Research Paper Citation & Reference Sources Help

(Updated on November 28, 2017 by Michelle Williams)


A research paper citation is a note that documents the source of quoted or paraphrased research.  The particular way in which a research paper citation is documented depends upon the style sheet the writer is using.  The most common style sheets used in college writing are APA and MLA.  

Some students confuse research paper citations with research paper references.  A research paper citation is also known as an "in-text citation."  This means that the citation exists in the midst of the project itself.  Research paper references are lists of the sources that are cited in the in-text citations.  These lists come after the body of the document, and are titled either "References," "Bibliography," or "Works Cited."  All research papers must have both research paper citations and a list of research paper references.

Research Paper Citation & Reference Sources HelpIn APA style, research paper citations are typically presented in parenthetical notes.  A parenthetical note is a note contained in parentheses, and most frequently comes at the end of a sentence.  In APA style, all citations must include the name of the author of the research and the year in which the study was published.  If the citation is directly quoted material rather than paraphrased material, the citation should also include the page number on which the quote can be found.  So, if an APA research paper were to directly quote Brown, the in-text citation would look like this:

One researcher has asserted that "proper citation style is difficult, but important" (Brown, 2004, p.  4).

If the sentence mentioned Brown by name in the text, the citation would look different, like this:

Brown (2004) asserted that "proper citation style is difficult, but important" (p.  4).

The year of publication should always immediately follow the author's name, whether that name is contained in the sentence itself or in a parenthetical note.

In MLA style, research paper citations are also presented in parenthetical notes.  The primary difference is that in MLA, the year of publication is never included, but the page on which the source is found is always included.  As in APA style, if the author's name is mentioned in the sentence itself, there's no need to repeat the name in the citation.  These types of citations will look like this:

Brown asserts that "proper citation style is difficult, but important" (4).

If the author's name isn't mentioned in the text of the sentence, the citation will be as follows:

One researcher has asserted that "proper citation style is difficult, but important" (Brown, 4)

Notice that in MLA style, the page number is simply listed, without the preceding "p."  featured in APA style.

Both MLA and APA style are outlined in detail in the citation manuals published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA).  These manuals provide specific guidance on all matters related to research paper citations, and should be consulted regularly when a student is composing investigation-based texts.

Evaluating Internet Sources for Term Papers

When completing term papers and essays, you'll need to gather and reference credible, reliable sources.  Unlike scholarly, peer-reviewed information and research in university libraries, Internet sources are often unvetted, unreliable, and filled with unsubstantiated claims.  A credible, trustworthy Web site is one that provides true, accurate, balanced, and—most importantly—verifiable information.

Beginning the Search

Before you start searching, determine what type of information you need (statistics, data, survey results, arguments [pro and con], historical accounts, opinions, etc.).  By determining in advance what specific type of information you need, you'll be able to perform searches that are more focused, thereby using your time more wisely.

  • Keyword search:  When you search using one or two general words, you'll usually obtain millions of results.  For example, if you type in a broad term such as "eating disorders," you'll obtain thousands of results.  You can narrow your search by using more specific words, such as "bulimia nervosa," which will generate fewer hits.  You can narrow your search even more by connecting your search words with "AND" (for example, "bulimia nervosa AND symptoms AND treatment").
  • Subject search:  Search engines, such as Google, allow you to search by subject.  First, you must identify a general subject.  The search results for the general subject will lead you to more specific subjects, and then to subtopics.  For example, you could begin by searching for "wars," then "American wars," and then "American civil war," which will provide you with list of focused, subtopic-based Web sites that you may evaluate for validity and reliability.

