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Avoiding headaches when citing your sources

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the US, most colleges and universities will be finishing up spring classes about now, and final projects are coming due. The Works Cited section of a paper is typically left until last, and students often underestimate how much time it will take to put one together. There are plenty of websites that describe the mechanics of putting together a formal citation. There are also some great (free) tools that can do most of the formatting for you (e.g. Mendeley, Zotero). But there are some additional things you can do to reduce your stress and save your sanity when citing your sources.

Here are a few tips from the experts (i.e. my colleagues) that will save you some time and some headaches.

From Justina Elmore, Business & Data Librarian:

  • Don’t delete your sources (especially articles that you had to get through Interlibrary Loan) until after your final grade as your professor may ask you to expand on an idea or modify a citation that requires you to consult that source again.
  • Cite as you write so that you don’t unintentionally forget to add your citations
  • If you use a citation generator like Zotero, Mendeley, NoodleBib, etc., double-check the citations to make sure they are not out-of-date with the current style guides

Common mistakes when using a citation generator:

  • Capitalization of the article title – Some styles want sentence case, others want title case. Citation generators typically don’t adjust cases, so if your original data isn’t right, the citation won’t be either.
  • Website citations – Citation generators can be really horrible at creating citations for websites. Double check the output here.
  • Trying to create a citation for a website that is really a journal article. Articles live on the web (most of the time), but they are a distinct information source and should be cited as such. Students sometimes have trouble telling the difference.

From Sue Ann Brainard, Reference and Instruction Librarian (History and English):

  • Create the bibliography entry as soon as you find a source, even if you have to wait for a copy via ILL, and even if you are not sure you are going to use the source. If you end up not using it, so you’ve wasted a few minutes. Waiting until you’ve written your paper to write your bibliography or footnotes is a recipe for disaster–you’ll definitely be short of time (because the writing always takes longer than you think), and you’ll possibly exhausted and stressed. Do it first!

From Michelle Costello, Education Librarian:

  • Highlight the sections you will be using – paraphrase those sections and make sure to add the in-text citation immediately so that you don’t have to go back later and figure out where you got your information.

And from me:

  • If you will need to use a numbered citation style, start by using an author-date style first. After your paper is written and all the edits are made, change to a numbered style. This ensures that you own’t every have to re-order your reference list and you won’t lose track of which paper is which.

What other strategies do you use to make the “creating a bibliography” process go a bit smoother?

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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