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A Guide to Political Science: Citing Sources

Citing Sources

Looking for information on how to cite specific sources? We have a guide for that!

The Writing Center tutors are also knowledgeable about the best way to incorporate source material into your writing.

Zotero

Zotero is a free program for saving citations, taking notes, and formatting reference lists. Once you download Zotero and install a browser connector, you can use it to save webpages, articles in databases, and book references from the library catalog, library databases, Amazon, or Google Books. Your collected references can be synced from one computer to another and can be accessed online through any web browser. Sort your references into project folders, tag them, add annotations and, when you want to create a reference, simply drag them into a document and choose a format. See the Zotero Quick Start Guide to get started.

You can set up Zotero to recognize content in our databases by clicking on Edit > preferences > Advanced, and adding under Resolver this URL: http://worldcatlibraries.org/registry/gateway

Why Cite Sources?

There are at least three reasons why writers cite their sources:

  • To establish credibility with readers by calling on solid, reputable sources as "expert witnesses"
  • To provide readers with the information they need to delve further into the topic
  • To give credit where it's due and avoid plagiarism

When you are preparing a document, use this checklist to be sure your citations are complete.

  • Did I provide a reference for every idea that came from a source? Cite all of your sources, even if you put the information in your own words. You do not have to cite sources for "common knowledge" - factual information that can be found in multiple sources such as dates or widely-known information.
  • Do all of my in-text references have a complete citation in my list of sources and can the reader easily move from an in-text reference to the full citation in the list?
  • Does my reader have all the information needed to find each source? 

Because scholars in different disciplines emphasize different things when they read citations, there are many different styles. Make sure you're using the one recommended by your professor.

How do I Use Sources Without Plagiarizing?

The trick to effective writing using sources is remember that sources come from people, and the people you cite are helping you build a case, make an argument, or explain ideas. Use your sources strategically - as allies and informants.

From a reader's perspective, it's helpful to know who you are relying on, so try to introduce your sources with a signal phrase that tells your reader where the source came from and why it's worth paying attention to. Here are some examples.

  • "In a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency that tracks crime, ..."
  • "According to Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert on net neutrality, ..."
  • "A 2021 study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a non-partisan, non-denominational research center, found that ..."

Though sources are important, how you talk about them in your own words is paramount. If you are paraphrasing sentences from a source, be careful that you aren't copying the sentence and just changing a word here and there. Even if you cite that source, copying too closely is considered plagiarism. Limit your use of direct quotations to those instances when accuracy of a key phrase is important or when you want to call attention to the particular wording of an idea.

In most cases, your best bet is to know your material well enough that you can set a source aside and write about its ideas in your own words. Otherwise, you run the risk of simply compiling a data dump or creating a patchwork of quotations. When you can sum up the gist of a source - its main point - instead of quoting from it excessively, that will save your reader time and will demonstrate that you really know the material. It will also leave more room for you to put your own stamp on the ideas you are writing about. 

For more about how plagiarism is handled at Gustavus, see the college's Academic Honesty Policy.

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