How to Use Sources Logistically

Now that you have learned how to use sources to create and support your own arguments, you might still have some logistical questions about how to integrate the sources into your prose. This section is about properly acknowledging others’ ideas in your writing.

Sometimes, there are hard-and-fast rules for how to do this; we’ll point you to these rules when they apply. In addition, by explaining the principles that underlie responsible source integration, this section will help you make your own judgement calls in cases where there aren’t strict guidelines to follow.

Doing these steps properly will help you avoid plagiarism.


I have a piece of information that I read in a source. How should I integrate it into my work and cite it?

Is it common knowledge?

Something that’s common knowledge is a fact that everyone who shares your cultural background generally knows. For example, the name of the current president or that the Second World War ended in 1945.

If the information in your source is a simple fact rather than an opinion, and you knew it before you read the source, you probably don’t need to cite it.


Best practice: when in doubt, cite!

If you decide to cite:¹

Should I quote directly?

Quoting directly means that you copy from the source exactly word-for-word, put those words into quotation marks, and cite the author and page number(s).

Some reasons to quote directly:quote

  • When the source’s wording is important for your argument: for example, when you want to analyze the author’s use of language.
  • When the author of a secondary source articulates the ideas better than you can yourself, quotes can be helpful, but overusing quotation can de-emphasize your own agreement. Quoting short phrases or sentences rather than big blocks of text helps your argument to build on the previous source without being overwhelmed by it.

The mechanics of quoting directly:

  • Don’t just drop the quotation into your paragraph. Instead, provide context for the quotation and use a signal phrase to introduce it.
  • The context gives readers information they need to interpret the quote. It can include:
    • The author’s name.
    • The author’s credentials (Is she an expert in the field? Was she a witness to an event you’re analyzing? etc.) and your evaluation of how you might use the source.
    • The events or conditions that shaped the speaking or writing of the quotation (for example: “The ‘Football for Ladies’ advertisement appeared in an 1895 program for the University of Michigan’s game against Chicago.”)
  • A signal phrase helps transition into or out of quotation and identify its source.
    • While “says” or “writes” are almost always appropriate, you can also use the phrase to identify the tone of a source.
    • Examples: “Michael Oriard observes”; “Daniel Dellis Hill argues”; “‘Football for Ladies’ states”
    • Other sample signal phrases include: announces, declares, comments, notes, responds, points out, suggests²

Should I paraphrase?

Paraphrase means that you express, in your own words, an idea that you read in a source. When you paraphrase, you still need to cite the author and page number(s), because that’s where the original idea came from.

Some reasons to paraphrase:paraphrase

  • When the overall idea matters more than the specific wording.
  • When you want to clarify technical language or simplify a complex argument.
  • When it is dictated by disciplinary conventions (i.e. social sciences).

The mechanics of paraphrasing:

  • Make sure you’re writing entirely in your own words but staying true to the source. A good practice is to read the source, make sure you understand it, and then put it away and write your paraphrase without looking at it. Once you’re done, go back to the source and make sure your paraphrase isn’t misrepresenting it. (See the section below on patchwriting for more information.)

Should I summarize?

Summary is when you provide a brief overview of a much longer text. For example, you could summarize an entire novel, film, or scholarly article in a few sentences. Because summary provides a general overview, you often don’t need to cite the specific page number(s), but you should cite the author and title.

Some reasons to summarize:summary

  • When you want to give your reader some background or context for your argument but don’t need to get into the source’s details.
  • When you want to condense a long work into a couple main ideas.

The mechanics of summarizing:

  • As with paraphrasing, make sure you’re writing entirely in your own words but staying true to the source. A good practice is to read the source, make sure you understand it, and then put it away and write your summary without looking at it. Once you’re done, go back to the source and make sure your summary isn’t misrepresenting it. (See the section on patchwriting for more information.)

Best practice: Figure out what the conventions of your discipline suggest. Social scientists rarely quote directly, while literature scholars often use direct quotes from primary sources as specific evidence to support their claims.

¹ We referred to and paraphrased from the following sources to write this section: Dana Lynn Driscoll, Allen Brizee, “Quoting, Paraphrasing, Summarizing.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. updated 2013; Summer Leibensperger, “Decide when to Quote, Paraphrase, Summarize.” Academic Center, University of Houston-Victoria. 2003, revised 2005.

² This list derives from the University of North Carolina’s writing center: