Why You Need to be Ridiculously Good at Citing Sources (+ how to do it)

Author(s): Brandy Perkl, Ph.D.

Originally posted: February 25, 2016
Tech Recommendations Disclaimer: The tools the University pays for change periodically so this advice may go out of date easily or not apply other places than the University of Arizona or my lab specifically, I always recommend using the tech your school supports so you can call them for help and so it's free to you. Unless you're planning to go to graduate school, then find what works best for you and get comfortable with it fast because you'll be using it for YEARS.
APA Disclaimer: I am NOT an APA expert, I've just been using it a long time. I look things up and ask questions about how to cite all the time. Paperpile is a huge help, as it will generate cites for me for any reference I drop into it. It doesn't get everything perfect (no reference manager or website does), but it's much easier to learn 2-3 rules for fixing Paperpile generated references (put the last names in correctly, fix capitalization before I copy a cite, etc.) than it is to try to learn ALL the rules of APA.

This guide is not so much about plagiarism in college (though it can help make sure you never have to face negative repercussions over that), it’s about your career and your life. This is something no one taught me when I needed to hear it. Given my background, I only talk about APA style (when I wrote this they were on the 6th edition), but any official style will do.

You = Member of the Economy

You = Human Capital

You can be the product companies want and need. You are human capital (MBA Brief, 2013).

One of the reasons human capital has become so important is due to information overload and how connected we are – by extension of these two variables a large part of many current higher-level jobs is knowledge management (Liu, 2002).

In many cases when a leader or a manager needs a solution, someone somewhere has already solved the same problem for themselves. But when you find it (and you will), you have to convince relevant stakeholders to support the solution you've discovered.

The Network Economy

...is the emerging economic order within the information society that was enabled by the arrival of internet, mobile phones, social networks etc. (MBA Brief, 2013).

According to Kevin Kelly (1998):

  1. Wealth in this new regime flows directly from innovation, seizing what is unknown.

  2. The ideal environment for cultivating the unknown is networks.

  3. The domestication of the unknown inevitably means undoing what was perfected.

  4. The cycle of "find, nurture, destroy" happens faster and more intensely than ever before.

If you’re interested in learning more about this concept Kevin Kelly’s other writings are a great start – including his Maxims for the Network Economy.

How to Get Buy-In To Your Ideas

Give them evidence (SIOP: Science for a Smarter Workplace, Center for Evidence-Based Management). If you can demonstrate that you have done the research, you have the knowledge, and that your solution or idea is well thought out and matches the current problem - you're going to get your buy-in and get noticed in a positive way (though that doesn't guarantee full support, companies have constraints that get in the way of implementation sometimes). You CANNOT show these things in a credible way unless you effectively use citations.

How to be Better Than Everyone Else at Work

Find information + present it to others in a useful way. That's all you have to do.

This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to make yourself stand out from the crowd of people you work with so that you...

  • have documentation of your ability to synthesize information into good ideas

  • are the one who gets promoted

  • are the one your boss turns to when they need something

  • become a leader

... through being a better knowledge worker than those around you.

This is also why I generally push my students to use technology, especially to become more efficient managers of information.

Knowledge management can be such an asset to you in just about any job and so much of information is online/on computers and needs to be managed with technology these skills really pay off later. Technological knowledge management skills are even useful in jobs you might not expect, like farming, because someone has to manage the farm operations, someone needs to be aware of ways to streamline and innovate so they don’t stagnate and fail, etc.

"Be so good they can't ignore you." - Cal Newport

Reviews: "Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one." - Seth Godin, author, Linchpin

"This book changed my mind. It has moved me from 'find your passion, so that you can be useful' to 'be useful so that you can find your passion.' That is a big flip, but it's more honest, and that is why I am giving each of my three young adult children a copy of this unorthodox guide." - Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick, WIRED

About the Author: Cal Newport, Ph.D., lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a writer and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He also runs the popular website Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success.

How to be Ridiculously Good at Citing

Note: In the social sciences and business fields, APA is the most commonly used format which is why I require it in my courses. In the work world generally as long as you are consistent and in line with industry norms you're set.

