How Much is Too Much? Balancing Citations within Prose

Finding a balance between talking about other people’s work and your own analysis in an essay can be hard. You want to demonstrate that you’ve done the research necessary to support your points, but avoid accusations of plagiarism. What balance should you strike?

Here are four questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not you need more citations—or if you have too many.

What expectations (e.g. style or genre considerations) are you working with ? 

While documentation conventions differ between citation styles, the principle remains the same: give your reader enough information so they can locate the source you used. If you’re not sure about your discipline’s documentation norms, then take a look at the style guide that your discipline recommends. It will often have guidelines for specific citation situations. For example, APA includes guidelines for citing a single work multiple times without sounding (or looking) redundant.

If your discipline’s style guide does not have what you’re looking for, take a look at some of the writing within your discipline. Within that particular genre of writing, how does the author go about incorporating what others have said? You can reverse-engineer their work and use it as a template for your own.

What part of the text are you in?

You want to be transparent about your sources, but you don’t have to append citations to every sentence. When you cite sources also depends on what part of the paper you’re writing:

  • If you’re writing the introduction, then you should be introducing your main point without bogging it down with citations—leave those for supporting evidence within your body paragraphs.

  • If you’re writing the conclusion, then you’ve already supported all your main points with evidence, so you should be summarizing what you’ve already said about your subject—not introducing new material or more citations. However,

  • if you’re writing a lit review and you’ve gone a few paragraphs without citing anyone, then it’s probably time to bring back citations and author’s names. You are, after all, synthesizing what others have said about a given topic.

Is it clear how you know this?

In an academic paper, you want to make sure your readers understand how you know what you know. To illustrate this point, I’ll use original and revised paragraphs from a paper I recently wrote. Here’s the original paragraph:

These girls, known as kamlaharī, are subjected to long hours of domestic labor, not sent to school, and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. Numerous NGOs actively remove girls from such situations, often involving local law enforcement. Many organizations recognize that rescuing kamlaharī is a last-resort tactic, thus proactively work to equip whole communities with income-generating skills. Creating community resources provided families with alternative means to funds, rather than procuring a loan and sending a daughter to repay it.

After reading this draft, a colleague asked me “how do you know that?” and I realized I wasn’t being transparent about my sources—how I knew this to be true. Here’s the revised paragraph:

These girls, known as kamlaharī, are subjected to long hours of domestic labor, not sent to school, and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. Numerous NGOs actively remove girls from such situations, often involving local law enforcement. As I traveled between far western districts during the month of Magh, I saw NGO staff working alongside police and army officials at highway traffic checkpoints to identify girls and young women on public transportation who may have been kamlaharī traveling to their new landlord’s house. The organizations through which I conducted my research recognize that rescuing kamlaharī is a last-resort tactic, and thus proactively work to equip whole communities with income-generating skills. Their programs often include teaching new farming methods to increase agricultural yields, and establishing community savings and credit groups. Creating such community resources provides families with alternative means to funds, rather than procuring a loan and sending a daughter to repay it.

In this case, my own research experience was my evidence. In other cases, including citations might be how you let your reader know where you got your information. If your reader is left asking, “how do you know this?” then you should revise the passage so that it is clear how you know something.

Does it sound like someone else?

If you do not acknowledge your sources up front, then your writing may end up sounding like someone else wrote it. Some readers might then think you stole, or plagiarized, someone else’s ideas. Here’s an example of one such situation.

I recently read an article concerning modernity, ethnicity, and social change in Nepal—big themes within ethnographic literature for the geographic region in which I conduct research. In the article, the author used the term “suitably modern” multiple times. That phrase is the main title of a book by another scholar, Mark Liechty, whose work also focuses on Nepal. This author did not cite Liechty in text, so I turned to the bibliography expecting to see a citation (since the article’s documentation was in accordance with CMS, the bibliography would include titles consulted but not directly cited). It was not there. I was miffed because, other than the obvious borrowing of the phrase, Liechty’s work supported the ideas that the article synthesized. Why was Liechty not cited? Was this plagiarism?

Basically, if you sound too much like another author and don’t directly reference their work, then you could be accused of plagiarism. This situation is especially problematic if you’ve submitted your work to a professional journal for publication. If an expert sees an unacknowledged source, then the editor may send it back for revision—or decide not to publish your work.

So the next time you’re wondering if your citation use is balanced, ask yourself these four questions to determine if you’ve made it clear to readers how you know what you know and where you got your ideas from.

Tori Dalzell, PhD

Dr. Tori Dalzell holds a PhD in ethnomusicology (UC Riverside) and a BA in Music and English (Hollins University). She has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students in writing centers since 2012, and views writing as an integral part of professional development for any chosen field. Tori conducted her dissertation research in Nepal on a Fulbright IIE grant (2012-2013), and remains involved as an alumna in UC Riverside’s Latin American Music ensemble, which performs folk and popular music from the Andean region of South America.