12 – Avoiding Plagiarism and Citing Sources Properly

Using Sources in Your Document

Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Robin Jeffrey; Amanda Lloyd; John Lanning; Melanie Gagich; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Kalani Pattison; and Claire Carly-Miles

As stated in Chapter 1, technical writers are often faced with the challenge of communicating and relaying information or concepts on which they may not have direct expertise. Additionally, if they are investigating an ongoing problem or gap in understanding on a research topic, technical writers also have to demonstrate that they are well versed in the current discourse and arguments surrounding the topic.

In both cases, one of the most effective strategies technical writers can employ is to integrate and cite sources into their documents and presentations. Beyond avoiding plagiarism, using sources effectively allows you to draw on the expertise of others to support your points. Using sources effectively also helps the reader understand how you are situating different findings, ideas, and arguments in conversation with one another, as well as how you yourself are participating in that conversation.

To help you master these skills, this section will review the different kinds of sources and citation forms that you are likely to encounter in technical and professional writing.

Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

are direct, firsthand sources of information or data. These are sources that are fixed in a point in time and typically do not contain analysis or discussion. For example, if you were writing a report about the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the text of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights would be a primary source. Other types of primary sources include the following:

  • Data sets (your own or from a published source)
  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Photographs
  • Social media posts
  • Visuals such as schematics or plans
  • Historical and some government documents
  • Art & literature, including but not limited to novels, paintings, musical recordings, movies, and video games

discuss, interpret, analyze, consolidate, or otherwise rework information from primary sources. In researching a report about freedom of speech, you might read articles about legal cases that involved First Amendment rights, or editorials expressing commentary on the First Amendment. These sources would be considered secondary sources because they are one step removed from the primary source of information. Other examples of secondary sources include the following:

  • Biographies
  • Histories and historical analysis
  • Journal articles
  • News articles and commentaries
  • Blogs
  • Video essays

Your topic, audience, and purpose determine whether you must use both primary and secondary sources in your document. Ask yourself which sources are most likely to provide the information that will answer your research questions. If you are writing a research report about reality television shows, you will need to use some reality shows as a primary source, but secondary sources, such as a reviewer’s critique, are also important. If you are writing about the health effects of nicotine, you will probably want to read the published results of scientific studies, but secondary sources, such as magazine articles discussing the outcome of a recent study, may also be helpful.

Tertiary sources are defined and discussed in Chapter 11: Research. For the purposes of citation and integration, they should be treated the same as secondary sources.

Note

Classifying Primary and Secondary Sources

Whether a text (document or otherwise) is primary or secondary depends a lot on content and context. For example, you could conduct an interview with an individual about their life, and that would be a primary source. If you interviewed that person about their area of expertise, that might be considered more of a secondary source. Similarly, a journal article reporting the results of an original research study may be a primary source, while a journal article comparing and analyzing the results of several research studies may be a secondary source.

Citing Personal Primary Research

In many circumstances, you may be presenting primary research that you have conducted. In this case, the primary research can take the form of experimental data gained from lab experiments, results from surveys, or material from interviews or on-site evaluations. In all these scenarios, the research is not yet published prior to its inclusion in your report, paper, or article. Therefore, you do not cite it in the same way you would a published source using parenthetical citations or an entry in a Works Cited or References page.

For data acquired through an experiment, survey, or on-site research, indicate in your text where the information comes from. When specifically referencing data such as a measurement or results from a survey, you may use signal phrases like you would for a quotation, summary, or paraphrase. This signaling should be within the same sentence and in close proximity to the information itself. For example, when referencing the results of an online survey, you might say one of the following:

  • 75% of responders to our online survey reported that they were dissatisfied with the lab’s spectrometer.
  • Our online survey revealed that 75% of our respondents were dissatisfied with the lab’s spectrometer.

