6 Reasons Why Citation of Sources is Important When Writing The proper acknowledgement of sources might seem like a no-brainer, as indeed it should, to a scientist, and yet there are altogether too many instances where improper attribution goes unchecked.

Sir Isaac Newton’s famous words in a l675 letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” may serve as a pithy reminder that even the most famous scientists depended on their forebears.

But, in fact, it is even inadequate because Newton did not explicitly name those giants. (As a historical aside, Newton’s comment was not as benign in intent as the words might indicate. The two men had been embroiled in a bitter dispute over certain optical discoveries and the handsome upper-class Newton was likely taking a dig at his lower-class rival’s physical deformity. Regardless of intent, however, the statement has come to represent the importance of giving credit where credit is due).

There is a vast literature on the issues of proper citation, academic honesty, and the potential pitfalls of plagiarism, and the list of references for further reading at the end of this article offers a few suggestions. We will address these issues in future posts, so be sure to subscribe to our email list below!

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But aside from these self-evident reasons, there are other perhaps less-considered arguments for scientists to be meticulous about citing sources properly. Some of these reasons are for the good of the entire research community, whereas others are more personal. This article discusses some of those less obvious, yet compelling, arguments for reserving a block of time specifically for the purposes of attending to citations.

1. Attribution serves as a fact-checking tool .

Accuracy is all important in any writing, especially when we write about science. The very act of looking up a reference for verification serves as an accuracy check, e.g., to double check a direct quote, to ensure the fidelity of a passage that you paraphrased, or to cite another study that is related to your study.

2. Citation makes you a better researcher .

Some of the hallmarks of good research include attention to detail and the ability to discern patterns and make connections. Good citation practices can help with both. The proper attribution of sources entails many details, such as correct page numbers, the spelling of author names, and of course, the accuracy of facts that you are presenting in your own article or other work.

Becoming detail-oriented in one aspect automatically instills good habits across the board in your research. As for the ability to spot trends and patterns, preparing a good bibliography trains you for this task (which is crucial in scientific analysis) because of the vast amount of information it condenses into a short space.

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3. Good citation practices make you a better writer .

All of us aspire towards that elegant paper in which the prose is as compelling as the content and good attribution habits build a strong foundation towards that goal. Citing specific sources for the various facts that we present removes the hallmarks of intellectual laziness, vague thinking, and sloppy writing as generalizations, clichés, and outright false claims, e.g., as when the phrases, “everyone knows” or “they say,” are replaced with specific sources.

When you cite sources properly, you leave no question in your readers’ minds regarding your point. Furthermore, by citing, you can easily use active language and avoid raising the dreaded red flag of passivity to journal editors and reviewers. Cite well, and you may forever expunge the phrase “It is said” from your academic paper.

4. A good bibliography shows off your scientific knowledge .

A bibliography is simply the compilation of the various sources that you have read and cited in your own manuscript, dissertation, book, etc. Thus, an extensive bibliography is naturally a hallmark of a widely read and well-informed scientist.

I can remember at least one occasion when my peers offered more compliments on my bibliography than on the content of the paper (though they liked that too). In blind reviews, the matters for which I’ve drawn the harshest critiques are for errors of omission, i.e., for not having read or cited certain references. The last thing you want is a reviewer that says that you do not know your field because you forgot to cite a critical and well-known piece of scientific literature!

5. Careful citation practices will build your credibility as a scientist or scholar.

This point is a simple corollary of the previous one. Indeed, showing off scholarship is simply the icing on the cake of what a well-cited article has to offer. A deeper, more meaningful role that a good bibliography plays for researchers is to establish a writer‘s credibility among peers in their field. The better documented your research and arguments, the more credible you are to your scientific colleagues.

6. Citation enables better verification of your work .

Any piece of academic writing gets vetted several times over before it finally makes it into print or onto a website. Whether one is a peer reviewer, editor, or editorial assistant whose job is simply to track down sources in the bibliography and make sure that the citations are accurate, life is simply easier when there is less busy work. So, your paper is much more likely to be passed through these multiple rounds of editing with minimal criticism and positive feedback if you have already taken the trouble to attribute your information correctly and cite all your sources.

In a future article, we will discuss strategies for integrating good citation practices when writing and revising your articles. You are also encouraged to view our related article on Important English Academic Style Guides . Until then, incite yourself to cite when you write!

For further reading:

The following is a list of suggested readings on the subject of citation. The citation style used in this bibliography is that adopted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 6th edition, which I chose because it is one commonly used in many scientific journals.

Bryson, D. (2012). Using research papers: citations, referencing and plagiarism. Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine , 35(2), 82–84.

Clarke, R. (2006). Plagiarism by academics: More complex than it seems. Journal of the Association for Information Systems , 7(2), 5.

Culwin, F., & Lancaster, T. (2001). Plagiarism issues for higher education. Vine , 31(2), 36–41.

Karami, M., & Danaei, G. H. (2016). A brief review of plagiarism in medical scientific research papers. Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research , 2(2), 1–8.

Klompien, K. (2001). The Writer and the Text: Basic Writers, Research Papers and Plagiarism. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado. (Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED452547 ).

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About the author:

Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Topics : Citing Sources Importance of referencing
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