How to approach reading, thinking, writing, and citing as integrated activities
When you conduct research for a project, write about what you find, and reference your sources, you should not necessarily expect to work in that order. From the beginning, active reading may entail writing in the margins of a text in order to carry on a dialogue with the author. This is your entry into the conversation, the point at which your writing process begins! You might use the margins to summarize, pose questions, concede a point, or propose a counter-argument. Whenever you highlight or underline something, write in the margins why you’ve called attention to that passage. Is it a major argumentative claim? A significant piece of substantiating evidence? An opposing view?3
Early in a project you may also want to try other forms of informal writing: journal entries, brief analyses of specific pieces of evidence, or partial drafts. As many scholars have noted, “writing leads to thinking” as much as the other way around. As you draft you must keep track of your debts to others.4
Citing sources, then, is not something you do after you finish writing an essay, research paper, or lab report. Citation and attribution are integral to all stages of learning and thinking about a question. One of the best guards against plagiarism is planning ahead. Allow yourself time for active reading and note-taking, drafting, reflecting, revising, rechecking sources, and receiving feedback.
When taking notes, be sure to put quotation marks around any words that are not your own, and record the source and page number of any ideas you encounter, so you can retrace your steps. A frequent cause of accidental plagiarism is sloppy note-taking, in which quotations and close paraphrases from another author are not clearly marked. As a consequence, you can end up borrowing ideas without remembering where they came from.
In your notes, enclose direct quotes in quotation marks. Some students keep all quotations in a different ink or font color until the final draft. Cutting and pasting from electronic sources is a risky practice: by doing so, you may acquire blocks of information that you haven’t read or digested fully, and you may later go back and forget that a particular passage came from another author.
One kind of citation refers to an object of study: a poem, painting, symphony, historical document, or body of scientific data. Another type refers to what others have said about that object of study. Both forms are essential. You can cite anything: a Tweet, podcast, blog, cartoon, scene from a movie, photograph in a scrapbook, or letter in a box in an archive. You just need to acknowledge your debt in the appropriate form for the discipline in which you’re working (see more on this below). Forms vary, and you should follow the instructions given for each specific class.
By citing something, you make a judgement about its effectiveness as a piece of evidence. If you’re unsure about the value of a website, blog post, or any other source, ask your professor. As a reader, pay attention to the diverse forms citations can take. As a writer, when in doubt, cite.