Notice in the example above that while the writers use a signal phrase (“our online survey”), they do not provide any citation information in parentheses. This is because non-published primary research conducted by the authors usually does not appear in a bibliography. One major exception to this rule is an interview or interpersonal communication, depending on your citation style. In MLA style, personal communication, whether in-person, over the phone or Zoom, or via an email exchange, is included both in the Works Cited list and parenthetically in the document. In APA, however, personal communication is only cited parenthetically in the document. To see how to cite personal communication in both styles, see APA Format Quick Reference and MLA Format Quick Reference later in this chapter.

The Methods section of a report or technical document serves as another major place where you discuss your primary research. In a Methods (or Method or Methodology) section, you discuss the design of your research project. This section will include a description of how you collected any information, including what tools (if any) you used, your research protocol, and any deviations from a standard protocol. See Chapter 20: Recommendation Reports for additional information.

Depending on the type of primary research you are conducting, you may want to include an appendix offering supplementary information on your research design. The two most common types of appendices you will see in recommendation reports in this class include a list of survey or interview questions (especially if they do not appear in list form in the report itself) and large tables of data from an extended period of data collection. When their data serves a supplementary purpose, these materials are placed in an appendix rather than integrated into the report itself. If the information is interesting but not necessarily relevant to the purpose and audience of the report, then that information is kept separate.

Quoting

Direct quotations are portions of a text taken word-for-word and placed inside of another document. Readers know when an author is using a direct quote because it is denoted by the use of quotation marks and an in-text citation. In this section, you will learn when to use direct quotes and the rules for direct quotation.

When Should I Use Direct Quotes?

Generally speaking, direct quotes should be used sparingly because you want to rely on your own understanding of material and avoid over-relying on another’s words. Over-quoting does not reinforce your credibility as an author; however, according to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) you should use direct quotes when “the author you are quoting has coined a term unique to her or his research and relevant within your own paper.”[1] In other words, quoting is particularly important when you’re defining and contextualizing key terms and concepts in your text.

The Basics of Direct Quotation

For each direct quotation you use, be sure to observe the following steps:

  1. Enclose the quoted material in quotation marks to set it off from the rest of the text. The exception to this rule is block (or long) quotes, which require different formatting.
  2. Provide a word-for-word reproduction from the author’s original text. If you need to alter wording or spelling, use an ellipsis or brackets.
  3. Precede each quotation with a clear signal phrase/attribution tag. If the signal phrase is a complete sentence, you should use a colon as the punctuation between the signal phrase and the quotation. Otherwise, a comma is usually best.
  4. Follow each quotation with a parenthetical citation.
  5. Clearly interpret or integrate the text into your own argument so that your readers know how to understand the quotation within the context of your work. Quotations can’t be left to speak for themselves (see “Integrating Quotes into Your Writing” later in this chapter).

MLA Example

In his seminal work, David Bartholomae argues, “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion” (4). Bartholomae uses this strong image to emphasize how important it is to instructors to understand students’ perceptions of their audiences.

APA Example

In his seminal work, David Bartholomae (1986) argues, “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion” (p. 4). Bartholomae uses this strong image to emphasize how important it is to instructors to understand students’ perceptions of their audiences.

Note that in both examples the author encloses the entire quotation with quotation marks, provides a signal phrase, and offers a page number for the quoted material. With this information, a reader can consult the document’s Works Cited (MLA) or References page (APA) to locate Bartholomae’s original article.[2] Furthermore, the second sentence in each example connects the quotation to the argument by emphasizing the aspect of the quotation most relevant to the author’s argument. In subsequent sentences, the writer may respond to Bartholomae, perhaps using his argument to further the writer’s own, offering a counter argument, or even using a combination of these two approaches.

Block Quotations

Longer quoted passages are formatted using the block quote format. In MLA, you will use this format if the typed quotation is more than three lines long. In APA, quotations longer than 40 words use this format. In both citation styles, the quoted section is indented one half inch and is not enclosed by quotation marks. A longer signal phrase (usually a full sentence) precedes the long quotation. Parenthetical citation is placed at the very end of the quotation, after any final punctuation.

