Why Cite Sources in Your Academic Writing?
To Become a More Mature Thinker
When writing an essay, it can sometimes feel as if you’re including quotations merely to back up your argument or to fulfill a requirement to use a certain number of sources. Each of these motives can lead you to drop sources into a pre-set argument, with little real interplay between the sources’ ideas and your own. Although it may sometimes feel like an exercise, using sources in your writing is not an end in itself, not a skill to learn in isolation. Instead, most teachers ask you to use sources because they know that your own thinking will be enhanced when you consult the ideas of previous writers on a topic. Seen in this light, sources can help you develop and deepen your ideas as early as the brainstorming and drafting stages. Think of yourself as having a conversation with the sources—when you move back and forth between your own thinking and what sources have to say, you push your ideas further than you would by going it alone. The resulting essay should give your reader the sense that you’re joining an ongoing conversation, that you respect other thinkers, and that you’re adding something new to the conversation.
If there’s one fundamental misunderstanding that many student writers have about acknowledging sources, it’s that doing so lessens the impact of the writer’s own contribution. In nearly every case, the effect will be the opposite: it’s when you most clearly signal your debt to sources that your own thinking becomes most visible. Academic scholarship, at its heart, is about the interplay of ideas. The best research is not, in that sense, wholly original, but rather develops from previous discoveries. In assessing his accomplishments, Isaac Newton once wrote to a friend that: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (Newton, in fact, was incorporating an idea voiced by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century.) Incorporating other people’s ideas into your writing allows you to stand on their shoulders as you explore your topic.
To Recreate a Sense of Lively Debate and to Establish Intellectual Context
You may be used to relying on sources primarily for information, but essays that engage with claims or ideas about a subject—as well as introducing relevant information—allow you to join the conversation on the liveliest terms. When you do incorporate sources, it can be tempting to use only quotations that support your own ideas. But while it can be helpful to refer to writers with whom you agree, sometimes the most effective sources are those from which you differ. Introducing claims and concepts from sources and acknowledging thoughtful dissent puts your ideas in a dynamic and contested framework. By showing that knowledge is dynamic, you show that there is something worth debating or analyzing further.
Your sources also convey information about the intellectual context of your research. Although the content of a quotation is what’s most important, the very sources of the ideas or information you use will help an educated reader understand the implications of your argument. When you establish this context for your ideas, you create a space in which your reader can think in a new way about an established problem or question.
To Give Credit Where It’s Due
Most students are familiar with this reason for citing sources: just as you want credit for your writing and ideas, other writers deserve credit for their work. For one thing, recognition is often the only or the primary reward for scholarship. But, more importantly, giving credit allows you to claim your own contribution. The very project of a university education consists of joining an ongoing conversation about ideas that began in Antiquity. You cannot participate in this exchange if you are not clear about how other voices have influenced your own. It takes most people many years to develop a rich and complex voice in conversation with sources. But you can begin to develop this voice by always marking the boundaries between the source and your reflections on it.
To Lead Us to Further Research
Academics conceive of scholarship as an ongoing and collaborative enterprise. Rather than try to invent a field from scratch, we read what others have discovered and try to build on or extend it in our own work. One scholar’s sources can therefore be an invaluable contribution to another’s research. So while we read your work looking for your original ideas, we also want help knowing how to pursue related questions. In this way, acknowledging your sources greatly enhances your paper’s value, as it shows readers where they might look to test, explore, and extend your conclusions.