Using Sources

Stacey Corbitt

Chapter Overview

Are you good at doing research and using sources with in-text citations and a references list?

Don’t panic. Most first- and second-year college students are unsure how to answer that question. You may have learned the basics about using quotation marks and giving credit to original authors. You might not have used those skills since your senior year of high school. Whatever your personal situation, using sources well takes a lot of practice.

Integration of source material sets you apart from less accomplished writers. From slight improvements in quotation integration to more powerful skills of summarizing and paraphrasing, the best way to unleash the power of your research findings is to synthesize that information correctly into a document. Conversely, using sources incorrectly is quite simply the easiest way to fail, to commit violations of academic integrity policy, and to get expelled or fired. Ownership of ideas may vary across cultures, but giving credit to the original source of an idea is consistently required.

This chapter aims to help students learn to integrate source information into documents with attention to accuracy, readability, and integrity with the goal of improving the audience’s ability to understand and use those documents efficiently. Topics covered in this chapter include methods of integrating source information, testing for common knowledge exemption, and responsible citing and referencing of sources.


What are the most useful methods of integrating sources?

As students develop writing skills in middle school and high school – perhaps even earlier in some education programs – they begin to learn the fundamental concepts of research and citing sources. Those fundamentals may begin with searching for, locating, and reading information published by sources; and using that information to expand the students’ understanding of a topic. In academic writing, the original author or creator of text or other mediums from which evidence is drawn by a writer in the form of a quotation, paraphrase, or summary is referred to as the source.

As you proceed toward becoming an academic writer, you will begin to recognize how source information can offer valuable opportunities to synthesize ideas for your own writing. Synthesizing in writing refers thinking critically about source material in order to develop one’s own ideas and words about the subject studied. Ultimately, college students progress to the practice of using source material as evidence to support the claims they make in their academic writing.


For beginners, quoting is often the first lesson in using sources. You are quoting when you incorporate the exact words of a source into written text (Bullock, et al p. 108). This chapter assumes you have had some practice with using direct quotations: that is, you understand the concept of plagiarism at least to the point of knowing it is a serious ethical violation. Also, you have likely learned that, when including the exact words of a source in your writing, the words must be enclosed in a set of quotation marks (“__”), with the exception of long quotations (as discussed below).

What may be surprising new information for you is this: quotations are only an appropriate way to integrate source information into your writing in a small number of situations. Specifically, quoting sources is usually limited to instances when: 1) all the detail presented in the source text must be carefully preserved; and 2) the source’s exact wording is required.

Short quotations

Formatting quotations (beyond sentence-level punctuation) for inclusion in an original text varies a bit depending on the rules of the style guide applied to the writing. Generally, short quotations should be set off by quotation marks but be written in line with the text they relate to and in the same font and typeface. Consider the highlighted section of the following example:


In his essay Glamour Magazine published as an article, the President sympathized with other professionals who are commuting long distances while maintaining a family life. “It’s often meant I had to work even harderhe explained, “to be the kind of husband and father I want to be.” (Obama, 2016)

In the example above, 21 exact words were quoted from the original source. Because its length (fewer than 40 words) categorizes the passage as a short quotation, it is set off with quotation marks but inserted directly in the flow of the writing that surrounds it. An APA-style in-text citation appears immediately following the quoted material. Later in this chapter you will learn about introducing the quoted material using signal phrases, as well as using reporting verbs like the ones used here.


Long quotations

APA formatting requirements change at the point a quotation becomes long: that is, 40 words or more. A long quotation should be presented in a block-formatted style with a ½ – inch indentation on the left. Long quotations in APA style are double-spaced if the document is double-spaced (as with an essay). Notice in particular that quotation marks are not used to surround a long quotation. Consider the following example:


In his discussion at the first United State of Women Summit, Obama reflected on the profound effects of gender roles that begin at birth:

We know that these stereotypes affect how girls see themselves starting at a very young age, making them feel that if they don’t look or act a certain way, they are somehow less worthy. In fact, gender stereotypes affect all of us, regardless of our gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. (Obama 2016)

[Beginning of a new paragraph]. [If the quotation appears in the middle of a paragraph, do not indent the first line following the block quotation].


Making adjustments

Sometimes the perfect words that make a writer choose to quote a source are only almost perfect. When removing unnecessary words or details to make the quotation more clear, use ellipses (…). Give it a try: read the following passage and remove the list from the end of the first sentence, making sure the passage is clear in your rewrite.