The following guidelines are extremely effective for evaluating Web pages:

  • Look for the author's/presenter's name and his/her credentials (university department, organization, corporate title, etc.).  Also look for an email link, address, or phone number for the author.  Find out if the author has completed anything else on the subject and whether or not he/she is featured on other credible sites.  Determine if the author documents the information; verify the validity of the sources that he/she cites.  If you don't find an author or presenter, look for a copyright credit or link to an organization.
  • Pay attention to the Web pages's top-level domain (TLD) extension.  The TLD provides important information about the site's underlying mission and purpose.  The three most common top-level domains are .com (commercial), .net (Internet service provider or network organization), and .org (organization).  However, the most reliable and trustworthy sites have .gov (government), .mil (various branches and departments of the U.S.  military), or .edu (educational institution) TLD extensions; those three TLDs aren't available to the public and are privately assigned only to the most reputable, qualified entities.
  • Personal Web sites—as opposed to sites sponsored by an institution or organization—frequently offer biased, personal perspectives.  A personal Web site is often (but certainly not always) identified by a tilde (~) (for example,  Wiki sites, such as, are constantly revised, usually by people who aren't experts on the given subject.  Therefore, these types of sites aren't reliable.  While you can use these kinds of sites to obtain background information about your topic that can lead you to perform other searches, never directly quote from them in your document.
  • Blogs are difficult to verify as credible and shouldn't be quoted in your document.  You can, however, review them for information about your topic, taking particular note of the author's personal opinions and viewpoints.
  • Use the evaluation criteria for assessing newspapers and magazines.  Respected newspapers and magazines like The Atlantic, The Economist, Scientific American, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are suitable.  Tabloids, such as Us Weekly and The National Enquirer, aren't credible and shouldn't be used.
  • Identify the target audience (e.g., general public, teens, students, senior citizens, a particular group, etc.).  Is the site's purpose commercial (i.e., to sell a product), research-based, or explanatory (i.e., "how to" in nature)?  Determining a site's target audience and purpose helps you find information that's relevant for your purpose.  For example, when searching for information about bulimia nervosa, the Medline database may not be your best option because it contains papers targeted at practicing clinicians.  Also, some Web sites require that you be a member to access all of the information; you should never pay for information that you may be able to find on other sites for free.
  • Determine whether the source contains advertising.  Advertising may impact the site's content and skew the author's opinions for monetary gain.  Review the site to determine whether there's an unbalanced relationship between the site's information and advertisements.
  • Determine whether the source of information is current.  Is there a current date on the page?  For example, does it have a caption such as, "Based on 2013 US crime statistics data"?  Make a comparison between similar information on other Web sites to make sure everything is current.  If you find a broken link, it means that the page may be out-of-date.
  • Assess the quality of the information.  Is the author fair, balanced, and moderate in his/her views, or is the author overly emotional or extreme?  Does the site promote a certain philosophy, point-of-view, or a particular editorial position?  Is it associated with an advocacy group?  Biased information isn't necessarily "bad," but you must take the bias into account when interpreting or referencing the given information.  Independently verify any statistics and bold statements of fact in order to determine if the site's content is objective and trustworthy.
  • Check to see if the site contains incorrect grammar or misspelled words.  Credible sites contain information that's grammatically correct.  An occasional misuse of a comma or misspelled word isn't unusual; however, more than three errors is a red flag and the validity of the information may be suspect.
  • Compare the information of the site in question with that of other online and printed resources covering the same subject matter.  Does the site in question offer better or newer information?

For more tips on evaluating sources, consult the following Web pages:

Research Paper References

Instructors expect students to list valid, credible research paper references.  Credible references are those that the student selected from such sources as peer-reviewed journals, the university library, or his/her textbooks.  Although some instructors do allow limited use of Internet resources, students have to make sure that the references they list that were gathered from the internet are, indeed, credible.  

All research papers are expected to have certain components.  At minimum, a college report should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.  More involved research papers such as theses and dissertations should have an introduction, a literature review, a methodology section, a results chapter, and a conclusion or discussion chapter.  Regardless of the type of research paper, it should always have a list of references.  Research paper references are the sources that the student uses to write the document.

To understand what makes a credible research paper reference, students must be able to differentiate between information and opinion.  Anyone can claim to be an expert in a particular field, but unless that individual presents information backed by facts, the information may not be viewed as credible and should be avoided.  Many students, especially those in high school, turn to Wiki sites as sources of credible information.  Although the information presented in wikis may ultimately be credible, there's no real review process that ensures the information is accurate and backed by solid research.  Therefore, wikis can't be viewed as credible sources for research paper references.  Wikis can, however, present an opportunity for students to gather report references.  Even though the information in the wiki itself can't be viewed as entirely credible, students may be able to gather valid sources of reference from the bibliography that was used to create the wiki entry.  By scrolling down to the bottom of the wiki entry, learners can find a list of references that were used to draw information for the entry.  It is here that students can uncover a wealth of references for their own document.

