How to Study at University

Practical tips and general thoughts on how to study at a Western university

Cite seeing

Posted on | November 10, 2011 | No Comments

Point: Learn when to cite


Some of you do it too much; some of you don’t do it enough. And when you do it, most of you, I suspect, do it wrong.

What can ‘it’ be?

Talking to your mother? Maybe.

Brushing your teeth? Possibly.

Citing sources in your essay? Definitely!

If you ever learned about citing and referencing, you probably learned how to do it. You probably learned that there was a referencing style – like Harvard, APA or Chicago – that you should use. You learned how to cite in the middle of your essay and how to reference at the end of it. Even though you still make mistakes, at least you were told and you tried to learn how to do it correctly.

But if that’s all you learned, it’s like learning how to brush your teeth but not learning when to do it.

There are times when you should brush your teeth – before you go to bed, for instance – and there are times when you should not – before you eat dinner. (It’s a waste of good toothpaste to do it before dinner, right?)

When and when not to

So when should you cite and when should you not cite?

I will say first that there is a grey area where some people say Cite! and other people say Don’t cite! Which is fine. I like grey areas. That’s where the most interesting discussions happen. I’ll leave you to find out where they are by yourself.

Here I’ll look at when you should probably cite. And by when I also mean why because if you know why you cite it will help you know when to cite.

I will give you four of the 11 main reasons to cite (Harwood, 2010). Did you see what I did there? I cited! And that is an example of my first reason,

which is …

1. To credit. That is, to acknowledge that someone else had the idea or used the method before you. There are two aspects to this. You want to pay respect to that person, but you might also want to prevent your readers from accusing you of not knowing what happened before you.

2. To signpost, or point the reader to where they can find more information. You might, for example, want to use a concept but don’t want to leave the line of your argument to explain the concept in full. So you say you will use it and tell the reader that they can learn more about it in another publication.

3. To support. Sources can be used to support what you say. Remember, in your essay it is you that is speaking. An essay is not a collection of things that other people said. It is your thesis, your argument, your justification, and your conclusion. Other people are used to support you. This support comes in two main forms; research findings, and the opinions of respected authorities.

4. To identify positions. If there are different viewpoints on a topic, you may be able to refer to them by citing well-known advocates of those viewpoints. For example, you could say that, “Some people believe you should brush your teeth three times a day (Dracula, 1897; Wolfman, 1967) while others believe once a month is enough (Quasimodo, 1482; Gollum, 1937).” Then you can refer to followers of Dracula, or those in the Quasimodo school.

I know this won’t answer all your questions about when to cite but I hope it’s a start. If you want to know more, I have signposted you to the reference below.

Like a lot things in life, you will get a better feel for it as you do it more, as you write more essays. And, importantly, as you read more articles.

The more citations you see, the more you will understand when to use them yourself.


Harwood, N. (2010). Research-based materials to demystify academic citation for postgraduates. In N. Harwood (ed.). English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

(Stuart Miles)


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