Whether you are using MLA or APA style, you want to maintain the same line-spacing for block quotes and the rest of your document. For example, most technical documents are single-spaced with a blank line between paragraphs, so your block quotes will be single-spaced as well. By contrast, in the traditional academic formatting you’re likely familiar with from most of your college essays, block quotes and the rest of the document are double-spaced. Below is an example of a long quotation from Bartholomae’s article in the block format in both MLA and APA styles, which maintains single-spacing in the writer’s words and the block quotes.[3]

MLA Example

In his seminal work, David Bartholomae illustrates the thought process that college students must go through when they write for professors:

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community. (4)

Bartholomae uses the strong language of inventing to emphasize the importance of understanding how students may find it difficult to join in with unfamiliar academic discourses.

APA Example

In his seminal work, David Bartholomae (1986) illustrates the thought process that college students must go through when they write for professors:

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community. (p. 4)

Bartholomae uses the strong language of inventing to emphasize the importance of understanding how students may find it difficult to join in with unfamiliar academic discourses.

Modifying Direct Quotations

Sometimes, in order to smoothly integrate quoted material into your paper, you may need to remove a word or add a word to make the quote make sense. If you make any change to quoted material, it must be formatted correctly using an ellipsis (…) or brackets ( [ ] ). Be sure not to use these alterations to change the meaning of the quotation. In the following, a portion of Hamlet’s “To Be, or Not To Be” soliloquy[4] is used as the exemplar:

Original quote: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

  • Use an ellipsis (…) to indicate omissions in the middle of a quote:

As Hamlet states, “To be, or not to be…is the question.”

  • Use brackets ([]) to change or add a word to the quote:

As Hamlet states, “To be, or not to be, that is the [essential] question.”

Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Referencing

While quoting may be the first thing that many people think of when they think about integrating sources, paraphrasing, summarizing, and referencing data are also ways to incorporate information from outside materials into your essays or projects.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrases allow you to describe specific information from a source (ideas from a paragraph or several consecutive paragraphs) in your own words. Paraphrases of the text should be expressed in your own words, with your own sentence structure, in your own way. You should not simply “word swap” or replace a few words from the original text with synonyms. If you use a few of the author’s words within your paraphrase, place quotation marks around them.

Paraphrases are more common in number-driven fields such as sciences and social sciences than in text-based fields such as the humanities or sciences focusing on human subjects. However, while there is a difference between quoting and paraphrasing, how quotes and paraphrases are cited is really not that different at all. As with a quote, you need to explain to your reader why the paraphrased material is significant to the point you are making in your paper. You might also include signal phrases (also known as attributive tags) to let your readers know where the paraphrased material begins. Finally, as with quotations, paraphrased material should be followed by a parenthetical citation. Though APA only needs page numbers with quoted material, MLA requires page numbers for paraphrases as well (if the original source is paginated).

Summarizing

Summaries allow you to describe general ideas from a source. You do not express detailed information as you would with a paraphrase. If you are unsure whether you are summarizing or paraphrasing, compare your writing to the original. Can you identify a specific sentence, paragraph, or page number that discusses that information? If you are able to locate a specific point in the original text, then you are constructing a paraphrase and should include the appropriate page number or other marker. If your writing is dealing with a larger idea or argument that your source discusses throughout, then you have a summary. Therefore, there is no need to cite a specific page number, although you will, of course, attribute the summary to the source from which you are drawing it.

Like paraphrases, any summaries of the text should not include direct wording from the original source. All text should be in your own words, though the ideas are those of the original author. You should indicate the original source by using a signal phrase that identifies the author of the original text, or the title of the text if no author is available.

Referencing

A less commonly discussed but still ubiquitous method of using sources (especially in the sciences and social sciences) is called . When you provide a reference in the main body of a document, you are signaling to the reader that the citation is an example of something you have just said without taking the time to analyze the content of the source. When a source is alluded to in this manner, the author signals that while this source is important in the chain of research, its particular findings or methods are not as relevant to the current document’s purpose and audience.

