Professor Gary Jason, PhD | TUTORIAL – When to cite and when to quote a source
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TUTORIAL – When to cite and when to quote a source

Let’s start by distinguishing between citing and quoting. Citing means using a footnote (or endnote) to identify where you got the point you are making. You cite whenever you are using someone else’s idea, theory, words, facts, or data. The footnote/endnote should contain enough information so that the reader can easily locate the original source. (Consult the “How to footnote” tutorial if you are in doubt about how to cite your sources).

Quoting means using some exact words taken from your source. Paraphrasing means putting someone else’s point in your own words. Ifyou have any doubts about how to paraphrase correctly, go to the plagiarism tutorial and follow the links on how to paraphrase. My simple rule is this: if you want to paraphrase a given source, read it repeatedly until you fully understand it, then turn the source over and force yourself to put the point in your own words. If you keep the source in front of you, you will find yourself unconsciously borrowing words.

Remember, if you take so much as half a sentence from someone else, you must use quote marks. Otherwise, it is plagiarism.

Let’s begin with citation. You should cite the source of anything you follow, especially when you are using that source as evidence to back up one of your claims.

For example, here are some claims made on some of the term papers from one of my recent business ethics classes. These were not cited fully, but should have been. In the following note that no information was given the reader about where the student got that idea or what backs it up.

1. Most countries have decided to outlaw prostitution, mainly because they believe it’s wrong in some way.

2. In the United States, most prostitutes are unhappy with their current conditions.

3. According to recent literature, automation may be replacing workers at a pace the workers cannot keep up with.

4. Through numbers, it is shown that there are three main reasons that men look for prostitution transactions.

5. A prostitute can earn an average of one dollar per hour in South Africa, while a prostitute in America earns about twenty five dollars per hour.

6. 204 out of 100,000 American prostitutes on average are murdered every year.

In the following, note that the writer gives at least the general resource of his point, but not enough for the reader to verify it. That is, the citations lack the journal’s date and volume number (or the book’s date and publisher), along with the specific pages.

1. More recently, according to Antonio Regulado of Technology Review, because of recent breakthroughs in micro-processing technology, any business owner can boost productivity.

2. Regalado observes that high- and low- skilled employment is on the rise.

3. Brian Hayes of American Scientist argues that job loss is mostly due to overseas competition.

4. Another perhaps more drastic solution is from a United States government engineer, James S. Albus.

5. Also, John Berry of Library Jobs believes there are some jobs that can never be completely automated because of people’s preference for human contact.

Now, when should you quote rather than paraphrase? I suggest in three basic situations: when the source has put an idea into words in a way that amounts to something of real literary quality; when the source is unclear to you; and when the source is clear but seems obviously wrong.

Let’s illustrate these in order. Start with quoting because the words of the source are too wonderful to pass up. Suppose you are trying to explain the need for limited government. You might say:

“Of course, people need government. In a state of anarchy, people’s worst passions can’t be controlled. But we have to remember that just because someone works for government doesn’t make him or her immune from selfishness or other failings, so we need to limit government power.

The classic statement of this point is James Madison’s famous statement in the Federalist Papers: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. If framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.'”

You would of course cite the source precisely.

Second, you will often quote when the source is saying something that is unclear, and you want to allow the reader to interpret differently. For example, consider this passage (from Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God-Talk):

“Enemy-making of men would ultimately subvert the whole dream of a women’s culture based on mutuality and altruism. The very process of projecting the negative part of their own psychic potential onto males, and failing to own these themselves, would tend to make such women’s groups fanatical caricatures of that which they hate. The dehumanization of the other ultimate dehumanizes oneself. One duplicates evil-making in the very effort to escape from it once and for all, by projecting it onto the “alien” group.”

(You would want to cite the publisher, date, and page number)

You would now paraphrase, signaling the reader that you aren’t sure that you have got the source’s view exactly right:

“While Ms. Reuther’s point here is expressed with some unfamiliar terminology, I believe she is saying that women shouldn’t hate men, because if they do, they would acquire the same bad qualities they feel men have, such as selfishness and competitiveness, which is bad.”

Here, the phrase “I believe” tells the reader you aren’t claiming to have completely expressed the source’s thought.

Third, you will often quote when the source is saying something that you think is clearly false, and you believe that the reader will agree with you, but you want to show the reader that the source really does believe it.

For example, suppose a philosophy professor, Smith, says that is morally okay to do to puppies whatever you want, even torture them. Now, that is a completely bizarre view – bizarre, and repugnant. To convince the reader that Smith really did say such a strange thing you would want to quote Smith verbatim and then cite the reference:

Prof. Smith has actually said, “Puppies have no rights. So we can treat them however we wish, even if that involves torture.”

(Here you would footnote/endnote).

Of course, when quoting someone to demonstrate to the reader that the person really did say something outrageous, be sure that you quote accurately, i.e., in full and without leaving out important context. In the example above, suppose Prof. Smith had actually written:

“All animals, even our rightfully beloved puppies, have no rights, because they cannot enter into the community of autonomous, rational agents that both grant and recognize rights. However, it is of capital importance to understand that this doesn’t mean we can treat animals however we wish, even if that involves, to give an extreme example, painful torture. After all higher animals (at least) can feel pain. Moreover, as fellow creatures, they deserve respect.”

Suppose you quoted Smith this:

Prof. Smith has written, “Puppies… have no rights… [So] we can treat them however we wish, even if that involves… painful torture.”

Here, you are omitting words—signaled by the ellipsis symbol (the three periods in a row)—in such a way that it gives the reader the clear impression that Smith is saying something, which in fact Smith is denying. (This would be a case of what is called in logic the fallacy of “accent”).

We should conclude with a warning. While direct quotation has its uses, you should avoid over-quotation. I have seen student papers in which quotations follow one after another, with little student paraphrasing or commentary after the quotes. This suggests to the reader (especially the instructor!) that the student is at a minimum being intellectually lazy, is very likely lacking in originality, and is very possibly completely bereft of comprehension of the original source.

None of these three alternatives is good. So avoid excessive quotation. Quotes are the spice, never the main dish.