Web tutorial on using & referencing sources in academic papers

Incorporating sources into your text

Throughout history, all scientists have drawn ideas from those that came before them to create their own original ideas. Isaac Newton famously remarked, "If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

As a university student and prospective academic, you too will need to ensure that your work is supported by recent and classic work in your field. This means that you must incorporate facts, findings, and ideas from multiple sources into your text.

What is a source?

Basically, anything that gives you an idea or piece of information to use in your paper. It can be in print or online. It can be published or unpublished. It can be an image or a conversation, a research article, chart or graph, newspaper article, book, book chapter, annual report, conference paper, emails & phone conversations, blogs & wikis. A source can also be a web page, Facebook status update, tweet, table, movie, PowerPoint presentation, television program, or your own lecture notes. We could go on, but you get the idea....

When writing a research paper, you will be expected to include references to academic sources -- as opposed to popular or general sources.

Recognizing academic sources

The most common academic sources are books, peer-reviewed journal articles (evaluated by senior researchers prior to publication), and published reports & conference proceedings. Academic sources are also called scholarly sources.

academic sources

WokinghamLibraries (via Pixabay). Licensed under CC0 BY-SA.

But how do you recognize academic sources? Several criteria have to be met for a source to be qualified as academic. These are the qualities you should look for.

  • Author(s) affiliated with a university.
  • A review of other recent research in the field.
  • A discussion of the original research, along with findings and conclusions.
  • A list of references (full details of the sources on which the work is based).
  • Formal presentation, objective tone, and specialized language.
  • Published by a professional association (e.g. Journal of the European Economic Association, or Psychological Bulletin), university or recognized academic publisher.

Quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing

General advice

Whether quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing:
  • Clearly mark the beginning and end of the information from the source. By doing so, you prevent your readers from confusing the original author's ideas with your interpretation.
  • Accurately reflect the position of the author.
  • Always document the original source! See How to reference: referencing styles.

Shared language

In every discipline, some concepts are so specialized or conventional that they can't be reworded, e.g. the 'Big Five' personality traits in psychology, 'elasticity of demand' in economics, or the complex terms used to describe a particular research method.
When you use such 'shared language', you are not plagiarizing but using a common vocabulary shared by a community of academics.

By integrating ideas from outside sources into your paper, you add credibility and support to your argument. But how do you present other people's words and ideas in your paper?

There are three ways to use sources.

  • Quoting -- reproducing another person's exact words (either written or spoken).
  • Paraphrasing -- restating a passage in your own words without altering the meaning.
  • Summarizing -- providing a condensed version of a larger text (e.g. a page, book chapter, article).

Use a quotation when:

  • it is important that the exact words used in the source are repeated (e.g. a definition, a hypothesis, a crucial passage from a judicial decision, or historically significant language).
  • you need to present a particularly well-stated or characteristic passage whose meaning would be lost or changed if paraphrased.
  • you wish to show that an authority supports your point.

Keep in mind that direct quotations should be carefully and sparingly -- they should support, rather than dominate, your argument.

Use a paraphrase when:
  • an idea from a source is important, but the exact wording is not.
  • you wish to capture the detail of a specific passage in your source.
  • you need to simplify or clarify a complicated passage.

Use a summary when:

  • you want to identify only the key point of the source.
  • you need to present a short overview of previous publications on your topic.
  • you want to point out that a number of authors (don't) agree with your reasoning.

Practical tips


Writing techniques

  • Use the appropriate 'citing verbs' such as: say, state, show, conclude, describe, examine, indicate, suggest, claim, refute, concur, recommend, dismiss, contradict, propose, demonstrate, identify, argue, emphasize.
  • If possible, change the order in which information/arguments are presented.
  • Change the structure of sentences.
  • Use different words and word forms.
  • Read the text several times until you completely understand it.
  • Set the text aside to avoid getting stuck on certain sentence constructions
  • Represent the structure of the argument (using keywords).
  • Put the argument into your own words.

Make sure that you don't follow the source text too closely, e.g. by maintaining the original sentence structure and simply replacing words with synomyms, or changing the sentence structure but not the words. This is called 'close paraphrasing'.


  • Read the text and highlight the main points.
  • Re-read the text and make notes of the main points (leaving out the examples, evidence, etc.)
  • Put the text away.
  • Write out your notes in your own words.
Check out the RefCite section Examples by style & publication type for examples of quotations, paraphrases and summaries.