No academic work is ever complete without citations, footnotes, and references to the previous work on which it draws. Whether you’re an undergraduate just finishing your first year, or a PhD who’s held tenure for a long time, you’ll certainly be familiar with the need to cite and to create a bibliography.
We all know it’s important, it’s just that it’s a whole lot of work, also. Who wants to spend time writing citations when you’d rather focus on actually writing your paper?
The good news is that there are ways to skip around the grunt work. Writing out a full citation is no longer something you have to suffer through, if you have the right tools.
In this article, we’ll run you through an overview of citing and referencing sources. We’re also going to show you a few alternatives you can use to help make your life easier. With these tips and tools, you’ll still need to put in some work to create a bibliography, but it doesn’t have to be hard work.
What Is a Citation?
Before we get into the details, we should start with the basics:
What is a citation?
“A citation is a reference to a published or unpublished source that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your research paper. The way in which you document your sources depends on the writing style manual your professor wants you to use for the class [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.]. Note that some disciplines have their own citation method [e.g., law].” 1
If you follow the note down to the end of this article, you can see where we’ve taken this definition from. This is called an endnote, and it’s just one citation format out of many.
Every time you distill information from another scholar, summarise their arguments, or otherwise draw on previous work on the subject, a citation is necessary to give due credit to the source. Credit is always due, whether or not you agree with what your citation is saying. It’s also important to cite who you’re disproving, to make it clear where their arguments don’t work.
What Does a Citation Look Like?
There are several components to citation. Which of these apply will depend on the specific style guide.
- Citations are placed in the body text, showing the reader where the sentence or paragraph so noted is taking its content from. There are two main forms of citation: In-text citations and notes. Style guides will tell you which you should use for your purposes.
- In-text citations, or parenthetical citations, will generally show the author’s last name and the page from which you’re citing. For example, (Stevenson 57). Cross-reference that with the bibliography to look for the work by Stevenson which is being referred to.
- Notes append a superscripted number at the end of the sentence or paragraph, which you can then reference by looking at the bottom of the page (which are called footnotes) or going to the end of the work or chapter (these are called endnotes). Remember the definition of citation above? We cited that with an endnote, so check the end of this article for the source.
On the other side, the full titles of the works cited are given out in the bibliography or references sections. There’s a difference between the two. The bibliography is the complete list of sources that you’ve used to construct your paper, whether or not you’ve cited them. A references section is the list of sources cited, either in the whole paper or in that specific section.
Where style guides differ, however, is when it comes to how your citations and your references are formatted.
Common Citation Formats
We’re not going to go into how to cite something in every format in this article. Citation formats are constantly updated, so even new needs like how to cite a PDF or cite a website can be incorporated into citation formats as they develop.
Some institutions or publishers may have an in-house style guide that might not be the same as a popular style guide. If you’re uncertain, ask your professor or your publisher to see what citation format they require you to use, and if it’s something unfamiliar or unique to the publisher, ask for a style guide from them before you get back to your paper. This will save you time having to re-format your citations later on.
These are some common citation formats you might encounter:
- APA: The American Psychological Association style. It’s usually used in psychology, social science, and business.
- MLA: The Modern Language Association style. The humanities fields typically prefer this style, especially literature, language, and art.
- AMA: The American Medical Association style. The medical field prefers AMA for citations.
- CSE: The Council of Science Editors style. This citation format is commonly used in scientific fields.
- Chicago: The University of Chicago Press style. It allows for two citation formats: the sciences prefer the Author-Date style, while humanities fields (especially history) prefer the Notes and Bibliography style.
Note that this is not an exhaustive list. Remember that your institution, publisher, or professor may call for a citation format not listed above, so make sure that you know which one you’re working with. However, it is highly likely that you’ll be using one or two of the above style guides, so it pays to be familiar with them.
Of course, just knowing how to cite won’t be enough. There’s more to assembling a bibliography than just knowing how to format a citation, after all.
How to Cite While Writing
Every academic has to wrestle with the question of when to cite. Note, it’s not a matter of whether to cite. You should always cite, and citing papers should be second nature. If it doesn’t come from your own research, then your arguments come from your citations. Credit is always due.
But as for when to cite (either before, during or after you’re done writing your essay), our position is that you should always cite as you write. This keeps the citation fresh in your mind, and you won’t forget to cite it or where it’s from. This way, you don’t confuse another person’s arguments with your material.
Also, this way lets you keep your bibliography organised, as you’ll have a running list of which sources you’re citing as you go. And of course, it means that you don’t have to re-read your paper just to create a bibliography.
