First Things First
Before you begin your research and well before you begin writing, you need to know whether the assignment or your professor requires you to use a particular citation stye. MLA, APA, and Chicago are the most widely used citation styles, and you will need to learn to use all three as a college student. Compare MLA, APA, and Chicago styles by taking a look at this chart from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
If your professor doesn't have a preference as to which citation style you use, you're free to choose. MLA is more commonly used in the humanities, while APA is more commonly used in the sciences and social sciences. Chicago is used across disciplines, primarily in the humanities and social sciences. One is not more difficult to use than the others, they just have some different specifics.
Once you know what citation style you will be using, familiarize yourself with what pieces of information you'll need to collect as you perform research. Some are obvious: authors' names, titles, publication dates, etc. Some are perhaps less obvious. For example, if you download a full-text article from a database licensed by the library, you will need to include that information in your citation, along with the URL and the date that you accessed the article. All these specifics can be found by looking at these official style guides:
Why is proper citation important?
By citing your sources, you are giving your reader a trail of evidence that shows where you got your information. It is important to distinguish the sources of information that you use - whether fact or opinion, data or methdology, visual or textual - from your own ideas, interpretations, and conclusions. To properly cite your sources, you need to keep track of all the relevant information from the start of your research and then use in-text references to your bibliography to alert your audience to the origin of your information.
No matter what citation style you use, the basics are the same - you need to give credit to the source of information and give your reader the information necessary to find and verify your resources.
Failure to cite your sources is plagiarism, whether intentional or not.
In-Text Parenthetical References = Who Said What:
Below is a sample paragraph with examples of in-text references:
Short literary forms are an intense way of expressing a great deal in very few words. An excellent example is haiku, which is "a Japanese poetic form that represents, in seventeen syllables...the poet's emotional or spiritual response to a natural object, scene, or season of the year" (Abrams 113). The haiku poem gives the writer little space to express their intent and forces the author to focus very strictly on the words and phrases that will evoke the desired image or feeling. While haiku is a traditional poetic form from Japan, short literary expressions abound across the modern world. Twitter has given rise to several forms of abbreviated literary expression in part because of the limited number of characters allowed for each tweet. Jeremy Caplan gives some examples of "micro-writing," including six word memoirs, four word film reviews, and twelve word novels - some of which are published in print rather than electronically via Twitter or other web application. These new forms of expression may be a result of the pace of modern life and information overload, but the parallel with haiku leads one to question whether elegant minimalism may be sought out for other reasons.
Bibliography/Works Cited = Full Citation of Information
These are examples of how the works cited in the above paragraph would appear (these examples are formatted according to MLA 7). The in-text reference gives the reader enough information to find the appropriate item in the list of works cited, while the bibliography/works cited gives the reader all the information needed to find the original source. Note that there is no parenthetical reference for the Caplan article - this is because the author is already named in the text where his work is paraphrased and there is no page number because the source is web-based and has no page numbers.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Australia: Heinle & Heinle /
Thomson Learning, 1999. Print.
Caplan, Jeremy. "Haiku Nation." Time 172.9 (2008). EBSCOhost Academic
Search Premier. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.
One Exception: Common Knowledge
The one exception to the rule that all information must be cited is common knowledge. Common knowledge is information that can easily be found in multiple reliable sources and would be generally known by most people.
Not sure whether something is common knowledge? Find a source and cite it!
Need help with writing?
To learn more about how to write in the college context, you might want to take a look at these books.
For more personalized assistance, you should go to the Writing Center in the Library and consult one of the Writing Tutors.