Why Cite?

Most of us get the necessity for proper citation drilled into us as soon as we get to college, and then over and over again, in each successive class or degree program. In social work, we have to use APA style (created by and for the American Psychological Association), and we have to cite our sources, and we’re told over and over again that this citation process helps us avoid accusations of plagiarism. But that’s not the whole story.

The truth is much more complex and interesting. Why cite? This guide suggests a number of reasons, but we should first be clear about what we’re describing. Citation systems are designed to accomplish multiple goals, but these goals fall into two basic categories: attribution and documentation. Once we’re clear on these, we can proceed to the practical side, available on the next section, How Does APA Style Work?


When I attribute a quotation or a piece of information to a source, I distinguish between that source’s contribution to my argument, and my argument itself, my own conclusions. There are many documentation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, and many others), but they are all designed to make attribution easier. We need to get used to using a citation style, not because “they” say so, but because it helps us organize our thoughts. Plus, attribution, giving credit where credit is due, helps us avoid plagiarism.

  • Organize Our Thoughts: College writing requires a difficult balancing act, between generating our own conclusions and acknowledging what’s already been done by others. When we write, we enter a conversation with others in our field, and as in any conversation, we’re obliged to acknowledge others’ statements, but also to contribute new and interesting ideas. By carefully tracking and attributing others’ conclusions to them, we can keep a clear eye on what we’re really adding to the conversation. If all I’m doing in a paper is repeating information I’ve learned elsewhere, then I need to reconsider my project, and re-work it in order to make an argument of my own. For more information on common types of argument in social work, see this guide’s sections, Why Write? and What Is Social Work Research?
  • Show Others Who Said What: We have to remember, too, that our writing isn’t just an exercise to get a grade. It’s a piece of communication, aimed at refining our collective understanding of how the world works. When we attribute information to our research sources, we provide information that others can use—we help teach others. A citation system helps provide our readers with a road map to the information we’ve used—not just so an instructor can check up on us, but so that future readers can follow in our footsteps, much as we follow in our sources’.
  • And Be Brief: Citation systems in general let us refer others to who said what (as mentioned above) more briefly and succinctly, saving us and our readers some valuable space and time.

Documentation: APA Style

Specific citation systems such as APA allow for efficient bookkeeping. I might attribute sources in any number of ways—mentioning titles of works, authors’ names, chapter headings, dates, page numbers, and so on—but if everyone did this, it would be difficult to find our sources easily. APA documentation style accomplishes several tasks quickly and efficiently:

  • Documentation Standardizes Attribution: That’s a compressed way of saying that when all social-work researchers use APA Style, we can all read and evaluate one another’s claims and support more easily—we can all teach and learn more effectively.
  • In-Text Citations Keep the Text Clean: In-text citations are designed to be brief, so that we can introduce our source quickly and then get on with our argument. Each citation refers to a “References Page” entry, which in turn provides enough information to find the source easily. It’s a road map anyone can follow.
  • In-Text Citations Show We’re Up to Date: In social-sciences research, we want to refer to the most up-to-date information. APA style includes the year of publication in the in-text parenthetical citation, making it easy to glance over a paper and see very quickly how up-to-date its sources are. If I see too many 1980s and 1990s entries, I’ll worry that the paper doesn’t use the newest information. But if I see the current year or last year all over the place, then my confidence will increase. Likewise, if I see information coming from a variety of sources (many different authors’ last names in parentheses), I’ll know immediately that the writer has carefully considered a variety of perspectives. But if I see only one or two names, over and over again, I might worry that the paper is biased, or hasn’t considered all the potential avenues of research.
  • References Pages Are a Resource: The References Page has to provide enough information for anyone to track down the source I’ve used. That’s not just to let anyone “check up” on me—it’s to help others along with their own research. We can “mine” other writers’ references pages to find the sources they’ve used, and when I do that, I’m always grateful that they’ve followed APA style, so I’ll have enough information.

How Does APA Style Work?

APA style provides readers with a road-map, both to understand how we’ve used our sources, and to follow our documentation to see our sources for themselves. As mentioned in the previous section, Why Cite?, APA style requires us to provide all of this information in a specific order, making things easier to follow. To use APA style, we need to be ready to use a standardized format for our papers, provide in-text citations to document all sources whose information we use, and provide a references section to show the reader a more detailed account of which sources we used. This guide provides a brief section on each of these, as well as some Frequently Asked Questions.

Using APA Style


APA Format

In order to help us read quickly and efficiently, APA style standardizes our writing format. I can review any paper quickly, jumping straight to the sections I need, if the writer organizes it according to the basic APA format.

