It's a good question. Citation is of course socially constructed, and heavily influenced by European scholarly traditions. While pinpointing the very first practices of referencing sources might require some lengthy research on our part, citation as we recognize it in our classes seems to have originated in the mid-1880s but it wasn't new; it was a spin based on an already long-established, if messy, academic referencing practice.*
While the styles, principles and practices of citation might vary, academic citation is now well-established, and expected, in colleges and universities world wide.
Here are four reasons to cite in the American academic tradition:
By crediting who and what helped shape your own thoughts and ideas, it shows that you are an ethical user and producer of information.
It shows that you have read and understood what others have discovered or think about the topic you have chosen to write about.
In the scholarly/academic world, citation contributes to the credibility and reputation of an author; it demonstrates to others in their field that they are aware of the scope of work that has already been done related to their research.
It is a service to your readers so that they can locate your sources too.
Citation is an important part of avoiding plagiarism which is considered a serious academic integrity violation in American colleges and universities.
Chernin, E. (1988). The "Harvard system": A mystery dispelled. British Medical Journal, 297.
When do I cite?
Cite when you are paraphrasing, summarizing or quoting information that is not your own.
Cite all media (images, maps, music, film, video, charts, graphs,...) that you did not create.
Cite all data and statistics that you did not generate yourself (example: taking a poll of students in one of your classes is generating your own data).
Are there situations when I don't have to cite?
You don't have to cite "common knowledge"
George H .W. Bush was the 41st president of the United States.
The planet Mars has two moons.
Myth: Common knowledge is something that everyone knows.
Fact: Not quite: Common knowledge is established information that is not, or no longer, attributable to a single person. Common knowledge is something that is not reasonably debatable, and can be verified via many different sources of information.
What about something like this?
Diabetes is the most common endocrine disorder in the United States
Common knowledge can vary based on your audience or your learning environment. If you are writing a paper about endocrine disorders for your Nursing class, you could reasonably define that as common knowledge due to your specialized learning environment AND that it meets all of the features described above. If you are writing that paper for your ENGL 101 class you could reasonably elect to cite it due to your less-specialized learning environment.
Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, failing to let your reader know when and where you are including the words, ideas, data, images,... of others in your papers or presentations. This amounts to claiming that work as your own and this is a violation of academic integrity expectations.
Avoiding plagiarism is only one reason to cite your sources, but to focus on that as the only reason to cite your sources robs it of its role in your writing, and that is to show your reader how your work and ideas have been shaped by the work of others.
A research paper
When an instructor asks you to write a research paper or a researched speech, he or she means that the product should include your own ideas and opinions plus evidence from outside sources -- properly cited.
A good research paper balances:
Your own opinions and ideas
Information from outside sources
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