Chapter 5: Using information ethically

5.1 Citing your sources

Now that you’ve learned effective strategies for searching for, accessing, and evaluating sources, let’s review the final stage of the research process: using those sources in your project. In this chapter you will learn the basics about citations, using sources ethically, and copyright.

Why cite sources?

In Chapter 3, we examined how you can use citations to find specific items. As a writer, there are also reasons to cite your sources:

  • to meet the requirements for your assignment,
  • to give the original creators credit for their ideas,
  • to help your readers find and learn from the sources you used, and
  • to lend credibility to your argument.

You are likely familiar with the first three reasons already, so let’s examine the last one in more detail. How does citing sources lend credibility to your argument? Research projects involve reading, analyzing, and synthesizing information from multiple sources and using their ideas to inform your work. There is a common misconception that academic research consists of one person making amazing breakthroughs all alone in their lab or office, but that’s not what actually happens in most cases. Instead, research is a process where scholars build on older work while sharing their new ideas. When you cite others’ research, you’re doing the same thing. By citing a scholar that has done research on your topic area, you are using their authority and experience to support your claims, and adding your own insights.

When to cite

Whenever you use someone else’s ideas, you need to cite them. This is true for any source where there is interpretation involved (opinions, research findings, recent discoveries, statistics, etc). In the examples below, we’ve bolded words that indicate you probably need to cite a source:

  • Some biographers of Abraham Lincoln say he suffered from clinical depression. (Which biographers?)
  • The quart measurement might have originated in medieval England as a measurement for beer. (Says who?)
  • 60% of art majors believe that Pablo Picasso’s paintings are more interesting than his sculptures. (Where did this percentage come from?)
  • In recent studies of Y-chromosomes, geneticists have found that Genghis Khan has approximately 16 million descendants living today. (Where did they get that number?)

No matter where ideas come from you still need to cite them, whether they’re from images, tables, charts, statistics, websites, podcasts, interviews, emails, speeches, songs, movies, or any other source.


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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.