions without supporting evidence; in the world of academia, opinions by themselves aren't worth much and you should avoid centering an academic paper on opinions. But assertions that are bolstered by facts, evidence, or argument become more than just opinions-they become ideas. If the evidence for these ideas is compelling, they may be recognized as worthy ideas.  So, it's true: don't build your papers around your opinions; build them around your ideas. Use citations and quotations to convince that others your ideas have merit.


Myth #3:  Paraphrasing is simple-it just means changing a few words. But using someone's exact words isn't always plagiarism. After all, sometimes there is only one way to say something!


Actually paraphrasing is difficult, and insufficient paraphrasing is an academic integrity violation.  First you have to understand what an author is saying. This might take some time. You might need a dictionary, and it might take you three or four readings to grasp things fully.  Don't despair-this is college and it's supposed to be difficult. Second, you have to figure out how to say it in your own words.  This entails a lot more than just changing a few words.  Not only must you avoid repeating strings of words from the source, you also need to make sure you don't simply mimic its sentence structure. Put the source out of sight when you paraphrase; this way you are less likely to rely on the same phrasing. Don't worry if your vocabulary or expression isn't as sophisticated as your source:  the point is that the words be yours and that they demonstrate that you have grasped the material.  If you're having trouble paraphrasing, it probably means you haven't fully understood your source.  Don't be afraid to get some help from your professor or from the Writing Center.  And by the way, there always is another way to express a fact or idea. Sometimes it might take a bit of thought about how to weave another's idea into your own sentence or argument. That's why you need to plan lots of time to write papers!


Myth #4:  If you're really worried about avoiding plagiarism, just check out the similarity index on a Turnitin report. Anything under a certain percentage is fine and anything over that means trouble.


Turnitin is a helpful tool for professors, but the similarity index is only a first indicator that there might be a problem with a paper. There is no "acceptable" percentage.  Turnitin only identifies areas of overlap with known sources; it does not check to see if a student has used quotation marks or citations correctly.   Students and professors need to read these reports carefully and to compare the submitted paper with the identified sources to determine if the sources have been used properly or improperly. A paper with a high similarity index might be filled with properly cited quotations; a paper with a low similarity index might contain instances of uncited material or unmarked quotations.


Myth #5:  It's a good idea to wait until you finish a paper to mark quotation and citations.


Well, it's always good to double check your quotations and citations when you finish a paper, but it definitely isn't a good idea to wait until then to mark them.  Say you're writing a paper and you find some great material in a source. So you cut & paste or retype some sentences and say to yourself, "I'll go back and add the citation later" or "I'll put this in my own words later."  Let's be serious.  You're a busy person. Tomorrow you'll have forgotten from which source this material came and which words are yours and which are the author's.  Put in the quotation marks & citations from the get-go.  And FYI: Being careless isn't a valid excuse for plagiarism.


Myth #6:  Plagiarism is difficult to detect because writing is writing, and professors can't tell one author from another.


Definitely wrong.  If you can tell the difference between J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien without looking at the title page, your professors can tell the difference between an undergraduate's writing and the language of a published book or journal article. The truth is that professors can pretty easily pick up on the presence of a plagiarized sentence or paragraph just by noticing the change in sentence structure and the complexity of vocabulary.


Myth #7:  Quotation marks are just a general indication that some of the words enclosed came from a source.


Think about quotation marks as an equal sign.  Everything within the quotation marks must match exactly-without substitution or omission-the sequence of words in the source.  (This is why you should not include the parenthetical citation inside the quotation marks.)  Exceptions to this rule: (a) If you leave out a phrase or sentence, you should use an ellipsis "..." to indicate this omission, and (b) If there is a spelling or typographical error in the source, mark it by inserting "[sic]" after the error.   Otherwise quotations should be exact. The absence of quotation marks is an explicit claim that a sequence of words is your own.


Myth #8:  Copying language without using quotation marks is acceptable as long as you don't use the cut & paste function (Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V).


It really doesn't matter how the words enter a paper. Whether you laboriously retype them or efficiently cut & paste, exact quotations need to be marked as such.


Myth #9:  To avoid being accused of plagiarism, you just need to make sure that all your sources appear in your Works Cited list.


Any sources you use to write your paper should definitely be included in your Works Cited page. But there's a lot more to academic integrity than just listing your sources.  At each specific place that you rely upon a source, that source needs to be acknowledged.  In addition, any time you use an author's exact words, you need both a citation and quotation marks. An insufficiently paraphrased sentence, though cited, is a violation of academic integrity.


Myth #10: Putting a citation at the end of every sentence is really awkward; it's better to just put one citation at end of a paragraph to cover everything.


The point of citations is to show where you were found information for your paper and where you were influenced by others' ideas. Readers should be able to look up your sources and verify that you have adequately represented them.  So in general it's good to shy away from citations that refer to excessively long page ranges (e.g., "Smith 1-255"). It's also a good idea to keep your citations as close as possible to the quotation or idea being referenced.  As for the catch-all citation at the end of a paragraph, you may want to check in with your professor, as practices may vary by discipline.  But here's something important to keep in mind:  unless the purpose of a paragraph is to restate a single author's opinion, chances are that a paragraph entirely dependent upon a single source isn't a very good paragraph. If your task is to analyze an issue, professors generally expect that you bring together multiple sources so that you can offer a thoughtful analysis.