Most academic writing involves combining the words and ideas of others with your own. You may be using someone else’s data or analysis to support your own ideas, or you may simply be producing a new combination of existing facts and ideas from different sources, but in either case it is essential that you inform your readers about the sources of your information and the people who wrote them. There are many different systems for recording or documenting information about your sources. The two most common are MLA, produced by the Modern Language Association, and APA, produced by the American Psychological Association, but there are a number of others. Your instructor will tell you what format to use.
In all of these systems there are two aspects to proper documentation. The first is the system for in-text citation, the procedure for indicating to the reader in the text of your paper what words, facts, or ideas came from other sources, and where the material came from. In-text citations are not only used to identify the sources of quotations, but also of data and paraphrased material. In the past, in-text citations consisted of superscript numbers that referred to footnotes at the bottom of the page that might contain obscure Latin phrases like ibid, or op cit, but fortunately the latest versions of both MLA and APA use parenthetical documentation in which key information about the source is put inside parentheses, usually at the end of the sentence or paragraph.
In MLA documentation, the in-text citation usually consists of the last name of the author followed by a space and then the page number, enclosed in parentheses at the end of the sentence. In APA, the author’s last name is usually mentioned in the sentence, followed immediately by the date of publication in parentheses. If the author is not mentioned in the sentence, both the author and the date are put in parentheses. If the material is a direct quote, the page number, preceded by p. is put in parentheses at the end of the sentence, after the closing quotation mark but before the period.
The second part of the documentation system is the format for listing the sources at the end of the paper. In MLA, this is called the list of “Works Cited.” In APA it is called the “References.” In both systems you need to record the author, title, and publishing information for each source, but the formats vary from system to system, and each type of publication–books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and electronic sources–has its own format. The sources are alphabetized by the author’s last name. For specific information about a particular source in a particular style check one of the websites listed below.
The systems are designed so that if a reader is interested in an idea in the text, he or she can look at the in-text citation to find the author, then flip to the back to find the publishing information of the source. The information in the “Works Cited” section is enough to find the book or article in the library. Bibliographies and “Works Cited” sections are also useful when you are doing your own research.