Why we Cite

The Purposes of Citation

Quality academic writing is built upon the work of others, to which we add our own unique analysis and contributions. Citations serve three major roles in scholarly work:

  • They allow you to show how your argument is built upon the ideas of others.
  • They allow you to indicate which ideas are taken from others, and from whom those ideas were taken; in other words, to give credit where it's due.
  • They allow the interested reader to follow your argument and confirm its logic by investigating the ideas on which the argument is built, or to further explore those ideas on their own.

In each case, it's important that you acknowledge the ways in which others' ideas contributed to your own. To fail to distinguish our original ideas from those of our forebears is plagiarism, "the act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one's own creation." (West's Encyclopedia of American Law).

What Needs to be Cited?

If you incorporate or refer to others' theories, words, ideas or concepts in a paper or project, you must document each one using a citation. The use of facts and statistics that another has compiled must also be likewise acknowledged.

You need to document:

  • Direct quotes, both entire sentences and phrases
  • Paraphrases (rephrased or summarized material)
  • Words or terminology specific to or unique to the author's research, theories, or ideas
  • Use of an author's argument or line of thinking
  • Historical, statistical, or scientific facts
  • Graphs, drawings, or other such aggregations of information or data
  • Articles or studies you refer to within your text

You do not need to document:

  • Proverbs, axioms, and sayings ("A stitch in time saves nine.")
  • Well-known quotations ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.")
  • Common knowledge (Thomas Edison invented the phonograph; "Starry Night" was painted by Vincent Van Gogh; Oxygen has the atomic number 8)

Sometimes it can be difficult to be sure what counts as common knowledge. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if a knowledgeable reader would be familiar with the information in question. If he or she would have to look it up to confirm it, you should usually document it. If you're not sure, document it to play it safe.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is theft; it is a violation of professional ethics; it is a violation of UNC at Chapel Hill's Honor Code; furthermore, the courts have recognized it as a violation of copyright. There are many ways to violate copyright, including failure to acknowledge direct quotes or the paraphrasing of another person's work, and the insufficient acknowledgment of such works.

For an in-depth discussion of plagiarism , please refer to the Library's Plagiarism Tutorial and the Writing Center's Plagiarism Handout.