References should appear at the end of a report and should begin on a new page.  Each research paper reference should be formatted in a particular manner according to the style required by the course instructor.  Students can buy a style guide or visit their college or university writing lab to learn about style guidelines.  In general, however, each report reference should contain the author's name, the date on which the work was published, the name of the book or paper, and the publisher.

AMA Style Citations and Bibliography Format

When completing a paper with AMA style citations and bibliography format for an educational institution, it's necessary to follow a certain procedure and format for citing the references used.  In many cases, the instructor will specify the type of format that's to be used for a particular report.  If not, one can assume that the proper format is the AMA style if the paper is to be written on a topic that's related to health, medicine, or the biological sciences.

There are several formatting rules that must be adhered to when utilizing the AMA style of citation and bibliography format.  For example, the items that are cited with this format must be listed numerically and they're listed in the order that they're cited within the text.  Similarly, there are times when italics may be used when utilizing the AMA format, though this may not be possible when using a typewriter.  If this is the case, the items that should be italicized should be underlined instead.

When citing a work used in the report, there are specific formats to be used with writing author names, locations, titles of works, and more.  When writing an author's name, for example, the writer must write the author's last name first and then use initials for the author's first and second names.  No spaces should be placed between these initials.  Similarly, the writer should include only up to six authors for a particular piece.  If the piece has more than six authors, the writer should only list the first three authors and then follow this information with the words "et al" to signify that there are additional authors.  If the work doesn't provide an author's name, the writer will start with the title instead when citing the work.  

When citing a book, the writer needs to include some very specific information.  For example, there should be an edition statement included in this citation.  If it's the third edition of the work, this would be written as "3rd ed."  If it's a revised edition, this would be written as "Rev ed."  Regardless of the edition, this information should be written between the title and the place where the work was published.  It should be noted, however, that it's not necessary to include this type of notation if it's the first edition.

When writing the place where the work was published, the writer should use abbreviations when naming the state.  It isn't necessary, however, to include postal codes when listing states.

If citing a journal, the writer must abbreviate the titles as shown within the Index Medicus.  If the journal doesn't continuously paginate, it's also necessary to include the month and the day of its publication.

Web sites can also be tricky to properly cite in an AMA style reference project.  Nonetheless, the writer must find the name of the webpage and must also keep track of the date on which the page was accessed.  The name of the site and the name of the person who authored the webpage's content must also be recorded.

Citation of Research Paper Sources

Many student papers are summarily rejected by instructors for lack of proper citation.  The citation of research papers is one of the most important aspects of college report composition.  The lack of proper citation of research papers is, essentially, plagiarism.  Since plagiarism is the use of someone else's work without giving that individual credit, the proper citation of research paper text is crucial when presenting a formal academic paper.

The correct citation of research paper sources generally includes in-text citations as well as a bibliography.  Every reference which is cited within the project itself should be listed in the bibliography.  As a matter of fact, this may be one of the first things the instructor checks for.  Standard formatting for in-text citations is the author's last name and the publication date.  Depending on the citation style, an in-text citation might also include the page number of the document where the reference is located.  

Some in-text citations appear as footnotes or endnotes.  Styles such as Harvard, Chicago, and Turabian make use of this type of formatting.  Footnotes and endnotes are intended to give the reader immediate access to complete information about the references used to create the document.  Footnotes and endnotes can also include what are called reference notes or comment notes.  These notes are simply a way for the writer to include comments which enhance the reader's understanding of the material but which aren't crucial to the project itself.  Such notes might include additional information about the reference or about the subject which the writer feels is pertinent.

Standard bibliography information should include the author's last name, the publication date, the title of the book or document, the name of the publication if it's a journal, the publisher, and page numbers.  In general, either the title of the book or document is italicized or underlined or the name of the journal publication is italicized.  It is the citation style that determines which aspect of the bibliography entry is highlighted.

