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Give me a reason to cite

Last week I stopped by a class for a short visit. The professor was holding a mini-workshop on writing for her upper-level students and thought it would be helpful to have me introduce myself, explain the research help I could offer, and answer any questions the students might have. She was particularly worried about some students’ inability to use resources outside of their class readings to help intellectually beef up their papers and (more surprisingly) their lack of consistent use of bibliographic citation styles in their papers. Part of the time I would spend with these students would be used to address this shortfall in their writing.

Although still a relatively newish librarian, I am not usually surprised by the things professors lament that students can’t do. Assumptions are too often made about things students should know or should have learned in high school, their first year, early college, etc. I was, however, genuinely surprised that upper-level students were still struggling with consistent citation in papers. After talking with students and listening to them air their frustrations, my surprise was, of course, gone, and replaced with something else…understanding? empathy? a sense that the way students are taught about citation is just plain ineffective?

When I asked students to call out the number one reason they’ve been told to cite sources in their research papers, they all replied in unison: “So that we don’t plagiarize.” When I asked if they had any other reasons for citing sources I got a few different variations on “giving credit to original authors” but that was about it. Learning and consistently using citation styles is a chore to these students, a needlessly complicated task with no real purpose attached to it other than to avoid an abstract wrong (you’re being academically dishonest) or a concrete consequence (you’ll end up with a failing grade).

One student asked me point blank: “Why is everything so specific? What difference does it make if I don’t put a period in the right place or capitalize the right word or use italics?” Before I could even open my mouth to answer another student swooped in with an answer that illustrated what a crappy job we’re doing of teaching citation: “You have to be specific so that when your teacher submits your paper to the site will pick up your citation and you won’t get your paper flagged for plagiarism.”

Seriously? Proper citations in papers are just a plagiarism detection software deterrent? I don’t fault the student for this response, but it does hammer home the point that the way we are teaching citation is not working.

Just this year I came across a 2008 on The Pegasus Librarian blog about teaching citation to students: Citation as a Lens for Interdisciplinarity. As usual, Iris Jastram, The Pegasus Librarian, managed to give more food for thought in one blog post than most peer-reviewed journal articles. In her post she talks about how citation not only “shows respect for your community,” but also “helps you communicate with your community, reveals what kind of evidence is most important to a community, and builds context for your argument.” Her reasoning was less punitive and more about students taking part in a scholarly conversation. Brilliant! I must admit I’d never thought about the differences in citation formats for different disciplines revealing the importance of certain aspects of a scholarly work, but it makes so much sense! Of course dates would be more prominent in bibliographic citations in psychology and the sciences since currency is such an important aspect of research.

Inspired by Iris’ post, I decided to try out this case for citation with this class (see my very rudimentary Prezi) and was pleasantly surprised by the results! The students seemed to respond to the idea of using citations to speak the language of their scholarly communities. One student even brought up a GREAT example to help illustrate this point. His freshman year he was in a class where the professor primarily had the students working with classical texts. In this class his citations included folios and verses and had to specifically state which translations were being used. The student thought the professor might be “messing with them” when asking them for all this crazy information in their citations. But when we talked about citation within the context of a scholarly conversation, it made sense that someone working with classical texts would find that kind of information important.

There is one thing I wish I’d had the time to elaborate on further in this class: The specifics of a citation format may seem tedious and unimportant, but it’s all about communication. Trying to read an essay with inconsistent citation is just as difficult trying to read an email from someone who disregards all grammatical conventions.  As someone whose mother used to send emails in ALLCAPS with little punctuation, I can attest to this fact. (Thankfully my mom has since become an expert typist, emailer, and Facebooker.)

I never went into the mechanics of citation in this class, because as far as I’m concerned students can easily look up citation examples online or take advantage of citation generators. I do think it’s important to make these sample reference lists and citation style manuals readily available for students to consult, but I think it’s even more important to give them a reason to do so.

(And yes, I do know that I didn’t actually offer a specifically formatted citation for the blog I consulted, but I’m not writing a scholarly essay. My community includes blog readers and other bloggers who benefit from in-text citations and links to other sources. I’m just speaking the language of my community!)


  1. Miranda Bennett

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Veronica. I always dreaded requests to teach plagiarism avoidance and/or citation creation. I find most of the energy around these topics completely soul-crushing, since so much of the focus for both students and faculty seems to be “Put the period in the right place or be prepared to face the consequences!” Such rhetoric distracts from the kind of deeper, more interesting points you note, such as how citing sources helps you engage in the scholarly conversation, and, I will cynically add, makes professors and librarians look ridiculous and ineffectual when study after study shows that plagiarism very often goes unpunished or even unnoticed.

    Because I’ve been an instruction librarian I have, of course, talked to lots of students about citation, and I usually tried to broaden the conversation beyond just “Don’t plagiarize!” by including reasons like showing respect for those whose ideas you’ve used, enabling your readers to track down additional information, and lending credibility to your argument. I never got the sense that much of this resonated with students in intro English comp classes, but I could see how these points, as well as the idea of citations as part of the shared language of a discipline, could be of considerable interest to more advanced students, especially those being introduced to the scholarly conventions of an area of interest.

    Thanks for sharing Iris’s thoughts about the actual mechanics of particular citation styles, too. Although I tend to think citations will be increasingly machine-generated, it’s still helpful to consider why APA, MLA, etc. use different models. Maybe it’s analogous to needing to learn how multiplication works even though it’s possible none of us will ever again be more than a smartphone away from a calculator.

    • freelancelibrarian

      Miranda, I think you’re right about this argument being more interesting to upper-level / advanced students. I don’t know if too many first year English comp students would be interested in the notion of a scholarly community, but I guess we have to start somewhere, right? Did the first year students you taught seem to “get it” or were they mostly in an eyes-glazing over state?

  2. Jo

    I read this post and cheered throughout. I remember being a baffled student (admittedly, before the days of turnitin etc.) who struggled to grasp the whats, whys and wherefores of citations. And then I looked at your Prezi… and I was amazed (and delighted) to see my own name up on the screen. Thanks for reading my article, and for citing me (so elegantly and accurately!).

    • freelancelibrarian

      Thank you, Jo! I’m only now getting around to responding to comments that were left while I was on maternity leave. I’ll be the first to admit that I never really “got” citation as a student beyond the plug and chug requirements of quotations and reference lists. I think a lot of that is a result of being handed a copy of the MLA Style Guide, and never being talked to about it again! Thank you for writing your article 🙂

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