Understand Why We Cite: Retrievability

Yes, I made that word up. Anyway, the purpose of the reference list is to “acknowledge the work of previous scholars and provide a reliable way to locate it” (APA Publication Manual, 6th ed., p. 37 as cited in Hume-Pratuch, 2010).

The entire point of citation is that someone will be able to physically find your reference material, in the format you accessed it, if they needed to. Hence my new word: Retrievability. If what you're referencing CAN'T be retrieved, then that may become the message of your reference (such as private communications, interviews, class materials, etc.).

Tip: Only one piece of "source information" is necessary per reference (the publisher name and location, the retrieval URL, or the DOI), so just pick one if you have them all.

If you pay much attention to the APA Style Blog (like I do), you'll notice they're just figuring things out as they go for all the new options of sources, and they're doing that based on these same principles. Just follow this quick guide for each reference:

  1. Can someone physically track down my reference from my citation?

    • YES - You're done!

    • NO - then ask yourself:

  2. Can they understand where I got this from, and why it can't be retrieved?

    • YES. You're done!

    • NO, then scour the web, find a librarian or email the APA Style people directly to find out what you should do. (I do all of these when in doubt, that's what they're there for.)

The reason for all the other 'rules' is so that it's easy to know what each part of your retrievable reference is telling us. That's why you're supposed to put things in certain orders, capitalize properly, use italics in the right way, etc.

Step 1: Have a Process

If you know you prefer having a book to reference, get one, I like APA: The Easy Way! by Peggy M. Houghton (best if you just need to quickly reference common citation styles and review basic paper formatting. And Essentials of APA Formatting and Style by Michael Neal (the most helpful part of this book is the alerts for common errors, in fact there is an entire chapter which reviews those!) . If websites work for you, bookmark the best ones: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab resources on Research and Citation for APA Style (this site is very comprehensive and the search engine works very well) and the American Psychological Association’s APA Style is 100x better than their books, and is searchable as well.

For our UAS students I've also got a few pages just for you:

Step 2: Use some Tools

Master your Word PROCESSOR

I have advised both people in industry and students before to take the time ASAP to improve basic skills that could hold them back later, such as typing speed, shortcuts, and being effective at using basic software. If you have concerns about any of your own basic skills - work on them now!

Office for Windows and Mac is provided FREE to students at UAyou have no excuse to not have it as a student (though I use Google Docs a LOT and that's an acceptable alternative). MS Word is currently the most widely used software of this type in the US, so you should be using it if you want to be as marketable as possible.

There’s also a Microsoft Word APA Template or you can follow this YouTube video to teach you how to set up Word to format your paper in APA 6th Edition as you write. (This is very helpful if you will be doing more than one paper in full APA formatting, not just your citations, plus it has captions if you need them.)

There’s a lot to learn with software if you’re new to it and I am not going to cover things here that don’t pertain to citing, but here’s some keywords you should really look up if you’ve never used them in Word: Styles & Themes (I've got a post and video on how to do this quick and easy). It’s rare in the non-academic world that your writing actually needs to be in APA format (though your citations ALWAYS should be) and those two things can help your work stand out for looking amazing in just a few clicks, saving you hours of formatting without sacrificing style and impact.

Manage Your Files

The number one thing to consider here is YOU and what will make the most intuitive sense to you as you work. The more natural your system is to you, the better. For example – I name everything one way, I use a folder scheme that makes sense to me when I am looking for things, etc. but my system is likely not highly comprehensible to someone else (and often gets messed up because I collaborate with others who don't use my system regularly, but so be it).

  • The most helpful thing I ever did sounds so silly, but I sat down with a piece of paper and made a ‘file plan’ where I noted the main types of files I have, what categories they fall into, types they are, etc. and drew a plan for how I would like to organize them. Then I tacked that to the wall by my computer so I would stick to it until it became a habit.

  • If you’re never considered this before – review the three main types of filing schemes.

  • Cloud storage, like your Google Drive account, can help you with this too. Google Drive allows you to view your files so many different ways (Most Recent, Shared with You, Date Created, Date Edited, etc., etc. etc.) that you don’t have to be so exacting with your scheme in most cases - you can just search instead.

