Using Sources in Your Writing

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Using Sources in Your Writing

This page provides only basic information about using source-material in your writing. It is not a substitute for detailed, careful instruction, nor does it include examples of all possible sources you might need to document. Links to complete online information about both MLA format and APA format are listed later in the tutorial.

One of a number of free "citation makers": http://www.easybib.com/

Q: What is documentation?

  • A. Documentation allows writers to borrow and use other people's ideas and words without stealing them. It is a kind of shorthand that gives credit to the owner of information you borrow.

Q: What kinds of information are documented?

  • A. In general, three kinds of information must be documented, regardless of whether you are using MLA format or APA format:
    • Words copied exactly from a source, like this sentence copied and quoted from a recent article in Scientific American:
      • "If the U.S. and its allies were to take seriously the challenge of preventing nuclear terrorism, civilian HEU [highly enriched uranium] could be eliminated from the world in five to eight years."
    • Ideas paraphrased from a source, like this paraphrase (in the writer's words) of the same information copied and quoted in #1 above:
      • It is possible to get rid of the world's civilian supply of highly enriched uranium in five to eight years.
    • Statistics, like the following paraphrase from the source mentioned above:
      • More than 100,000 nuclear weapons have been built since the first atomic bomb was detonated 60 years ago.

Q: What about facts?

  • A. Unlike ideas and statistics, facts are unchanging, so they are generally not documented:
    • An American atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.
  • Similarly, judgments that are commonly accepted as truth (common knowledge) are not documented:
    • Atomic bombs cause devastation and unimaginable suffering when they explode.

Note: Check with your instructor about his or her specific requirements. Some kinds of research-writing require a general list (bibliography) of sources of facts, and some controversial information also requires documentation.

Q. What happens if I don't document?

  • A. You're plagiarizing (stealing) information that doesn't belong to you. There are serious consequences for this dishonesty. Check the Student Handbook to read about WMCC's plagiarism policy.

Q. I'm worried I might plagiarize accidentally. How can I stay out of trouble?

  • A. Don't cut and paste information from online sources into your own work, even if you intend to document it. Be similarly careful about information you borrow from print sources. Recast everything in your own words except brief, exact quotations; use lead-ins and parentheses to give credit where credit is due. (This information is outlined briefly below.) If you have a question about whether a specific piece of information needs documentation, ask your instructor. Also consult the list of links provided later in this tutorial.

Q: How do I document source information?

  • A. Use either the format created by the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the one created by the American Psychological Association (APA). In general, APA format emphasizes authors and the dates of their publications; MLA format emphasizes source names and authority. Ask your instructor which format he or she requires.