Documenting A Research Paper

About Documentation Styles

What are documentation styles?

A documentation style is a standard approach to the citation of sources that the author of a paper has consulted, abstracted, or quoted from. It prescribes methods for citing references within the text, providing a list of works cited at the end of the paper, and even formatting headings and margins.

Different academic disciplines use different documentation styles; your instructor may require you to use a particular style, or may allow you use one of your choosing.

It is important to fully understand the documentation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently.

Furthermore, documentation styles allow you to give credit for secondary sources you have used in writing your paper.

Citing sources not only gives credit where it's due, but also allows your reader to locate the sources you have consulted. In short, the reader of your paper must be able to use the information you provide, both in the text and in appended list(s), to duplicate the research you have done.

What do I need to document?

In general, you must document information that originates in someone else's work. All of the following should be accompanied by a reference to the original:

  • Direct quotations
  • Paraphrases and summaries
  • Information and ideas that are not common knowledge or are not available in a standard reference work
  • Any borrowed material that might appear to be your own if there were no citation

By now you're likely wondering, "Yes, but how do I know where the ideas of others end and my own begin?" If you're writing papers that require research, you've probably been in academia long enough to know that the only good answer to such a question is, "Good question."

Giving credit where it's due is a founding principle of academic inquiry, one that fosters the free exchange of ideas. Ultimately, you'll need to decide for yourself which ideas you can claim as your own and which should be attributed to others. Perhaps we should consider how we'd like our work to be credited, and use that as our guide.

How should I gather information for documenting sources?

You can make the process of applying any documentation style easier if you keep good notes while you perform research.

Write down the most complete bibliographic information available for each source that you consult; you may want to take a look at the sample references list for the style you will be using to get an idea of the amount of detail that's required. If you write out quotations or data from a source, be sure to note the number of the page(s) on which the information appears in the original. Double check the quotation for accuracy before you return the source to the library.

It's a good idea to put citations into your paper as you draft it. When you quote, put the source and page number directly after, perhaps marked with asterisks. When you refer, do the same. And when you place a citation in your text, add the source to your working bibliography.

When it comes time to put the finishing touches on your paper, the information you need will be available right in your text, and may be easily put into the proper format.

Which style should I use?

Choosing the appropriate documentation style for your paper may depend on three factors:

  1. The requirements of the particular course;
  2. The standard for the discipline in which you are studying; or
  3. Your individual preference.

Documentation style required for a course

Your instructor may assign a documentation style for papers to be written for that course. This will often be indicated on the course syllabus or in the paper assignment, but may simply be mentioned during class. If no documentation style is prescribed, you should ask whether the instructor has a preference. If no preference is indicated, then you are free to choose a style.

Documentation style used in a discipline

In doing so, consider which style will be most appropriate for your area of specialization. If you are pursuing a major in the humanities, consider learning the MLA style. If behavioral or social sciences are likely to be your interest, then the APA style may be most appropriate. For information about the major documentation styles, click on one of the menu items on the Documentation styles page.

Documentation style based on individual preference

If you don't know what you want to major in, or aren't particularly interested in adopting a documentation style that will last your whole life long, then what you should do is read the Writing Center Review of Documentation styles, where we compare the distinguishing features of the most commonly used documentation styles. Take a look around, choose a style that fits your style, and then go to its pages to learn how to use it.

Documenting Sources

Documenting means showing where you got source information that's not your own. Remember, a research paper blends your ideas with ideas and information from other sources. Documentation shows the reader what ideas are yours and what information and ideas you've taken from a source to support your point of view.

Why Document?

  • By correctly documenting, you establish your credibility as a writer and researcher. You're letting your reader know that you've consulted experts whose ideas and information back up your own thoughts and ideas. Consequently, you make your viewpoint or argument more believable.
  • When you don't document correctly, your academic integrity can be called into question, because it may seem as though you're passing off others' ideas as your own.
  • If you don't document, you could inadvertently plagiarize, which is grounds for dismissal from college.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity involves not only acknowledging your sources, but also creating your own ideas. Academic integrity, explained in this way, sounds relatively simple. But the particular applications are a bit more tricky. The most common academic integrity problems that most students encounter are:

  1. relying too heavily on others' information in a research paper
  2. relying too heavily on others' words in a paraphrase or summary
  3. citing and documenting sources incorrectly
  4. relying too heavily on help from other sources

The most egregious violation of academic integrity is when a student uses a writing assignment for more than one course, or when a student "borrows" a paper and passes it off as his or her own work.

What to Document

The basic rule for documentation is: Document any specific ideas, opinions, and facts that are not your own. The only thing you don't have to document is common knowledge.

For example: you do have to document the fact that 103 cities in New York state were originally settled by English settlers because this is a specific fact that is not common knowledge. You do not have to document the information that New York state has places named for English cities, since this is common knowledge.

There are two categories of common knowledge:

  • information that's known to the general public
  • information that is agreed upon by most people in a professional field

 Tip: Sometimes common knowledge can be tricky to define. A good rule is if in doubt, document.

Can You Document Too Much?

If you find yourself needing to document almost every sentence, then it means you have not thought enough about your topic to develop your own ideas. A paper should not be just a collection of others' ideas and facts. Sources should only support or substantiate your ideas.

Tip: The rule of thumb is that whenever you use information from sources you should comment on the information. Your comment should be approximately the same length as the source itself.

Where to Document

You must identify your sources in two places in your research paper:

Citing at the end of the paper: Put your notecards with the source information on them in alphabetical order according to the authors' last names, then follow the correct format for providing the essential source information.

Documenting your sources within the text of your paper:  Most current research papers insert the basic source information inside parentheses within the text of the paper either at the end of the sentence, or group of sentences, that contain the source's information.

Tip: Footnotes are out of date.

Merely documenting paraphrases and summaries at the end of paragraphs leaves your reader confused. Does the documentation refer to the last sentence? the whole paragraph? part of a paragraph? So you also need to show where the source's information starts as well as ends. The easiest way to do this is to use a phrase such as "According to Dr. James Watts. . ." or "Carly Simon maintains that. . . ."


According to the "American Heritage Dictionary," plagiarism means "to steal and use [the ideas and writings of another] as one's own. To appropriate passages or ideas from [another] and use them as one's own."

Plagiarism is a serious offense within the academic community. You plagiarize whether you intend to or not when you don't credit others' ideas within/at the end of your paper. Even though you may have rewritten ideas and information using your own words in a paraphrase or summary, the ideas and information are not yours. You must cite your source.

Read more information about plagiarism.

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