  • You can also go higher-tech with this if you’re comfortable doing that, but for me this just gave me too much room to play and waste time making rules and then micromanaging them.

Bottom Line: Just pick something easy you'll stick to that makes sense to you for your system. And make sure you've set up backups.

Evaluate Your Sources

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory is widely considered by those who really deeply understand personality testing to be the ‘fad that won’t die’, and that’s a serious insult. It has some serious problems, you can review my take on it as interpreted by a student if you like, but one of the main ones is that it has become a business unto itself so most of the research which shows it to be a good assessment is done by a company which gets paid to provide training for the MBTI. That’s such blatant bias– it’s like your mom (or someone else who thinks you’re brilliant without any evidence) being allowed to choose your grade in our class. Today people ASSUME it is credible just based on it being so widely used. That really hurts my scientific feelings. I hope you’ll aspire to being better than ‘assumptions of credibility’ in your life and work.

  • Columbia College has a great short primer on this topic, as does Purdue’s OWL, the basics of which are that you should ask yourself the following things for any sources whose credibility could be in doubt:

    1. Who is the author? Are they credible, could they be biased?

    2. How recent is the source? Does it matter?

    3. What is the author’s purpose?

    4. What type of sources does your audience value? (I value peer-reviewed research.)

  • The amazing EasyBib will help you build perfect APA citations and will tell you how credible your cites are

  • University of Oregon has an excellent short comparison of Scholarly vs. Popular Sources and how they are different which can help you evaluate them more easily. They also have a long-form guide to evaluating sources that shows you HOW to find the answers to your credibility questions.

Advanced: Master a Reference Manager (and keep your web sources in it)

The best thing to ever happen to references are reference managers. Reference manages are also MUCH better at producing cites for papers than all those websites that say they are good at it. Those sites lose my students points every semester. If you intend to go on to graduate school or to a research-based position it is an excellent idea to get familiar and start using this type of software now and develop a system for saving all of your citations.

Save Your Cited Items

  • PDFs can be saved so they’re easy. Get behind the paywall via your library whenever possible to save the real pdf. (Paperpile can now do this for you automagically!)

  • Books, journals, etc. are easy since even if you don’t have the physical copy it will be in a library/database somewhere - I save the WorldCat link for those if nothing else.

  • Websites are the tough part. You can save them however you like, but BE SURE TO SAVE THEM. Sites move and change and can invalidate your citations without you knowing it happened. You’ll be the one who looks bad or like a plagiarist if that happens, so this saves you from that. My method is as follows: I use Readability (others like CleanPrint, Pocket, etc.) to save physical PDF copies of the pages I am citing to Paperpile.

Step 3: Cite like a Boss

As I said before, the idea is that references/citations would lead someone to ‘recoverable data’ or a source they can access. Review the stuff about retrievability if you need a refresher on that idea! That info. and the section on having a process should cover what you need to be citing easily and with confidence in the future. There’s nothing left for me to tell you really!

However, as a parting gift, here are some citation formats I get asked about the most!

Less Common Citation Formats

Images sourced from flickr_janneke-staaks_research_data_management and the author's own work.


I've tried to keep these in order of reference in the post above vs. in the accepted alphabetical format to make finding one you need potentially easier.

MBA Brief. (2013, December 17). Human Capital. Retrieved from MBA Brief Concept Definitions: http://www.mbabrief.com/what_is_human_capital.asp

Liu, S. (2002, Fall). Introduction to Knowledge Management. Retrieved from INLS258 Database Systems II: http://www.unc.edu/~sunnyliu/inls258/Introduction_to_Knowledge_Management.html

Kelly, K. (1998). New Rules for the New Economy. New York, NY: Viking. Retrieved from http://kk.org/books/new-rules-for-the-new-economy.php

Newport, C. (2012). So good they can’t ignore you: Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love. Grand Central Publishing: New York, NY.

Hume-Pratuch, J. (2010, October 28). What belongs in the reference list? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2010/10/what-belongs-in-the-reference-list.html