Skip to Main Content

Today's hours:

See all library hours »

  • Ask a Librarian
  • FAQ

Going to the Source:

A resource provided by collaboration between the College Libraries, the Writing Center, and the Faculty


Quoting and paraphrasing: some differences in the natural and social sciences

Writers in the natural sciences and some social sciences rarely use direct quotations. Instead, they distill or paraphrase the ideas of previous researchers on the topic by using relatively short summary statements. They do so because these disciplines place a premium on accurately representing data and results of prior research, rather than on specific wording. This type of writing may use elements of summary and paraphrase, sometimes borrowing a few words or technical terms from the researcher. Here is an example of an excerpt from a scientific research paper:

Sounds emitted during the coffee roasting process were measured and analyzed, including the sounds of first crack and second crack, and the background noise produced by the rotating drum and by the circulating fan. Three acoustical characteristics of the process were found that could be used to form an automated acoustical roast monitoring technique: first crack is louder than second crack (by 15% in peak acoustic pressure), first crack is significantly lower in frequency than second crack (by a factor of nearly 19), and second crack events proceed at a higher rate (by a factor of about 5) than first crack events.14

A science writer’s possible summary statement for this excerpt could be:

In one previous study, Wilson identified three potential acoustic characteristics that could be used in automatically monitoring the coffee roasting process: bean crack loudness, bean crack frequency content, and bean crack rate (Wilson 2014).

The rules of plagiarism still apply: though you may paraphrase or use language very close to that of the original text, you must be careful not to borrow too much of the original wording, and of course you must acknowledge the source.

Most citations enable readers to retrace your steps, but even if that’s not possible—for example, if you’re intellectually indebted to a private conversation–you should still cite the source.15 If you find marginal notes in a used or borrowed book and those influence your thinking, you should cite them like any other source. Such a citation can look like this: “My ideas were influenced by anonymous marginal notes in my copy of Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, ed. and transl. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 86-91.” You may cite a class lecture like this: “Professor Jane Jones, lecture in Chemistry 101, October 2, 2016.”

Unless a professor tells you otherwise, never copy solution sets, homework, or test answers and submit them as your own work, even if you find these circulating anonymously.

14 Wilson PS. Coffee Roasting Acoustics. J. of the Acoust. Soc. of Am. 2014; 135 (6): EL265-EL269. This footnote is in the citation form specified by the Council of Science Editors.

15 A conversation with Professor of History James Merrell helped clarify this paragraph. For more on the many uses of citation see Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1997). [Available at the Vassar College Libraries:]