My first really challenging experience with citation as a student/scholar occurred fairly late in life, during my mid- to late 30s while I was in my doctoral program.

Although I had undergraduate and graduate degrees in secondary English education, I had functioned, essentially, as an English major in my academic as well as personal writing. That means I had done mostly textual analysis and worked my way over the years through the many versions of MLA—from footnotes to endnotes to parenthetical citation.

Before entering my doctoral program, I had been teaching high school English for a decade while also actively pursuing a career as a writer (submitting literary analysis, original fiction, and original poetry for publication). Frankly, my approach to citation as a teacher and writer had been uncritical and rigidly practical.

Even my dissertation—where I certainly learned how to navigate APA since I produced a final manuscript of over 300 pages with about 10 pages of references—was nothing more than a glimpse of the social science scholar and writer I would become; writing a biography allowed me to remain primarily focused on textual analysis, often more like a humanities (history, English) scholar than a social science scholar (writing educational biography). I culled a life of Lou LaBrant out of her memoir, her published scholarship, and her personal letters, augmented with a few interviews and a couple pieces of scholarship on her published before I took on my project.

Two pivotal experiences in my doctoral program changed me profoundly—being introduced to Joseph William’s Style (and later Jacques Barzun) and transitioning to APA citation and style after many decades using only MLA.

For about 15 years now, I have been fortunate to teach first-year writing at the college level, where I have dramatically changed how I approach citation and the teaching of writing. Much of my focus for undergraduates is fostering genre awareness and disciplinary conventions (including citation).

My approaches have pulled back considerably to the wide view so that students are invited to see and navigate at the conceptual level regardless of the writing or disciplinary circumstance they find themselves in.

I see in my eager and very bright students how paralyzing a reduced high school writing experience can be. These students have written almost entirely in English, primarily doing literary analysis (especially if they took Advanced Placement Literature and Language) and, as one student announced angrily, “memorizing MLA.”

When I explain to them that many (if not most) of them will navigate college and never use MLA again, that all of them will be expected to write at a high level across all the disciplines, and that each discipline has different style sheets and conventional ways of writing, they look deflated, if not outright angry.

At the broadest level, I think students and future scholars need to understand why academia incorporates sources and uses formal citation. There are two reasons, I think. First, students and scholars serve knowledge best by having intellectual humility—starting all writing and research projects by assuming other people have examined a topic already, likely many people with a great deal more expertise and experience that the student or scholar.

If a scholar is fortunate, they can eventually find themselves as one of the or the dominant voice on a topic, but this is rare (I am likely the Lou LaBrant scholar in the world, for example).

And second, related to that first foundational concept, students and scholars establish and gain credibility by “standing on the shoulders of giants”—those scholars, thinkers, and writers who have come before and already spent many years thinking and studying a topic.

Thus, most writing by students and scholars must begin with primary and secondary sources.

Next, students and developing scholars must understand the essential concepts that constitute citation.

In the positive sense, citation is clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

In the negative sense (often how formal education approaches the topic), citation is avoiding plagiarism, which falls along a spectrum from purposefully to carelessly/accidentally presenting someone else’s words, ideas, etc., as your original work.

Finally, the most tedious aspect of citation—especially for students—is navigating the various standards for proper attribution in a variety of writing contexts.

For example, print journalism has a fairly simple (compared to academia) bar for attribution; for example, see this from an article in the New York Times by Anahad O’Connor:

“Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America,” Kevin Concannon, the U.S.D.A. under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in an interview. “This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?”

In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda

Print journalists often use direct attribution in the writing (no complex citation or bibliographies provided). However, online journalism and publications have added another level of citation, the hyperlink; see this from Joe Soss in Jacobin:

In a New York Times story over the weekend, Anahad O’Connor massages and misreports a USDA study to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about food stamps. For his trouble, the editors placed it on the front page. Readers of the newspaper of record learn that the end result of tax dollars spent on food assistance is a grocery cart full of soda. No exaggeration. The inside headline for the story is “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” and the front-page illustration shows a shopping cart containing almost nothing but two-liter pop bottles.

O’Connor tells us that “the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which account for about 10 percent of the dollars they spend on food.” Milk is number one among non-SNAP households, we are told, not soft drinks.

Food Stamp Fables

I have students write in these contexts (journalism and using hyperlinks) to practice clear and adequate attribution (citation) and finding credible sources, but most students and scholars eventually must navigate formal citation such as MLA, APA, and Chicago Manual of Style.

For many students who recently graduated high school and now must write and cite in college, they must shift to disciplinary writing and recognize that each writing situation has different conventions depending on the field of study.

Academic and scholarly writing (as noted above) require evidence for all claims, often incorporating sources as that evidence. Many students enter college confusing “evidence” with “quoting” because they have written a great deal of literary analysis.

While literature and history scholars often incorporate direct quotes from primary and secondary sources and forefront the authors and titles of those sources (conventions of MLA), most disciplines prefer paraphrasing and synthesis (citing multiple sources with the same content supporting your point) as well as forefronting the content from the sources, and not the sources themselves, as in this sample of synthesis:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Thomas, P.L. (2017). Can superhero comics defeat racism?: Black superheroes “torn between sci-fi fantasy and cultural reality.” In C.A. Hill (ed.), Teaching comics through multiple lenses: Critical perspectives (pp. 132-146). New York, NY: Routledge.

Quoting, then, is simply one way to support claims and build credibility, and quoting should be confined in academic writing to textual analysis or highlighting passages from a source that demonstrates a uniquely powerful way of expressing the content.

Just as most students can navigate college without using MLA, they will incorporate many other types of evidence that are not quoting (and students will discover that some disciplines see quoting as weak stylistic choices of immature students and scholars).

Ultimately, academic and formal citation is about following a prescribed system while also understanding why each system exists. APA includes publication dates in-text because in the social sciences when research has been conducted matters; for literary scholars, when scholarship was published matters less than the credibility and stature of the critic (so all dates in MLA reside in the bibliographies, not the parenthetical citation in the text).

The mechanics of each citation system require students and scholars to pay attention to details and to copyedit carefully. Students must recognize that their credibility and authority are in part built on following those (often arcane) mechanics.

Of course, the quality of students’ original writing and the sources they depend on matter more, but citation systems exist in part to support what constitutes citation—clear and adequate attribution given to other people’s words, ideas, research conclusions, original creations (writing, photography, artwork, performances, etc.), and so forth.

On their journey to being writers and scholars, students are best served with these broad approaches to why academics depend on sources and how proper attribution/citation varies across writing situations and different disciplines.