[Why cite] [When to cite] [How to cite] [Citation Style Guide and Tools]

Why cite

There are many good reasons for including citations. A primary one is that research in any field (not least in the social sciences) operates upon the foundation of a wealth of other people’s works. As such, when you use information derived from somebody’s hardy efforts, the least you could do to express some measure of gratitude is to cite that person.

A second reason to cite is to help future researchers. It is responsible scholarship to provide the necessary information for others to verify and follow-up on your research, or so they can replicate it and perhaps push the frontiers of knowledge forward on their own.

Finally, citations are part of what makes your own work credible. They show the reader that you are not simply making things up!

When to cite

The first question to address is when does once cite a source? There are some case where citations are always a good idea:

  • Whenever you quote a source.
  • Whenever you paraphrase or summarize a source.
  • Whenever a source or information may be unfamiliar to your reader.

Also, it is a good idea to cite,

  • Whenever you are unsure of what should be cited.

see SUNY Albany Library

Beyond the above guidelines, different disciplines also have their own norms for when citations are necessary (and for how to cite sources). See Purdue Owl: Complete Discipline Listing. An extreme example may be academic law review articles. These typically following a guide, The Bluebook.  In that discipline, on occasion, even facts that should be general knowledge (such as the fact there was a World War II), might require a citation!

How to cite

There are lots of formats for citation. This guide will not discuss all of them, but merely point you to some of the most useful guides. If you are writing a paper for a course, it is important that you follow any guidelines provided by your teacher. If you are writing a paper for publication, it may be useful to look at the formatting guidelines provided by those publications. They can vary quite a bit!

One major distinction is whether you cite in-text or as a footnote or endnote.

In-text citations

in-text example

in-text example2

Selections from Leonard et al. 2010. “Does Patronage Still Drive Politics for the Rural Poor in the Developing World? A Comparative Perspective from the Livestock Sector.” Development and Change. (p 475-494)

In the first example above, Robert Bates’ book, Essays on the Political Economy of Rural Africa, is cited in parentheses, within the body of the text. If it had been a direct quote, rather than a summary of an argument, then the page number of the quote would also have been included. This is the case with the second passage.

Footnotes and endnotes

footnote example

Selection from Nelson, Michael. 2016. African Coalitions and Global Economic Governance, Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes and endnotes are similar. As demonstrated in the example above, the notation involves a number added as a superscript to the end of the relevant passage. That number then corresponds either with a notation at the bottom of that page (for footnotes) or at the end of the document (for endnotes).

Bibliography and Reference Lists

Finally, it is important that somewhere in your document, you include the full bibliographic information on your sources. Sometimes that is done within footnotes and endnotes. However, most political science articles and books include an alphabetized bibliography at the end of their text, such as seen in the below image:


Selection from Nelson, Michael. 2016. Africa’s Regional Powers and Climate Change Negotiations. Global Environmental Politics, 16:2, 110-129.

Citation Style Guides and Tools

There are also a couple of conversion-engines available online, like, that provide free service. However, they are often limited in their range of options and using it comes with an inherent level of skepticism and uncertainty (as there is indeed no such thing as a free lunch).

Alternatively, you could also consider Zotero, a free easy-to-use reference management software that’s really helpful if you’re scouring the web for research material. It allows you to gather, organize, and analyze sources you find on the internet. More importantly, it also automatically structures your sources into your desired citation format through an easy click-and-drag system. There are issues, however. It’s a Mozilla extension, so it only works with that web browser. It’s also slightly clunky in its design, a tad bit buggy, has limited citation output formats (though it does have the important ones), and clogs up your browser screen due to the fact that it is an in-browser app. Regardless, it’s a big help in terms of citing sources.

To get it, head over to

On that note, you could also consider EndNote, a commercial reference management software which is beefier and external to any single web browser – traits which are both a blessing and a curse. There is a trade-off picking between EndNote and Zotero, but ultimately it comes down to your personal research and writing style. Now, EndNote usually costs quite a bit of money, but it’s available at a discount, or even free, at many colleges and universities.

updated July 14, 2017 – MN

Nicholas Quah also contributed to this.