  • Title Page: The title of the paper, plus information about the author. For a sample title page, see the Purdue O.W.L. sample page.
  • Abstract: An abstract summarizes the whole paper. Abstracts may seem pointless, but as soon as we start conducting wider literature reviews, we’ll appreciate being able to glance through a 200-word abstract to decide whether or not to read a 20-page article. For a sample abstract, see the Purdue O.W.L. sample page.
  • Main Body: The bulk of the paper belongs here. The body is often divided up into an introduction, a literature review, a section on methods, a section on data-analysis, and a discussion and conclusion section—but not every paper needs to have all of these.
  • References: The References section contains all the information anyone would need to find any of the sources we use (see below). 

In-Text Citations

The Main Body should also contain in-text citations. These can seem confusing, so it’s worth remembering that APA style cares the most about only a few pieces of information in the text: the Author’s last name(s) and the publication date should always appear, in parentheses, after information that we derive from another writer’s work. If we quote some text, or if we paraphrase information from a single paragraph, we’ll also need a page number. If there’s no page number, then yes, it’s necessary to count paragraphs! The format looks like this: (Lastname, Date, p.1).

  • For more information about in-text citations, see the Purdue O.W.L. page on in-text citations.
  • For more information about how to handle authors’ last names in in-text citations, see the Purdue O.W.L. page on Author/Authors.
  • Best Practice: It’s best to put in in-text citations as soon as we add a quotation, paraphrase, or summary to our paper. They’re hard to add later! 


The References section contains all the information anyone would need, in order to find any of the sources we use. Sometimes the sheer number of possible source-types can seem overwhelming, but it’s worth remembering that APA papers need to offer at least four basic categories of information: Author(s)DateTitle(s), and Publication Information. As long as we make a serious effort to include that information, and in that order, we’ll be well on our way to correct APA reference style.

  • For more information on the References section, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s page on Basic Rules.
  • The Purdue O.W.L. also provides a variety of useful sub-categories dealing with most types of sources. Of particular interest:
  • Best Practice: It’s best to create a “references entry” for a source as soon as we decide that it’ll be useful. If we create a computer document with all of that information, all we’ll need to do when it comes time to compose a References section is copy and paste!
  • Best Practice: From painful experience, it’s best not to rely on automated or computerized citation systems. Some of these programs can create a references entry for us, but most will get something wrong, and some of them make a downright mess! If you do use one, be sure to double-check it against the APA manual, or the Purdue O.W.L. 

Frequently Asked Questions

As suggested throughout this guide, the APA style manual is the best resource for detailed questions about the practical details of correct citation. But this guide also highly recommends the following sources:

The Purdue OWL APA Style Guide – cited throughout this guide, this resource has an easy-to-read menu and plenty of examples.

The APA Style Blog – Maintained by APA editors themselves, the blog answers many arcane questions about formatting and the proper method for citing all manner of sources.
The following Frequently Asked Questions are more general questions about how and when to use citations…

Q: When should I cite?
A: We should cite a source whenever the ideas we’re discussing are not derived from our own conclusions, experience, or data-collection. If we find that all we’re doing is providing information from other sources, then it’s time to reconsider our project. Are we making an argument, or just reporting someone else’s? For more information about how to improve our argument, see this guide’s section, How Do I Start – Part 1: Prewriting.

Q: When should I use quotation marks?
A: We should enclose in quotation marks any section of text that looks almost exactly like what the original author wrote. The technical limit is 5 words, not including particles and conjunctions (a, the, if, and, but). If more than five of the words in a sentence are the original author’s, it’s time to either rewrite the paraphrase more effectively, or use a direct quotation. For more information on how to quote effectively, see this guide’s section, How Do I Start? – Part 2: Writing.

Q: How do I cite a quote within a quote?
There are actually two answers to this question:
Short Answer: Don’t. Generally, it’s best to find the original source, and take a good look at that source. Every paper makes an argument and every argument picks and chooses its support from the available sources. A source may be misrepresenting—or just being very selective about—the material being quoted.

Long Answer: In some rare circumstances, it may be necessary to cite a quote within a quote. Usually these circumstances involve a source citing something that’s very difficult (or actually impossible) for us to find and read ourselves. For example, some sources cite personal conversations or interviews, while others may cite speeches for which no transcription is available. In these cases only, we might need to cite a quote within a quote. This is called an indirect citation. For more information about how to format such a citation, see the Purdue O.W.L.’s overview of Author/Authors, and scroll down to the entry for indirect citations.