Citing Academic Papers

As you progress on your academic journey, the need to read, interpret, and cite published research to support your own arguments and ideas grows exponentially. Much of what we have written for school is our own opinions based on what we have read or experienced; exam questions aim to assess what we know. Similarly, group discussions ask us to present and explain our opinion on a particular topic and then respond to the opinions of others. However, the rules change when we begin writing research papers; our personal thoughts and opinions lose value and we now must present an argument or stance based on research that has already been published. In this sense, we must to provide evidence to supports our statements.

Our approach to research and writing goes through three distinct phases that are important to recognize:

Undergraduate research: The university trains students to consume research, meaning they are able read and interpret research in their chosen field. The goal at this level is to gain a broader understanding of a topic or field of study.

Masters research:The university trains consumer-scholars who can read and interpret research, but who can also apply theories and research models to their specific field of study. The goal at this level is to change your field through the application of valid and reliable research.

Doctoral research: The university trains scholars that will guide their field through original research. The goal is to conduct valid and reliable research that create or contribute to theories and models that can be applied by consumer-scholars.

Why do we need to know the difference between these phases? As a student, we are better able to meet the requirements of our research assignments if we know the expectations of our instructors. For undergraduate students, summarizing research is adequate. In contrast, master’s students are required to synthesize research ideas and communicate the practical relevance of the findings presented in published studies. At the highest level, doctoral students must be experts on existing research in their field or specific area of interest, be able to develop their own research theories, and successfully conduct research to contribute to the ongoing development of their field.


At every level, we rely on the research of others to help support the ideas that we present in our papers, and citations are how we refer to other researcher’s work. When we use others’ work without proper reference citations, we are plagiarizing. There are no disadvantages to attributing authors for their previous research and findings; in fact, your ability to cite effectively adds to your own credibility and professionalism. 

In the small space of a blog, we are unable to provide a true “how-to” of reference citations in each of the main styles (i.e., APA, MLA, Chicago). Instead, we encourage you to visit the Bowdion Dean of Student web page, which has an excellent overview of plagiarism and citation usage with a lot of university-based examples. What they present is applicable to most university settings. Take a few minutes to review these links to understand more about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it in your writing:

Academic Honesty and Plagiarism

The Common Types of Plagiarism

Examples of Plagiarism

When to Cite

How to Cite

Avoiding Plagiarism

Consequences of Plagiarism

Additionally, you may want to visit the website for the specific writing style to which your professional field subscribes. In general, APA style is used by education, psychology, and the social and physical sciences, MLA style is used by the humanities (e.g., language, literature, cultural studies), and Chicago style is generally used by business, history, and the fine arts: 

APA (American Psychological Association) Style Website

MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Website

Chicago Style Website



A citation is an indication to the reader that a sentence or statement is attributed to another person or group of people. It’s really our research shorthand as writers to let the reader know where to find more information that substantiates the point we have written in our paper. The following is from a published paper:

Rowley (2007) does well in comparing different interpretations of the DIKW hierarchy definitions, presented by Ackoff (1989). Zeleny defines the hierarchy in the following terms: with data, you know nothing; with information, you know “what”; with knowledge, you know “how”; and with wisdom, you know “why.” (Allen et al., 2020)

In these two sentences, Allen and colleagues (2020) cite three additional research papers (Ackoff, 1989; Rowley, 2007; Zeleny 1987) that each contain about 25 pages of research on the subject referred to by the authors. As a result, Allen et al. (2020) synthesized more than 75 pages of prior research into two sentences. Because the authors (Allen et al., 2020) provided in-text citations, readers know to visit Ackoff’s paper published in 1989 to learn more about the DIKW model, Rowley’s paper from 2007 for different interpretations of the DIKW hierarchy, and Zeleny’s past works to gain a better understanding of related terminology.


No! There are two circumstances that do not require citations. First, common knowledge does not need to be cited, but it’s important to know what common knowledge actually is! MIT defines common knowledge as “information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up” but warns that common knowledge may not translate across cultures, nationalities, academic disciplines, or even peer groups (Academic Integrity at MIT, 2020). With this in mind, if there is any doubt about whether the information is common knowledge, it’s better to cite your source.

