Introduction to Citing Sources

What you’ll learn to do: identify the conventions of citation and references

If you drive a car in America, you (and most every preschooler in the nation) know that green means “go” and red means “stop.” Why is that? Could a city suddenly decide to switch up the colors—blue means “go” and orange means “stop”? The answer is “no,” because changing the colors would cause mass confusion and pose a serious risk to drivers and pedestrians. In order to prevent such mishaps, there is a standardized protocol for traffic signals and lights. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration publishes the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to ensure that traffic rules are consistent and uniform across the nation.

Similarly, writers use style guides to standardize the process for writing academic papers. Major style guides come from organizations like the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the American Psychological Association (APA). Though there are differences between style guides, each explains how to format papers and specifically details procedures for appropriately citing sources so that other people can easily navigate the research trail.

This section will not teach you to memorize a style guide. However, it will help you to understand why citations are constructed the way they are. We will walk you through each part of an MLA citation and a references page in order to help you interpret what you see.