Citations and references. They can be the bane of any non-fiction writer’s existence, not because writers do not want to give other writers the credit they deserve, but for possibly many other reasons. Maybe keeping track of them is such an arduous task, or formatting them and getting all the pieces in correctly is the challenge, or maybe a researcher is not sure when to cite and where.

What to Cite

Any time we take results from someone else’s research, we need to cite the research. When we have synthesized paragraphs from various articles we have read, the information still needs to be cited. Typically, we will find more than one authority on a topic that has been well researched. It is not uncommon to pull from multiple researchers or theorists and create our own writing based on their ideas. However, it is still based on their ideas, which, unless we cite, we would be claiming as our own.

Why Cite

Most likely, no matter what type of research we are doing, we will not have done all the research that led up to our specific study. Our study becomes more credible if based on those of other, more seasoned researchers. Also, we do not want to be duplicating other studies. We want to be adding something new to the research base and dealing with at least one new variable in a new way. Therefore, we will be utilizing other authors’ material, research, concepts, and theories (if you are doing a foundational study, less of this will be occurring). This is why we cite, the primary reason. The other reason we cite is so others reading our work can find the sources of the argument for our study. They may be doing research similar to what we are doing and our study can be an opening to many literature doors.

What Happens When We Do Not Cite

When we do not properly cite, we are plagiarizing. We want to avoid plagiarism, which among other things, can lead to expulsion from a program, failure of classes, and being sued. As an editor, I have experience with people who have inadvertently plagiarized. Most people do not plagiarize on purpose. Often it is a combination of losing track, not knowing (i.e., not learning), or forgetting and being in a hurry. None are good excuses. There is no excuse.

I work with students on their citations and references. If I read paragraphs of literature review text with no citations, I question the client. Where did you get these ideas? I cross check clients’ references with their citations, meaning I look up every one of their citations in the reference list to make sure there is a proper reference for each citation. Just citing the work is not enough. Some authors write multiple articles in a year so a search for the citation (Banks, 1995) may give multiple results on the web.

The other issue, besides plagiarism, not citing or properly referencing causes is a dead end for other researchers. Say you cited Banks as above, but there was no corresponding reference. A fellow researcher may have been interested in that particular information you attributed to Banks but now has no way to get to it. A search for the information could take 10 minutes or hours, precious time a researcher cannot spare. I cover searches in a later post. In the past, I have, at the request of the client, relinquished a document missing half its references because the client did not want to do the footwork of locating the references. That study is less useful to future researchers than it should be and the scholarship level is definitely sub-par. The citations are incomplete, as a corresponding reference needs to be listed on the reference page for each citation.


Some researchers believe no one will read their material and, thus, no one will know what is missing. I caution against underestimating the power of the internet. Most theses and dissertations are now loaded onto the internet at submission. I had a client contacted by the primary researcher because his work was quoted directly in my client’s document, but not cited at all. The client was essentially claiming the information as his or her own (to protect my client). They were the only two researchers who had covered that particular topic in one way or another. The cleanup was pretty ugly.

Citing and referencing is ethics. Ethics is not something with which we are born. It can be learned if the passion is there.

Take the time. Write ethically, for everyone’s sake.

For more on plagiarism, go here.