Keeping Track of Sources

We tend to treat citation as the last step—and often as an afterthought. But no matter how carefully you’ve researched your topic, worked to understand your sources, or diligently figured out where you agree and disagree with them so you can position yourself within a broader conversation, your efforts won’t be complete until you cite your work properly.

Citation matters not just because it’s necessary to give credit to authors whose work you’ve used but because it’s a vital part of academic conversation. Just as you’ve used other scholars’ citations to track down sources that are useful to you, your citations allow people to follow your trail—retracing your steps to confirm your argument, and looking at your sources to yield even more new knowledge.

The most important thing you can do when working on a research paper is to cite as you write.

Why? Because it means you’re keeping track of all your sources. Going back and doing it later is a great way to lose key information. And losing key information is how a lot of accidental plagiarism happens: if your records are spotty and scattered, you might not have access to all the material you need to construct an accurate citation. Plus, leaving citation for last, when you’ve run out of steam and might be rushing to meet a deadline, means you’re more likely to make sloppy mistakes.

Citing as you write means two things:


Any time you start taking notes on a source, write down the bibliographic information.

Usually you want to know:

  • What is the thing/text you are examining?
  • Who made/wrote it?
  • What is the title?
  • Where was it published/made?
  • Who published/made it?
  • When was it published? (Is this the first edition?)
  • Where did you find it?

Exactly what information you need, and the order in which this information is conveyed, depends on the media you are examining and the particular citation style you choose to use. There are manuals for the most commonly used styles (MLA, Chicago, APA) easily available on the internet and probably on your library’s website. Picking the style appropriate for your discipline and using it consistently means that the process of citing while you write will be a lot easier. (If you’re not sure which citation style to use, ask your instructor.)

Within the paper itself

Include the citations every time you use a piece of information that relates to another text. Do this as soon as you finish a page or paragraph.

When you’re writing and want to include a quotation, include the citation as well. When you’re paraphrasing–that is, rewriting a source’s ideas in your own words (see Understanding Sources)–you still need to cite as you go!

Even if all the citations will eventually go in a different place in your document, not losing track of what it is that you are quoting or paraphrasing will save you from a lot of stress right before the paper is due.

You might ask: But won’t having to keep track of citation details distract me from thinking through my ideas? If you’ve kept good records during the research process, it should only take a few seconds to note the source(s) and page number(s) when you finish a paragraph.