Writing & Citing

Citation Styles

How To …

Boolean Searching

Most databases support using Boolean operators between search terms to find articles containing any of your terms or all of your terms.

Boolean AND

To retrieve only items that discuss both genetics and corn (represented by the small green area in the diagram) you would AND these terms together: genetics AND corn.

venn diagram

AND-ing a new term to your search will make your retrieval set smaller because you are adding another word that must be present in each document.

Boolean OR

To include resources that refer to corn as "maize," you would broaden your search by using corn OR maize.

venn diagram

OR-ing terms is an effective way to search for concepts referred to by different words or phrases: movies OR film OR cinema.

Phrase Searching

If you wish to search a topic best described by a phrase, place the phrase in quotation marks: "physician assisted suicide."

If you do not put a phrase in quotation marks, most databases will automatically AND the terms together. This will retrieve documents that contain all of the words, but may not use them together.

Combining Operators

For more complex searches, combine synonyms with OR and different concepts with AND. (Use parentheses to group OR-ed terms.)

(corn OR maize) AND genetics

Finding Scholarly Articles

Your instructor has asked you to find "scholarly" ("peer reviewed," "refereed," "academic") articles. How do you tell if an article is scholarly?

What is "Scholarly"?

Scholarly articles report on the original research or thought of the authors. An exception is the review article, which evaluates published research on a particular topic.

In both cases, authors are experts in their field, usually with advanced degrees and affiliations to universities, corporations, or institutes. The article itself must pass a review process in which qualified experts comment anonymously (hence the terms "peer reviewed" or "refereed").

Article Structure

Scholarly articles are often highly structured, especially in the natural and social sciences, where they may be divided into sections such as abstract, introduction, materials & methods, results, and conclusions.

Numerous Citations

Authors of scholarly articles cite all their sources. There will be footnotes or in-text citations as well as a list of references at the end of the article.

Complex Content

Scholarly articles are written for researchers in the author's field, so they may contain specialized vocabulary. They may also be quite long: a 30-page article is not uncommon.

Where They Are Found

Find scholarly articles by searching library databases. Some databases contain only scholarly articles; others offer both scholarly and popular, but may let you limit results to scholarly articles only.


Search Term Truncation

Library catalogs and databases employ a keyword search that retrieves only exact matches for your search terms.

If you enter a search on "stem cells" and "research," a database will not retrieve an item on "stem cell research" because the plural "stem cells" is not an exact match for the singular "stem cell."


Sometimes the exact form of a search term is not important: "diet," "diets," "dietary." Truncate words that have a variety of endings by first identifying the common root:

  • child, children
  • corporation, corporate
  • ethics, ethical

What the *!?

Truncation symbols are added to the root. For example, "child*" would find records that mention "child" or "children."

Truncation symbols vary from database to database. The asterisk is the most common, but the library catalog uses a question mark.


Be careful where you truncate a word. A search on "corpor*" will return "corporation" or "corporate," but a search on "corp*" will also include "corpse." Be careful of using truncation with common prefixes like "eco-" or "micro-."

Using Subject Headings

Subject headings (sometimes called descriptors) allow you to retrieve information on a topic, regardless of variations in the words and phrases used by different writers to discuss it.

An Example

Note the number of hits in the IC Library catalog for a keyword search on e-commerce. What all of these items have in common is one word:

  • Developing Inter-Organization Trust in Business to Business e-commerce
  • Economic and Social Impacts of e-commerce
  • How to Dot-com: A Step by Step Guide to e-commerce

But Wait, There's More!

Opening the record for one of these books reveals that the assigned subject heading is "Electronic Commerce." Note the number of hits.

The subject search retrieves almost three times as many items. This is because writers use a wide range of words and phrases to address this topic:

  • Contemporary Research in e-marketing
  • Electronic Commerce in the Retail Sector
  • Entrepreneurship and Innovations in e-business
  • Maximize Business Profits through e-partnerships

Eliminate the Guesswork

Scoring an exact match between your own words and the vocabulary chosen by writers may prove difficult. Where subject searching is available—library catalogs and most library databases—it can offer a shortcut to the full range of resources on a topic.

