Hannah Cunningham, Consultant
Using sources: many college professors require their students to use and cite sources in their papers. But how to go about doing that? Students know there are several options for using sources, so how do we decide between a direct quotation, a paraphrase, or a summary?
Sometimes, it’s a difficult choice. At the same time, using sources is vital to producing academic writing, so it’s important that you learn how to do it well. In order for you to avoid plagiarism, build your own credibility, and communicate with an academic audience, you must be able to use sources effectively. Here are the three main ways you can use sources and a brief explanation of when you would use each technique:
1. Direct Quotation. A direct quotation is a complete sentence, several sentences, or part of a sentence that is reproduced word for word from another source. Many teachers require that you use quotations in your paper. Some teachers offer guidelines (one quotation per paragraph, five quotations over the course of the paper, etc.), while others don’t set minimums but expect to see at least some direct quotations. Either way, quotations can enhance your essay.
Typically, a direct quotation is used to point out a specific detail in the text, or to glean the benefit of a well-written sentence on the part of the author. A direct quotation should be very clearly connected to your argument. For example, if you are writing about a specific instance of bird imagery in The Awakening, it would be most effective to directly quote a sentence that involves a bird. Similarly, if you find a particular sentence of an author’s to be particularly well-written or effective, it may serve you best to use that sentence in your own text. In both cases, it is vitally important that whenever you are using someone else’s language, word for word, you cite the material that you are using. Direct quotes must be placed in quotation marks, and they must contain a reference to the source from whence they came.
2. Paraphrase. Paraphrase differs from a direct quotation in that the wording and syntax vary from the original source. Paraphrasing is a handy technique if you want to reference a larger section of material, without directly quoting many lines of the original text. For instance, if you read an article on the ways in which social media is affecting communication skills, you might want to reference one point (say, how Twitter privileges short segments of information) from the larger article in your own paper. Rather than copy out the author’s entire paragraph on Twitter word for word, you could simply summarize the information in your own style.
Paraphrasing does not require quotation marks, but does require citation. In this example, you could restate the author’s argument about how Twitter is affecting communication and continue from there with your own point. However, putting the argument in your own words does not make the argument original to you; since you acquired that idea from another source, you have to give credit to that source in your paper.
3. Summary. Summary is similar to paraphrase in that you are using your own words to present someone else’s argument. However, a paraphrase generally deals with a specific element from a source, while a summary deals with the source as a whole. To continue the earlier example, if you wanted to reference the entire paper on social media’s effect on communication, and not just the paragraph regarding Twitter, you might say “X [author] argues that social media is affecting communication in ways A, B, and C.” A summary acknowledges that an idea is not original to you, but doesn’t bog the reader down with a lot of specifics. Just as with paraphrase, you do not use quotation marks for a summary; however, you still have to cite it.
Citing your sources does more than prevent you from committing plagiarism. As important as that is, citations also serve to place your argument in a larger academic context. Effectively using (and citing) sources allows your audience to read more deeply into your subject; if they find it interesting, they can seek out the articles you have referenced and use them to form their own opinion.