How to reference and cite sources

Deciding what reference style to use

Different disciplines reference in different ways. For example, writers in the humanities often use the MLA style, while psychologists and the nursing and business departments usually use the APA style. Your instructors will probably make their expectations clear, but if not, ask. Some instructors are flexible as long as you pick one style and use it properly and consistently. It is important to become familiar with the reference style usually used in your major discipline.

  • Modern Language Association (MLA) Style
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Style
  • Chicago Style
  • The Politics Style Guide
  • Council of Biology Editors (CSE, formerly known as CBE) Style
  • American Sociological Association (ASA) Style

Why reference anyway?

  • Research is in many ways a collaborative project, with present scholars building on the work of others. Therefore, it is a scholarly convention to make it easy for others to locate, and consult one's sources. If everyone is "playing by the same rules," there is less danger of ambiguity or misunderstanding.
  • Proper referencing gives credit to the owner of intellectual property: when ideas are your business, research, books, and articles have material value. That is why we have copyright laws. If you wouldn't steal someone's car, don't steal their words or ideas.
  • Plagiarism is a serious offense with very real penalties that can affect your academic career: even if you didn't do it on purpose, if your work contains other people's words or ideas which are not properly referenced, you could face disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. When in doubt, reference!

When should I reference something?

DO reference if: 

  • you are directly quoting someone else's words;
  • you are using someone's ideas and have paraphrased them (put them in your own words);
  • you are using multiple sources (e.g. "Many critics have discussed Hitchcock's attitudes towards his actresses (Smith, Brown, Johnson).");
  • someone else has already published your idea (e.g. "Walter Benjamin already developed this idea (p.78).")
  • you are differentiating your own idea from that of a published writer (e.g. "Although Walter Benjamin already developed this idea (p.78), he does not take account of the importance of local cultures.")

DON'T reference if: 

  • you are presenting your own ideas;
  • you are referring to a generally known fact or idea (e.g. "Canadian confederation took place in 1867" needs no reference).