I’ve witnessed how women have won the freedom to make your own choices about how you’ll live your lives—about your bodies, your educations, your careers, your finances. Gone are the days when you needed a husband to get a credit card. In fact, more women than ever are financially independent. (Obama 2016)


Similarly, when adding an explanatory word or phrase needed to make the meaning of the quotation clearer, use brackets ([___]). Try adding the explanatory short phrase married or single to the last sentence of the same passage (following the word ever):


As discussed above, before college-level writing, using quotations was a useful means of teaching you to practice proper recognition and citation of sources: but paraphrasing and summarizing are source-inclusion practices that make mature writing more clear, powerful, and specific – and more successful.



A paraphrase can be difficult to craft for students and expert writers alike. Paraphrasing is defined as restating information from a source using your own different words and sentence structure (Bullock, Brody & Weinberg, 2017, p. 110). Frustration intercedes when writers find a source that contains exactly the right information, because a good paraphrase must present the same ideas and information, but in a way that bears virtually no resemblance to the original source. In other words, that perfect source that provides exactly the right information must be dismantled, rearranged and reworded. Anything less than a complete restatement will fail to be an accurate paraphrase, creating a situation of plagiarism.

Perhaps the most challenging method of integrating source material, paraphrasing also can be the most helpful in creating a succinct and seamless piece of research writing that flows well and has a consistent tone. One reason paraphrases work in this way is because the writer must restate source material in his or her own words, removing the variations in voice between authors and their sources.

Characteristics of successful paraphrases include, as discussed above, writing that captures the information from an original source in sufficient detail for your purposes without following the same sentence/paragraph structure and without using the same or similar wording. Paraphrases are best applied to small portions of text: paraphrases may be close to the same length as the original source text.


Consider this example adapted from Who says? The writer’s research (used with permission from the authors):


Original text:

“Often student writers struggle with making their own paraphrased sentences differ enough from an original source text in a satisfactory way.  When a reader can spot overlaps in language and/or sentence structure between a student essay and an original source text, this can result in an accusation of plagiarism.” (Holdstein & Aquiline, 2014, p. 91)


One possible paraphrase:


Suggested paraphrase:

As Holdstein and Aquiline (2014, p. 91) warn, one of the ways students can avoid plagiarism charges is by paraphrasing very carefully.  Students should move beyond simply rearranging words or changing sentence structure and make sincere attempts to communicate the ideas of the original source without relying on the same language.


Looks easy, right?

Students transitioning from high school writing to college technical writing must re-frame their approach in some cases. Where a literature analysis essay, for example, presented the task of meeting a minimum word count, the technical writing assignment may require one to create clear and effective documents limited to a single page. Where extended description using creatively detailed and clever prose helped reach that word count, students here must focus on using fewer words that are more precise.


Step one: read and understand

“Put it in your own words” is an instruction that creates anxiety in some student writers. What are some reasons you might struggle with the process?

If you compare your responses to the prompt above to those of your classmates, you may find part of the difficulty is attached to the premise that the first step in writing a paraphrase is reading the source material carefully until you understand it. The only way to be successful in putting ideas and information into your own words is to know the information well enough to talk about it. Beyond simply finding a source that says what they want it to say, college and professional writers use source material to help support, explain, and synthesize the ideas their documents present. It follows, then, that reading and understanding source material might result in changes to the claims and ideas you write.


Step two: adjust for proper fit

Once you are comfortable you have found source material that relates to your argument and are confident you understand the information well enough to have a conversation about it, the next step is to translate the passage into your own tone and style. Making the paraphrase your own means using words and structure that complement your other original writing.

Imagine, for example, your research question is how to determine if there is an acceptable number of words in a paraphrase that exactly match the original text. You might ask the question “Could a writer be accused of plagiarism in paraphrasing if, as in the example above, some of the source’s words are also my own words?”

First, return to the Original text passage and compare it to the Suggested paraphrase provided. List below all of the exact words and phrases that match between the two passages (excluding articles a, an, and the; and excluding in-text citations):

Given the subject matter of the writing, is there any equally or more concise way to replace those words? Probably not: in other words, the matching terms you identified are central to the idea being expressed in both the original writing and the paraphrase. Note in the examples (below) the matching words that are highlighted.

Next, re-read both passages and identify the focus or point of view from which the writer communicates. Notice how the second sentence in the original text emphasizes the reader:

  • “When a reader can spot overlaps in language and/or sentence structure between a student essay and an original source text ….”