Second, knowledge unique to the writer — meaning, we are the author of the original idea — does not need a citation. This type of knowledge generation is most common when reporting and interpreting the findings of original research at the doctoral level. For the rest of us, the trouble with identifying unique knowledge is that there is very little that is truly unique when we are writing about broad research topics. Always ask yourself where the idea came from or what knowledge you have used to come to that conclusion. Citations simply indicates, “I know this because of…”. 


Only default to direct quotes when the original author said it ”just right” and there is no need for any interpretation or rewriting by you. Quotes are powerful and can lend tremendous credibility to our documents, but too many quotes can have the opposite effect. Your papers and opportunity for you to communicate your knowledge and understanding of a topic; too many quotes become a copy and paste mess and your instructors know the difference! It’s quite common for lazy, rushed, and/or overwhelmed students to string together quotes from various sources to meet a word-count or page requirement, but this practice is considered mosaic plagiarism. In general, paraphrasing is a better practice whenever possible, but if you do choose to include a direct quotation from another work, be sure to do so with intention and also provide a full citation.

Paraphrasing is when we use another author’s ideas and interpret those ideas for our readers; it is the perfect place for a citation because we want the reader to know the source of our statement and where they can read the original research for themselves, if they choose. This allows the reader to verify your interpretation as it applies to the topic and purpose of your paper. MIT provides sound guidance on using citation and provides helpful examples that distinguish direct quotations and paraphrasing (Academic Integrity at MIT, 2020). Take a few minutes to review the information provided on these webpages to better understand what and when to quote, when to paraphrase, and the difference between the two:

Writing Original Work

Avoiding Plagiarism



Quote vs. Paraphrase



Before you start your research, spend a significant amount of time in the library studying your topic and reading relevant research to help you best understand the subject of your paper. As you read more about your area of interest, you’ll likely find that your investigation brings you back to 5-10 key documents on the subject. These core documents will be the key references to cite throughout your paper. However, this doesn’t mean that you are limited to ONLY these 5-10 articles, but they will be the cornerstone of your argument and frequently referenced. In academic research, a tough rule of thumb is that a 10-page research paper will have between 20 – 30 citations.


Citations are a style of shorthand with three main benefits: (a) they credit past researchers and authors where appropriate, (b) they bolster your own credibility by substantiating your claims, and (c) they demonstrate your dedication to understanding a particular topic or field of study. In most areas of research, a single citation refers to a 20- to 30-page document or article that provides background information or explains past research that has helped you form your own argument. According to this math, your 10-page research paper with 25 citations has more than 600 pages of background research to support the statements and/or claims that you have presented. To take things one step further, each of those 25 citations refers to a document with 25 of its own references that account for an additional 600 pages of background information per document! Collectively, we now have more than 15,000 pages of information to support our 10 pages of writing. For most scholarly research articles, there may be more than 30,000 pages containing primary and secondary citation documents that support an author’s arguments.

Consider that the author could have used NO citation and presented it as their unique opinion. This means that they have disregarded a huge amount of research that could have been used to support their argument. Remember that citations are not a punishment! Instead, they are used to substantiate your argument in shorthand. At first, it may be difficult to learn, but the power of citations in scholarly writing cannot be refuted!


Learning how to properly cite within research papers is a milestone for any upper level undergraduate student or beginning master’s student and is a non-negotiable requirement for beginning doctoral students. We learn proper citations techniques by first reading LOTS of research papers that utilize proper citations. Just as we learn any new language, we become familiar with the when, how, and why of citations by seeing it done correctly in other research papers and then mimic what we see until we achieve mastery. Yes, this can be arduous. However, the pain of learning must be weighed against the power that citations bring to our arguments. What we know and what we can substantiate are two very different things. Your intuition and experience matter and have value, but your ability to provide evidence to support your statements is the true currency of academia.

*This blog was co-authored by Dr. Amanda Leibovitz and Dr. Jeff Allen. 

About Jeff Allen

My mission is to balance the goals of my personal and professional life while continually gaining new knowledge and seeking wisdom. This effort to balance my goals should not dilute the quality of my goals, but should enhance the quality of life for my family, co-workers, friends, and students.
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