If you’re doing it manually, though, generating citations can be a pain. It’s not so bad once you’ve got the formatting down, but having to stop your train of thought and writing flow to put down a citation can slow your writing down.
The ideal solution is to use a tool that can insert citations while you’re writing, without you having to break your flow. Some text editors already do that. Microsoft Word already supports several common citation formats, though you’ll have to enter the titles and author names manually.
Once you’ve filled up your database of works to be cited, you can put your citations in without further trouble, but the ideal solution would be to just look up the reference, have your software create the citation, and then drop it into the text, for a smooth and painless experience.
How to Work With Multiple Sources
If you’re writing a dissertation or academic paper, you’ll have to put together a lot of sources. That can take a lot of work, especially if you’re citing something in every paragraph. Keeping all your references straight and making sure you’re citing the correct ones in the corresponding arguments can be a pain, so anything that helps take the load off will save time and mental effort, letting you focus more on your paper itself.
The basic method is the hard way—notes, and lots of them.
As you’re reading the work you intend to cite, most people choose to take notes and keep track of the page and what you intend to cite. The problem is that if you’re doing this manually, it’s a lot of work. And it’s especially inconvenient if you’re in a rush. You may find your train of thought interrupted by the need to cite every so often, and have to sift through pages and pages of information to find the specific citation you’re looking for in a given moment. Then, you have to compile all of this to create a bibliography.
It’s easier if you have searchable versions of the works you read. This saves you the trouble of hauling out the physical book and hunting through the pages. It also lets you search for specific phrases that may have stuck in your memory, or every single time the book mentions a word, making it a lot faster to reference source material. This won’t help you write out your notes, but it does make assembling those notes a lot easier.
The overall problem here is that this is a task that’s difficult to automate. You can’t use a source to support your argument until you know what it means, and the only way to do that is to read it. Reading inevitably takes time, note-taking takes time, and citing papers or books takes time.
This is unavoidable for an academic or student researcher, right?
Reference Management Software
We know you should cite while you’re working so that you don’t miss a reference. And we know that you need to do it smoothly so that your workflow doesn’t get tripped up by the need to write “(Konijnendijk 44)” in every paragraph. Finally, you want to create a bibliography quickly once you’re done writing, not spend hours sifting through your paper and the sources you quoted to generate citations.
That’s where reference management software comes in. These are tools that let you record and manage a bibliography from a database of source material. If you’re citing something that’s already filed in the database, the software can generate a citation for you automatically, in whichever citation format you need. Good reference management software (RMS) can save you a lot of time and mental effort.
Of course, not all of these academic writing tools are created equal. Some are just automated style guides—meaning that you still have to input the citation yourself. Some are unwieldy, requiring you to jump through a series of hoops just to generate a citation that could have been done faster manually.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your workflow with an RMS tool that has none of these limitations, Flowcite can make things more efficient for you.
Flowcite Research Management combines everything you need in one package. In addition to its integrated reference management software, Flowcite’s Knowledge Library lets you look up sources across a wide range of databases. All the data and papers you need are right there at your fingertips, ready to integrate into your writing.
To top it off, Flowcite also has a built-in LaTeX text editor. When using other reference management softwares, you have to bounce between several different programs to write, research, and cite sources in your paper.
But with Flowcite, you can switch from the Knowledge Library to your saved references to the text editor without ever slowing down or leaving your browser window. Look up a source on the Knowledge Library, get an AI-produced synopsis from the Article Summarizer, generate a reference in the appropriate citation format, and put it into text, all using a single tool.
It’s often boring and tiresome to create a bibliography, produce references in the right citation format, and keep all of your source material organised while researching and writing a paper. Yet it still needs to be done well, because an improper citation can be an embarrassment for you, or even expose a gaping hole in your argument.
Luckily, technology is on your side! Flowcite has the features you need to make citing and referencing easier, whether it’s looking up sources, inserting them as in-text citations, or automatically managing your bibliography.
Want to save hours of time when writing your academic papers? For smooth and seamless academic writing, check out Flowcite’s unique suite of integrated reference management features.
1 Sacred Heart University. “Organizing Academic Research Papers: 11. Citing Sources.” Research Guides, 2020. https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185939.
Content Marketing Strategist
Brittany is a Content Marketing Strategist at Flowcite, and an outstanding academic writing expert. She holds a first-class Honours degree in Literae Humaniores from the University of Oxford and has been certified in Digital Marketing Analytics by the MIT Sloan School of Management.