 Now, the paraphrased version of the same idea, which shifts the focus to the writer:

  • “Students should move beyond simply rearranging words or changing sentence structure… without relying on the same language.”

The writer in this example may have found the original passage very clear, concise, and structured perfectly for his or her purposes. Nevertheless, that writer resisted the urge to simply quote the original source, opting instead to attempt a paraphrase because they could use their own style to make the sourced information fit their own writing. That process allowed for inclusion of some matching terms because they are central to the idea. The writer changed the focus, thereby adjusting the fit, in their paraphrase of the original text.

Step three: insert citations

When one is immersed in the research and writing process, it becomes difficult to track which ideas belong to a source, which are developed in part because of a source, and which are original but supported by a source. A risk faced by student writers is the failure to include citations crediting original sources of paraphrased material. The challenge of adequate citing becomes greater as source material is synthesized into original writing.

The short version of the safe approach, of course, is to cite everything. However, student writers frequently only insert citations for quotations, believing that citing paraphrased material is inappropriate for one of the following reasons:

  1. I already had that idea in my own words before I read the source
  2. There are so many parentheticals it’s hard to follow my writing
  3. It looks like everything I put in the paper is just sourced material, nothing is original
  4. I only paraphrased part of one sentence/paragraph/page
  5. I don’t think I have to cite an illustration if I just discussed or described part of it

None of the reasons above is adequate cause to omit in-text citations for paraphrased material. Instead, insert in-text citations in a draft text every time you find a source text influences your writing in any way. In the event you remove the material in subsequent drafts, you can remove the citation: however, it is difficult to add accurate citations later.


Summarizing is probably familiar to you in that it amounts to reading and digesting a text (larger than a paragraph or passage you might paraphrase); then writing a brief explanation of the main points of the text in your own words. Summaries are a practical means of using a complete document as a source. Reserve this method for applications like providing background or theories, for example, related to a research topic.

Although summaries are a more commonly used method of integrating sources than quoting; and they are a simpler method than paraphrasing; they must include proper in-text citation of original sources in order to be ethically used by a writer. Here again is an opportunity for writers to read and fully understand a source in such a way that they can write a summary of the main points in their own words, then present an in-text citation to lead readers to the place where they can duplicate the same piece of research.


Complete instructions for using illustrations, whether original or credited to a source, are in the chapter entitled “Integrating Graphics.” It is important to reiterate here that illustrations created by another author may be used as source material. In some cases, you will find it most useful to integrate a source’s complete illustration and, similar to a quotation, any such graphic you use must include an in-text citation. Alternatively, student research writers may use information that is presented as part of an illustration in a source document. In-text citations are included in that case in the same way as any other paraphrased material.


Introducing and Discussing Sources

While this chapter has placed much emphasis on ethical use of sources with proper citations, an effort to give appropriate credit for source materials is only part of the picture required for responsible research writing. You are now prepared to collect sources, apply in-text citations, and synthesize the parts of those sources that are relevant to your developing document. The next steps for completing integration of source materials are described in this section.

Keep in mind the success of your technical writing relies upon your ability to develop documents that are clear, complete, concise, and correct. Source materials are vital in research applications of technical writing – like lab reports, proposals, and recommendation reports, among others. This section attempts to provide a starter set of tools to use when including sources in your written work, because it is not enough to simply plant quotations, paraphrases, and summaries wherever they might appear to fit. The appropriate methods for introduction and discussion are quite simple and can be easy to master with practice.

Sometimes the shortest path to understanding the right things to do may be to learn what not to do. A brief review of some don’ts of introducing and discussing sources should be helpful.

In his entertaining essay entitled Annoying Ways People Use Sources, English professor Kyle D. Stedman (2011) provides definitions for, and examples of, a variety of methods that violate some best practices in introducing source material. Table 1 presents a short description of a few of the practices to avoid according to Stedman:

The Annoyance The Description The Fix
Armadillo Roadkill Quotations that suddenly appear in a passage without introduction: like the armadillo you’ve run over in the road accidentally, the quotation “came out of nowhere.” (Stedman, p. 245) Review every quotation in your draft. Does the immediately preceding sentence identify the source and advise the reader specifically what the quotation does in context of the writing? Stedman advises to “surround each quotation with guidance to your readers about what you want them to think about that quote.” (p. 248)
Uncle Barry and his Encyclopedia of Useless Information Akin to listening to a know-it-all, when writing is overloaded with quotations, “Readers get the feeling that they’re moving from one quotation to the next without ever quite getting to hear the real point … [or] getting any time to form an opinion about the claims.” (Stedman, p. 248) Review every quotation in your draft. Can you clearly justify why each quotation is used? Consider paraphrasing and summarizing in place of excessive quoting to remain “the primary voice of authority” in your writing. (p. 248)
I Swear I Did Some Research Citations that appear without a clear connection to what paraphrased or summarized information in the passage came from that source. (Stedman, p. 252) Stedman’s advice: “Write the sentences preceding the citation with specific words and phrases that will tell readers what information came from where.” (p. 253)

Table 1: What not to do

Kyle Stedman’s complete essay is linked here and includes funny and helpful examples of these and other ways to improve introduction and discussion of attributed information.


Common Knowledge

At this point in the chapter, you probably grasp that maintaining academic integrity and writing ethically requires frequent and careful citation of sources of information collected in the preparation of a written document. One notable exception to the “cite everything” approach to academic research writing, however, deserves further examination.


Common knowledge is a specific designation for factual information that may be presented in an original document without citing a particular source. Common knowledge materials integrated into student documents are not to be considered a free pass from citations: instead, the occasional reliance on common knowledge exceptions can indicate a student’s level of mastery of attribution requirements for academic research writing.


What common knowledge means

Facts that are widely known among an educated audience might be described as information that is common knowledge. As with all issues in the study and practice of technical writing, students must look more closely at the specific characteristics and examples of common knowledge to understand how to properly apply the classification. Break the description down for a clearer picture:

  • Facts: are concrete, recorded or verifiable information with no interpretation or theory component. For example, among adult U.S. citizens educated in the public school system generally, “Water freezes at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit” is considered a fact.
  • Widely known: suggests that the average person with an average education would accept the fact as reliable without having to look it up to verify.
  • Educated audience: the audience for a piece of writing is the real key to identifying information as common knowledge. Historic information, for example, may be common knowledge for people of a particular culture, while educated people unfamiliar with that culture may need verification of a fact. Certain scientific facts and theories may be common knowledge among a group educated within a particular field, but not for practitioners or experts in a different field.

How to determine common knowledge

Common knowledge is a variable definition because culture, education, and practice change rapidly worldwide. Therefore, if a writer wishes to employ a common knowledge exception in an original document, he or she must be prepared to defend that decision. Keep in mind that the intended audience for the writing represents the first test of the common knowledge gauntlet. If the fact clears the audience hurdle, consider the following questions:

  • Is the fact in question usually found in scholarly work without a citation? In other words, do reliable authors regularly include the information without a citation?
  • Will any of my readers be likely to ask me for the source where I obtained this fact? This question often leads students to the “when in doubt, cite” conclusion because they may be unable to discern whether a professor is likely to accept common knowledge designation in academic research work.

Common knowledge typically does not include extremely detailed information; facts found in a search of public records or government sources; or data generated by you or others. (MIT 2019)


In-text Citations and Reference Lists

 In-text citations serve two closely-related purposes in documents:

  1. To identify integrated source material at the point it appears in a text; and
  2. To link the source material to its bibliographic information presented in the document’s reference list

Reference lists are made up of one reference entry for each source used in a document. Each entry has some variation of each of the following four elements:

  1. Author;
  2. Date;
  3. Title; and
  4. Source

In-text citations and references are inextricably linked together in all academic and professional technical writing. Whenever an in-text citation is found in a document, a reader knows he or she can find complete information about the source of the surrounding text in the reference list. Likewise, a reference list entry will always lead a reader to original source material that represents the text or idea connected to an in-text citation. To that end, correct and complete references must adhere to the specific content and format requirements of a prescribed style guide. APA style is typically used for academic technical writing unless another style is specified by your instructor.


Chapter conclusion

Integration of source material sets you apart from less accomplished writers. Through review and practice, particularly practice in which you work with and learn from your peers, you should be better prepared to effectively use source materials in your academic writing. Remember, this is the time for you to expand your understanding about using sources. Practice is the most important activity for learning to integrate source material into your own documents. Practice is also the best way to develop skills for citing and referencing sources.


Activity: How do you integrate source information into original writing?

Fortunately, academic technical writing is informed by research writing across many disciplines: as a result, learning to write the genres specific to technical writing begins with research writing generally. This activity uses a non-technical research journal article as an example you and your classmates may use for practice.

