Citing your work is important for a number of reasons, the most important of which are:
- Giving credit to the authors whose works you have used (whether or not you quote them)
- Providing a trail so that your readers can access the sources that you used
- Provides evidence of your research
- Proper citation practice is one tool to help you avoid plagiarism
There are three major citation styles: APA (American Psychological Association), which is primarily used for psychology and other social sciences; MLA (Modern Language Association), which is primarily used for literature and other humanities fields; and Chicago (University of Chicago Press), which is primarily used for history and other related fields.
When choosing which citation style to use, select whichever one best suits your topic. Since I write about History and Food History, I use Chicago. If I’m submitting a work for competition where there is no defined style, I tend to go with APA as I’m most familiar with the style and don’t have to think too much about how to format everything.
These styles dictate not only how you format your works cited information, but the overall look of the paper. Generally the style includes one inch margins all around, the paper number in the top right hand corner of the paper, and a title page. There are a number of websites that can help familiarize yourself with the overall style for each of the citation styles. One of the most useful sites that I have found for APA and MLA style is the Purdue Online Writing Lab. That will show you the style as well as the formatting for works cited. For Chicago Style, the Chicago Manual of Style Online is your best option.
For the amateur, a citation style is the hook upon which you can hang the rest of your paper. Being careful to cite quotes or sections that are paraphrased information from someone else’s research not only helps protect you from plagiarism, but it also lends authority to your statements. A strong argument hinges on building your evidence from the preponderance of the evidence that you have gathered during your research. Showing how you got to the conclusions that you have reached requires a trail of facts that is reproducible by your readers. Research should be reproducible, which means showing your work. Citation allows you an organized way to show the work that you’ve done and allows the reader to follow the trail of your evidence in order to understand how you came to your conclusions. Information can be interpreted in a number of ways, but you need to show your way of interpretation.
While there is an option in MSWord where it will build a list of citations for you and you can even choose if it’s formatted as APA or MLA. I have found that this is only partially useful as it kills formatting (the in-text citations are at 8pt, regardless of the format for the rest of the paper) and the citations themselves are not always correctly formatted. When you submit a paper with that kind of formatting, you don’t look like you know what you’re doing and it undermines your work.
Particularly for the amateur researcher, it is important to make sure that you pay attention to form as well as content. Building a solid argument inside of the framework of a citation style lends you the respect that you deserve as a researcher and helps save you from pitfalls like plagiarism. It’s a win-win situation for you and for your readers.
Other useful links:
(Son of) Citation Machine. Choose your citation style, select the reference category, and plug in your information. (Son of) Citation Machine will give you a correctly formatted reference along with the correct in-line citation form.
BibMe. Another automated service that will help you create a properly formatted bibliography, works cited, or reference page.