How any citation of research paper references is handled depends on which style guide is used to write the document.  The most common formatting styles are American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Harvard, Chicago, and Turabian.  Each style format has a formal style guide that students should refer to in order to understand how each citation of research paper references should be handled.  Students should always refer to the style guide to ensure that their citations and references have been formatted properly.

Credible Sources for Research Papers

Research papers require learners to gather multiple sources on a single topic and synthesize and analyze those sources in order to draw conclusions about that topic.  There are a variety of possible sources for research paper material; however, not all sources are equally valid to the academic community.  Sources for research papers must be scholarly.  This is how they differ from other information sources.  A scholarly source is an academic source that's peer-reviewed.  This means that experts in the field in which the source was completed have read and assessed the validity of the source and determined it to be qualified for publication.

Sources for research papers are primarily found in university libraries.  They are not, however, limited to books.  Scholarly books are excellent resources, and often provide in-depth information.  Aside from books, however, university libraries have access to vast amounts of information via scholarly online databases.  These databases hold electronic versions of journal articles, research studies, and reference volumes that can be efficiently searched by keywords and subjects.  Frequently, journal articles found on these databases are very up-to-date; therefore, learners can often find recent research on their topics.  In addition, scholarly online reference works can often point students to the most authoritative materials available on their topics.  For instance, some online reference works are bibliographies.  A bibliography is an extensive list of available sources on a certain subject.  Bibliographies are invaluable sources for research papers because they can point students to the exact titles of relevant information on their topics.  

Students are often comfortable with searching the internet, and therefore frequently turn to Web sites as sources for research paper information.  Though there are many valuable and informative Web sites, learners should be wary of accepting all information on the internet as valid.  Most Web sites aren't authoritative, and fewer are peer-reviewed.  In order to assess the validity of Web sites as sources for research paper material, students must discover the publisher of the Web site.  If the publisher is a university, major academic or informative institution (such as a national medical organization), or the government (these sites will all have .gov addresses), the sites are likely accurate and authoritative.  Most personal Web sites aren't authoritative sources unless the topic of the project is the person who runs the site.

One of the best sources for research paper materials and assistance is a reference librarian, who is an individual with advanced degrees in library science who knows more about how to find and obtain information than most people ever will.  Most universities are staffed with at least one reference librarian.  Starting research by consulting a reference librarian will always be a great assistance.

Research Paper Referencing Guidelines

Students in all grade levels will have to reference and write reports for their courses.  Research papers not only require that students spend a significant amount of time researching and referencing just one topic, but they also require learners to write papers about that topic that are well organized and convincing.  As part of the writing process, it's important for students to be diligent in their document referencing efforts so that they provide appropriate credit (citations) to their sources.

Research paper referencing may follow many forms, depending on the style guide that a student may need to follow.  For example, research paper referencing for MLA formatted reports should include a reference to a resource embedded within the actual content of the report by placing the last name of the source author and page number where the information can be found within parenthesis after the quotation.  

However, other reports referencing methods may require learners to include footnotes.  In most cases, when a student needs to include footnotes, he/she merely has to place an asterisk at the end of the section that the student is referencing.  This apteryx may correspond to a note at the bottom of the page.  

If a student is writing footnotes or end notes for multiple references, he/she should use a superscript numeral that corresponds to a numeral in the reports referencing section.  In such a case where there are multiple references within the report, the student may wish to include a reference section at the end of the document instead of as footnotes.  

Students should keep in mind that many professors require learners to follow strict research papers referencing guidelines that match the researching paper formatting guidelines.  Students may wish to look up information about a style guide that a professor has assigned to them in order to ensure that they follow the correct format.  

When it comes to completing research papers, there are many sections that students generally have to include.  There are two common sections that will come at the end of the document that can often be confused: references and an appendix.  While references and appendices both provide additional information about a topic, the report referencing section specifically directs readers to other resources where they may be able to find additional information.  

The appendix, however, provides further details about information included in the student's reference project.  Therefore, learners should be sure that they're familiar with the differences between research paper referencing and including an appendix.

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