Why citing sources matters—and how to do it

If you’ve ever been badgered to cite your sources in a piece of writing, thank your editor. If you fail to cite properly, you run the risk of plagiarism. But more than that, tracing your claims back to reputable, easy-to-find sources is a marker of good research, due diligence, and credibility—regardless of field or industry.

Still, a few common objections against citations perpetuate. We’re prepared with counterarguments for each:

  • “We are a respected authority on this subject. No one will look twice.” While this may be true, it’s still important to point readers in the right direction. And if you misrepresent your authority, you could jeopardize future collaborations.
  • “It’s someone else’s research—we can’t promote them.” Yes, being at the forefront of an insight is an accomplishment. But expanding on existing knowledge—especially raw knowledge that has few applications—is the core of innovation and will always be valuable. Indeed, fast followers who innovate can reap significant benefits, including a bolstered reputation as a subject-matter expert and problem-solver.
  • “This research is already documented elsewhere as our own.” Even the most conscientious reader and subject-matter expert forgets things they’ve read and will therefore appreciate being directed to your previous content. Furthermore, you risk alienating new readers by forcing them to hunt down a source.
  • “This content won’t be widely circulated.” Quality first. If you want your ideas to be taken seriously and validated, transparent sources are crucial. People will want to know how you came to your conclusion—even if it won’t be featured in a major publication.

 

How to evaluate sources

Citing sources can, admittedly, be quite time-consuming and tedious. However, it’s a must for companies and authors that want to be taken seriously. Many organizations have their own in-house styles for sources, but a few key elements are always included in a citation if the information is available:

  • author(s) or organization behind them
  • full name of the article, report, or piece of content that the information appears in, as well as the larger work or medium it may appear in
  • date it was created or modified
  • specific location of the information; for example, page number

Good sources share a few characteristics that, if they work in tandem, form the foundation of a comprehensive, authoritative argument. Authors can ask specific questions to ensure their source checks each of these boxes.

Pertinent. Seems like an obvious must-have, yet too often, cited information comes from content about an entirely unrelated subject. Does the source deal significantly with the topic at hand? Is the cited information buried within content on a different subject? Is the information in the proper context?

Reliable. On the same note—if you must be selective with the information you cite, consider the reasons why. Is it anecdotal or anomalous? Would a quick search bring up contradictory information? Does it come from a less than reputable source? Reliability goes beyond finding a source with clout.

Unbiased. Totally impartial sources (usually in the form of raw data collected by a third party with no stake in the outcome) can be difficult to track down, but a few red flags can weed out the truly problematic ones. Does the source provider benefit from presenting facts or perceptions in a certain way? Does that provider have a history of bias? Does citing this source pose a risk to your company’s reputation? It’s generally advisable to steer away from partisan organizations or any unaffiliated individual, although exceptions certainly exist.

Timely. While facts don’t change, the circumstances around them do. In the past decade, the world has grown by nearly one billion people and Google has turned into a verb. Some industries move faster than others (looking at you, tech and talent), so reasonable assumptions made one year are often outdated within a matter of months. Have industry, political, or global conditions changed since this source was written? Do those changes directly affect your argument? Does updated research exist?

Easy to find. Accessibility is an oft overlooked characteristic of good source practice, but its importance cannot be stressed enough. The source must be easy to find for anyone looking to verify the information, which can usually be accomplished by including all the elements mentioned above in a citation. Authors should also avoid citing information with a pay wall, when possible; pointing to gated content can both breed skepticism among and alienate unprivileged readers. Will a simple search online for the source yield the right content? Will readers need subscriptions to access it?

Although the lasting impact of a published piece will rest in its argument, the wow factor of a fresh idea can dissipate quickly if a reader runs into sourcing errors or omissions. Plus, buttoning up all of your citations before publication allows you to release your hard work into the world with confidence.

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