Improving Your Writing
Acknowledging Your Sources
It is extremely important, in academic writing, to give full acknowledgement when you are quoting or paraphrasing other people’s ideas. Properly acknowledging your sources allows your reader to trace back where you found the ideas that informed your own analysis. As you will know, not properly acknowledging sources is called plagiarism. Committing plagiarism is something that you want to avoid, so it is important to understand how to acknowledge sources properly.
How do you acknowledge your sources properly?
In brief, you should always:
- put quotation marks and give a reference when you use someone else’s exact words; and
- give a reference when you write a paraphrase of someone else’s words or ideas.
What is a reference?
When you give your reader a reference, you state exactly where you found the words or idea. You do this either in a footnote, or in an endnote, or in brackets in the text, depending on which reference style you are following.
What is a reference or citation style?
There are several commonly-used styles of reference, also called citation styles. (The word ‘style’ in this context means a set of rules to be followed.) Four of the most common citation styles are: APA (for psychology), Harvard Style (social sciences, sciences, humanities), MLA (arts and literature) and Vancouver (medicine). Teaching staff should tell you which style they want you to use in your written work.
The University of Aberdeen produces a Referencing and Citing guide which sets out how to follow these four main referencing styles.
What is common knowledge?
It is often said that:
- there is no need to give a reference when you are referring to something which is ‘common knowledge’.
This sounds simple, but is not always so easy. We can all agree, for example, that knowing who the Prime Minister is should be common knowledge – we shouldn’t have to give a reference stating that we read who the Prime Minister is in The Times. However, in academic writing, ‘common knowledge’ is not so clear-cut. It usually means knowledge common to your course or discipline. For example, you might not expect the average person at the bus stop to know when Darwin published his book Origin of the Species; however, if you are taking a course on evolution, it might be common knowledge in that course that Darwin’s famous treatise appeared in 1859.
Do I need to reference ideas from my course lectures?
It depends on the course and your teachers’ preferences. Some teaching staff consider that the content of lectures is ‘common knowledge’ to the course and therefore does not need to be referenced; other teaching staff require students to reference ideas taken from lectures.
What is a bibliography and why do I need one?
A bibliography is an alphabetical list of the sources that you have used in your research. It comes at the end of your essay, on a separate page. It shows your reader all the sources that you have used throughout your essay at a glance, and for this reason helps the reader to gain a mental picture of your research. Some bibliographies have two sections: Works Cited (all the sources that you made a reference to) and Works Consulted (other sources that you used in the course of your research, but did not actually make a reference to). Your course guide and/or teachers may give you specific guidelines as to how they want you to format your Bibliography.
If you are using the Harvard system, you will have a Works Cited list at the end of your essay. Because the Harvard system works by referring the reader to the full reference in the Works Cited list, it is crucially important. For example, your reference in your essay might look like this: (Smith 2000, 4). Your reader needs the full reference in your Works Cited list to know that Smith wrote a book called The Magical World of Physics, published by Cambridge University Press in 2000. You have already told your reader that the information referred to is on page 4 of this book.