When & How to Document

When to Document

Document/cite researched information to give credit to something somebody said, wrote, emailed, drew, or implied. You need to give credit to:

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, presentation, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person face-to-face, over the phone, or in writing
  • Exact words or a unique phrase that you quote
  • Diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials that you reuse
  • Electronic media, including images, audio, video, or other media, that you reuse or repost

Important: You must cite any source of information you use in your communication that doesn’t originate with you.

On the other hand, you do NOT need to cite:

  • your own ideas and opinions
  • your own words
  • common knowledge

Examples of common knowledge include:

  • Basic facts: there are 365 days in a year, the earth orbits the sun, the molecular structure of water (H2O), etc.
  • Very well-known quotes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You still have to use quotation marks and indicate who said the quote (Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and John F. Kennedy, respectively), but you do not need to include the source in your end list of sources.
  • Subject-specific common knowledge: There is information in specific disciplines or branches of knowledge that is considered common knowledge. A good indicator of what constitutes common knowledge is if you see the information in 4 or 5 articles or books and it does not need a citation. Until you become familiar with what is considered common knowledge in your field, it is best to be safe and cite your sources, to avoid plagiarism.

How to Document

Knowing how to cite your sources properly is one of the most important skills to have in order to avoid plagiarism.

Any time you paraphrase, summarize, or use a direct quote in your professional communications, you must provide a citation both within the text and as part of a comprehensive list of sources at the end of the text.

There are many formats for citing/documenting sources. Some of the standard formats are APA (American Psychological Association, often used in business and social sciences), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago Style.  Use your organization’s preferred format.  If there is no preferred format, then use APA.

Know that you do not have to memorize the nuances of documentation formats, since you can use any of many online tools to create your citations.  Once you choose a format, use that format consistently throughout your communication.

Citation Tools

The following free, online tools can help you create both in-text and end-of-text citations.  They also allow you to choose your citation format (APA, MLA, Chiicago, and more).





Check your Understanding

Check your understanding of citing sources by playing some of the games on the site listed below.

University of Washington: APA and MLA Citation Game Page (multiple games)