Most often, you will see referencing early on as part of a literature review or introduction to the document. References are less common in analytical sections of reports and articles, but they may still appear if the author needs to make a quick point.

To employ a reference, observe the following guidelines:

  1. Identify what the source or sources are doing as a whole.
  2. Provide in-text parenthetical citations that support the claim made in part 1. These should go at the end of the claim.
  3. Provide full citations in a Works Cited or References page at the end of the document.

Example

Several studies on stress and engineering students focus specifically on intersectionality (Armani et al., 2003; Blackistone & Paige, 2010; Kim, 2015).

In the above example the writer offers a claim regarding the three sources provided in the in-text citation. The claim is that those three studies “focus specifically on intersectionality.” Notice that the claim alludes to the general content of the cited articles and does not offer any additional analysis or page numbers. However, the combined claim and citations allow readers who are interested in this topic to more easily locate the three recommended sources. For the writer, referencing can show credibility and content expertise.

Integrating Information from Sources

Incorporating information from sources involves more than simply inserting quotations, paraphrase, or summary and including a bibliographic entry in your document. Introducing context for the information and integrating the information into your own sentences also forms a critical aspect of using sources successfully.

Signal Phrases

Academic writing requires the use of (or attributive tags) to properly document quoted, paraphrased, and summarized material. Signal phrases require the use of the author’s name and a strong verb. These phrases may also emphasize different types of information related to the source, such as the source’s title or publisher, in order to further contextualize and guide your reader’s response to the cited material.

When using MLA style, it is a good idea to provide a signal phrase as well as the author’s first and last name when the author is first mentioned. Any future signal phrase should refer to the author by last name only, or with a pronoun when it is clear to whom the pronoun refers. For example, look at the three consecutive sentences below:

Ellen J. Langer observes, “For us to pay attention to something for any amount of time, the image must be varied.”[5]

Langer continues, “Thus, for students who have trouble paying attention the problem may be that they are following the wrong instructions.”[6]

She then states, “To pay constant, fixed attention to a thought or an image may be a kind of oxymoron.”[7]

Notice also how each signal phrase verb is followed by a comma, which is then followed by one space before the opening quotation mark.

In contrast, APA style guidelines require no reference to a first name at any point in a document and few, if any, gender-specific pronouns. In most instances, a signal phrase should contain only the last name of the author or authors of the source text (as opposed to the author’s first and last name).

Using Strong Verbs in Signal Phrases

To avoid repetition, you will want to vary your verbs. Rather than simply using “states” throughout your entire document, offer a more specific verb that signals to the reader just how you are using the source. See Table 12.1 below for examples of strong signal-phrase verbs.

Table 12.1. Strong signal-phrase verbs.

Strong Signal-Phrase Verbs
Acknowledges Counters Notes
Admits Declares Observes
Agrees Denies Points out
Argues Disputes Reasons
Asserts Emphasizes Refutes
Believes Finds Rejects
Claims Illustrates Reports
Compares Implies Responds
Confirms Insists Suggests
Comments Maintains Thinks
Contends Mentions Writes

Signal phrases provide the audience with valuable insight into how you, the writer, intend the quoted material to be understood. In addition to setting up how you use the source and its reliability, signal phrases can also be used as meaningful transitions moving your readers between your ideas and those of your support.

While providing the author’s credentials is the most common type of signal phrase, there are others you should be aware of. Table 12.2 below offers examples of common types of signal phrases and why you might use them in a document.

Table 12.2. Common signal phrases.