The abstract from a recent research article (Buckley, 2020) appears below. Read the abstract and be prepared to discuss the information presented with your classmates.

  1. Working with a partner or small group as directed by your instructor, discuss the research topic described in the abstract provided. Imagine you were the researcher who conducted the study and wrote the article. In your own words, write one version of the research question you think may be the basis of the study. Note this exercise does not ask you to find the answer in the abstract. Write your response in the form of a question using one complete sentence.

For the remaining activities included in this section, access and download through your university library’s website (if directed) a copy of the complete journal article using its Document Object Identifier:

  1. Review the portion of text presented below and discuss with a partner. Are the passages enclosed in quotation marks examples of the quoting method of source integration? Explain your answer.

For the interviews in this study, emotions were expressed broadly as “feeling happier or generally more positive.” Recovery was expressed as “feeling regenerated, more relaxed, recovered from stress”. Worldview was expressed as “feeling greater clarity, or purpose, or meaning in one’s life, able to see what is important.” Questions were thus framed as: “some people say that [this activity] in places like this [makes them feel happier]/[helps them recover from stress]/[etc], but others disagree – what do you think yourself?” Alternate questions were framed using opposite phraseology, such as “[less happy/more stressed]”, and recategorised subsequently. Interviewees and interviewer were free to ask for clarification, if question or responses were unclear, and to continue unstructured discussion if they wished. (Buckley, 2020, p. 1416)


  1. Now consider the source citation in the following excerpt from Buckley’s article (p. 1419):

In addition, a small number of interviewees gave responses that did not match any of the four predefined categories in the third question. For example, some said that particular outdoor activities, such as hiking or surfing, gave them psychological strength. This outcome has been identified previously for other adventurous outdoor activities (Brymer & Schweitzer, 2013).

What part of the text presented above is attributed to the source article? How do you know?


  1. Finally, try your hand at writing a paraphrase of the following passage from Buckley’s article (p. 1417):


The reasons that people gave for visiting forest and beach parks are summarised in Table 1. There were differences in practical detail between forests and beaches, but remarkable similarity or symmetry in underlying psychology. In each case, interviewees mentioned natural attractions, outdoor activities, escape and relaxation, and social and family factors. These align well with find­ings of previous studies on the motivations of outdoor nature, eco and adventure tourists both generally (Arnegger et al., 2010; Kim et al., 2015), and at these sites specifically (Weaver & Lawton, 2002).



Developmental writing assignment

  1. Download or print a recently-published research article from a peer-reviewed journal used by professionals in your field of interest/study.
  2. Skim through the article to find a quotation that cites a source in-text: then,
    1. Identify the source in the article’s reference list;
    2. Locate and download the source document using its reference; and
    3. Search the source document for the quotation.
  3. Write a paragraph using in-text citation for both sources and discuss your findings about the following questions in your paragraph:
    1. Did the author quote his or her source’s original wording accurately?
    2. Was the quotation presented as supporting evidence for an argument?
    3. Why do you think the author chose to quote rather than paraphrase the source?
    4. How many times and in what context did the author cite this source?

Be sure to include a reference list at the end of your writing assignment.


Technical writing document creation assignment

Write a short (3-paragraph) report on a topic chosen by your instructor or based on your instructor’s directions. Focus your effort on synthesizing information taken from 2 – 3 sources that are published journal articles. Practice incorporating source information using paraphrasing with appropriate signal phrases and reporting verbs as well as in-text citations. Include a reference list at the end of your report.



Buckley, R. (2020). Nature tourism and mental health: parks, happiness, and causation. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28:9, 1409-1424. Available online at: License: CC-BY-3.0.

Holdstein, D.H., & Aquiline, D.  (2014). Who says? The writer’s research (pp. 91-92).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2019). Academic integrity at MIT: a handbook for students. License: CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0. Retrieved from

Obama, B.H. (2016, August 4). Glamour exclusive: President Barack Obama says, “This is what a feminist looks like.” Glamour Magazine. Retrieved from glamour-exclusive-president-barack-obama-says-this-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like

Stedman, K.D. Annoying ways people use sources (2011). In C. Lowe & P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing: Volume 2 (pp. 242-256). Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press. License: CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0. Retrieved from–annoying-ways



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Mindful Technical Writing Copyright © 2020 by Stacey Corbitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book