Choosing a Topic

There are no rules for choosing a topic and formulating a thesis, but the following three-step approach may help.

Choosing a Topic

List subject that are appropriate to the course and of interest to you. At this stage, think in nouns.

  • reality television
  • human cloning
  • Captain Ahab

Make what you think are plausible claims about your topics—add verbs.

  • Reality television is therapeutic for its viewers.
  • Human cloning is more likely to debase than enhance human life.
  • Ahab should be understood as a tragic hero.

You now have potential thesis statements. The thesis is what drives most research—a claim to be proved or disproved by factual evidence and persuasive argument.

Once you have decided on a thesis, begin researching it as an open-ended question:

  • Is reality television more than entertainment?
  • What are the most likely consequences of human cloning?
  • Can Ahab be understood as heroic?

If you set out only to support your own claim and ignore contrary evidence, this will weaken your argument.

The Scope of Your Topic

  • How long does your paper need to be?
  • How much time do you have to complete it?
  • Will you be able to find enough information?
  • Are there restrictions on the resources that you can use? (Only scholarly, no Web, most recent?)

Problems with Scope

Too Narrow
  • Women are negatively protrayed in Lithuanian TV commercials.
  • Incidence of skin cancer is related to ethnicity in Malaysia.
Too Broad
  • World War II was caused by a variety of factors.
  • Vegetarianism is beneficial.

Expand Your Mind!

Most research assignments will occur within a course offered by a particular department. Naturally you will approach it from the perspective of that discipline, but try not to overlook alternate points of view.

This could lead you to interesting new resources. There are article on Shakespeare in ScienceDirect and articles on quantum mechanics in Literature Online.


Plagiarism is the theft of words or ideas. It is also a form of personal deceit:

  • Plagiarism deceives your instructor in an attempt to get a better grade.
  • Plagiarism betrays classmates judged on the merits of their own work.
  • Plagiarism defrauds the institution awarding credit for academic acheivement.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Plagiarism often begins with self-deceit. Students tell themselves that because they haven't quoted a source word-for-word they haven't plagiarized. Make no mistake:

  • The IC Student Conduct Code defines plagiarism as the unacknowledged use of another's words or ideas.
  • The APA Manual describes plagiarism as the appropriation of another's work: "ideas as well as written words."
  • The MLA Handbook extends plagiarism to unattributed facts, opinions, ideas, expressions, or "line of thinking."

Paraphrasing Is Not Enough

You cannot make someone else's work your own simply by paraphrasing it. If you consult a source that states,

The author urges us to interrogate ourselves: to explore how we are culturally constructed, to be aware of how we project onto events,

you cannot claim these ideas as your own simply by changing some of the words:

The author insists that we ask ourselves how we are socially constructed and that we realize how much we project onto our environment.

Cite Your Sources

Writers who plagiarize usually wish to avoid the effort required to do their own work, but want to receive credit for someone else's. Remember: there is no shame in citing what you believe are good ideas. Simply document where they come from and explain how you think they apply:

According to one critic, the author is asking us to consider how we are "culturally constructed" and may "project" these assumptions (Smith 37). A vivid example of this occurs when...

Primary and Secondary Sources

Sources are called "primary" when they are original: the first-hand record of factual investigation, artistic creation, or personal experience. Scientific experiments, works of art, and eye-witness reports testify directly to the discoveries, actions, and observations of their authors.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Science and Social Science Research: lab experiments, field work, survey data
  • Works of Art: novels, paintings, films, music
  • Personal Records: diaries, memoirs, eye-witness accounts, letters, blogs
  • Organizational Records: minutes, policy statements, annual reports
  • Visual and Audio Records: photographs, sound recordings, videos
  • Legal Documents: birth certificates, wills, licenses, contracts

Secondary Sources

Sources are called "secondary" when they interpret, evaluate, or summarize evidence found in primary sources. For example:

  • Science & Social Science Journalism: summary or commentary on the research of others
  • Arts Criticism: interpretation or appreciation of novels, paintings, films, music
  • History & Biography: factual and interpretive narratives based on primary sources such as legal documents, letters, and diaries
  • Textbooks & Reference Works: overviews by subject or discipline of the primary and secondary work of others.