Type of Signal Phrase Purpose Example
Author’s credentials are indicated. Builds credibility for the passage you are about to present. Grace Chapmen, Curator of Human Health & Evolutionary Medicine at the Springfield Natural History Museum, explains…
Author’s lack of credentials is indicated. Illustrates a lack of source’s authority on the subject matter and persuades the audience not to adopt the author’s ideas. Pointing to an author’s lack of credentials can be beneficial when developing your response to counter-arguments. Matthew Smythe, whose background is in marriage counseling and not foreign policy, claims…
Author’s social or political stance, if necessary to the content, is explained. Helps a reader to understand why that author expresses a particular view. This understanding can positively or negatively influence an audience.

Note: Be careful to avoid engaging in logical fallacies such as loaded language and ad hominems. See Chapter 4 for more information.

Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Roland Hayes, prominent civil rights activist, preaches…

Richard Spencer, who takes credit for the term “alt-right,” denies…

Publisher of the source is identified. Reinforces the credibility of the information presented by utilizing the reputation and credibility of the publisher of the source material.

Note: When only referencing the publisher, make sure to include a parenthetical in-text citation identifying the author (or title, if no author is available) at the end of the cited material.

According to a recent Gallup poll…
Title of the source is included. Informs the reader where the cited passage is being pulled from. This is especially useful if the author has multiple publications or if the publication is particularly well-known. In “Understanding Human Behavior,” Riley argues…
Information that establishes context is presented. Clarifies the author’s purpose. Offers more information on the original circumstances for the quotation. In a speech presented during the Boston Free Speech Rally, Elaine Wallace encourages…

Integrating Quotations, Paraphrase, and Summary into Your Writing

As the author of your document, you should explain the significance of information you cite to your reader. This practice goes beyond simply including a signal phrase. Explaining the significance means indicating how the quoted, paraphrased, or summarized material supports the point you are making in that paragraph. Remember, just because you add a source does not mean that you have made your point. Raw data, whether in numbers or words, never speak for themselves. When referring to outside material, ask yourself how and why does that information make the point you think it does. Below are some helpful phrases for explaining referenced materials (“X” represents the author’s last name):

  • Signal phrase + content (quoted/paraphrased/summarized material). X demonstrates that __.
  • Signal phrase + content. Here, X is not simply stating _____; she is also demonstrating ______.
  • Signal phrase + content. This [point/concept/idea] is an example of _____because _________.
  • Signal phrase + content. This [statement/example] clearly shows _______because _________.

Allow your voice—not a quote from a source—to begin each paragraph, precede each quote, follow each quote, and end each paragraph. In other words, never start a sentence or end a paragraph in someone else’s words. Quotes that are integrated well into a document allow you to control the content. That is what a reader wants to see: your ideas and the way that you engage sources to shape and discuss your ideas.

This text was derived from

Gagich, Melanie. “Quoting,” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. In Gagich, Melanie and Emilie Zickel. A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing. MSL Academic Endeavors. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Lanning, John, and Amanda Lloyd. “Signal Phrases and Attributive Tags,” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. In Gagich, Melanie and Emilie Zickel. A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing. MSL Academic Endeavors. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Jeffrey, Robin. “Paraphrasing and Summarizing.” In Gagich, Melanie and Emilie Zickel. A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing. MSL Academic Endeavors. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Crowther, Kathryn, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson. Successful College Composition. 2nd ed. (English Open Textbooks, 2016). https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/8/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Pantuso, Terri, and Sarah LeMire and Kathy Anders, eds. Informed Arguments: A Guide to Writing and Research. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University, 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


  1. “How to Use Quotation Marks,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, accessed May 8, 2020, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/punctuation/quotation_marks/index.html.
  2. David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University,” Journal of Basic Writing 5, no. 3 (1986): 4.
  3. David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University,” Journal of Basic Writing 5, no. 3 (1986): 4.
  4. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare, Vol II: Later Plays and Poems, 3rd ed., eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan (New York and London: Norton, 2016), 3.1.55.
  5. Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1997), 39.
  6. Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1997), 39.
  7. Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1997), 39.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Robin Jeffrey; Amanda Lloyd; John Lanning; Melanie Gagich; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Kalani Pattison; and Claire Carly-Miles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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