It's All Relative

What counts as a primary or secondary source may vary by context:

  • A literary critic's autobiography is primary in regard to his life and times, but secondary in its criticism of novels or poems.
  • A textbook on medieval history written in the 19th century is a secondary source on the medieval world, but a primary source for research on 19th century history instruction.

Evaluating Websites

The Web is a valuable information source, but for the purposes of academic research, you must select reliable sites. Information may be biased toward a particular ideology or may have a commercial purpose. Here are some hints for determining the reliability of a website and its appropriateness for your research.

Examine the URL

Web addresses (URLs) often take the form www.server.xxx/file.html. The three letters (usually) after the server name indicate the domain. Sites in the domains .edu, .gov, or .org are likely to be more reliable for research than those ending in .com.

Sometimes it is not apparent who is responsible for the website. Try shortening the URL so that it ends with the domain. This will often reveal the identify of the hosting organization.

Authorship & Authority

Ask yourself not only "who wrote this?" but "why should I care what he writes?" Look for the author's identity and also any information about his educational background, professional credentials, etc. This information can often be found under an "About Us" link.

Does the Site Cite?

Scholarly discourse is characterized by continual reference to previous scholarly discourse. Does the site say where its information comes from? Can you actually track down the primary sources?

No Site is an Island

To whom does the site link? Who links to the site? To find out who links to a website, you can either do a Google search in the form "link:www.somesite.com" or paste the site's URL into alexa.com. The site itself may look respectable, but what about its friends and neighbors?

Is the Site Older than You?

Is the information on the site current? Can you find a "last updated" statement? If references are listed, how old are the most recent ones? Are there a number of dead links?

It's All Relative

We cannot simply classify websites as "good" or "bad"—it all depends on the purpose for which it is used. The website for a group advocating the legalization of marijuana may be valuable as an example of the arguments used by proponents of that cause, but its statements about the health benefits of the herb should be taken with a grain of salt.

Successful Citation

What is citation?

Citation is the practice of providing information about the sources you have used in your writing. The idea is to allow a reader to trace your ideas back to their original sources.

Why Do We Cite?

Citation acknowledges any source that has directly influenced your language, ideas, or arguments. You should cite not only what you quote, but also what you paraphrase. Putting an idea or argument into your own words may modify it, but does not make you the sole author.

In addition to giving due credit, citation allows your readers to locate your sources. Most scholarly writing is a dialogue with others who have addressed the same topic, and your reader needs to know who they are and where, exactly, you have encountered their ideas.

Also, if you don't cite, you'll be guilty of plagiarism and punished.

How to Cite

The primary rule of good citation is to provide enough information so that a reader can find the source himself, if so inclined.

It is important to keep track of where your information comes from during the writing process. When you consult a source, make sure that you write down the complete bibliographic information, which typically includes:

  • author
  • title
  • publication or publisher
  • date
  • volume and issue numbers
  • page numbers

Different Styles

Many standard styles exist for how to cite a document. These vary in relation to the needs of different communities of scholars. Those most commonly used at the undergraduate level are APA, MLA, and Chicago.


Created by the American Psychological Association, this style is commonly used in the social sciences.

APA citation
In text: (Johnson, 2007)

Journal Article
APA citation
In text: (Partner, 2007)


Created by the Modern Language Association, this style is commonly used in the humanities. Note that in the in-text citation you need to specify page numbers.

MLA citation
In text: (Johnson 12-13)

Journal Article
MLA citation
In text: (Partner 131)


Chicago style actually encompasses two different styles: the "notes and bibliography" style and the "author-date" style.

The differences between Chicago's two styles are in the mechanism of reference. In the "notes and bibliography" style, superscript numbers in the text refer to either footnotes or endnotes with complete citation information.

In the "author-date" style, in-text citations are contained in parenteses, as in APA.