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SPARK: Using and Citing Sources

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Using and Citing Sources

In everyday conversation, we refer informally to what friends, family, and colleagues have said. Similarly, in academic writing, we also make use of the observations and ideas of others, but we cite these sources formally and in stylized ways. Using and citing sources appropriately:

  • identifies the academic conversation in which you are participating and clarifies what other authors are participating
  • enables your readers to locate your sources and to learn more about the topic from them
  • allows your reader to establish the reliability of the information you present
  • acknowledges the originator of a particular term, concept, or theory, and the intellectual property of others
  • can strengthen your work by allowing you to affiliate yourself with ideas and opinions with which you may agree, and distance yourself from those with which you disagree
  • helps you avoid committing plagiarism

Review the sections below to learn more about issues related to using and citing sources.

Intellectual Property

Language is held in common; no one person owns language or has the power to hold onto words like possessions. However, in Canada, when a person uses language to express new and unique ideas, this expression is considered to be the “intellectual property" of that person. Citation is an acknowledgement of these formulations of language and ideas, as well as of the intellectual effort and ability that they represent.

Copyright is another concept closely related to citation and intellectual property. When individuals create unique works, we can say that they have claim to these works and these become “copyright protected”. For more information about copyright, see the University’s copyright page for students.


Representing someone else's ideas, writing, images or other intellectual property as your own constitutes plagiarism, and is another form of academic dishonesty. Any use of the work of others, whether published, unpublished or posted electronically (e.g., on web sites), attributed or anonymous, must include proper acknowledgement.


As the term “originality” is often used in association with intellectual property, students sometimes gain the impression that the demand on them is to contribute something completely new and utterly unique to academic discussions. This is not the case.

In fact, many of the thinkers to whom we attribute major ideas today – Charles Darwin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein – built the revolutionary ideas for which they have become famous upon the ideas of other thinkers.

You are not expected to research, write, and contribute original ideas at the same level as advanced scholars and professional academics. Learning, and by extension, your university education, is a process where writers gain writing skills over time, building on accumulated knowledge to create strong, well-articulated arguments. Throughout this process, writers cite the sources they use to formulate their own ideas.

In the context of academic research, the term “original” is used to describe work that adds to existing knowledge by expanding, deepening, reconsidering, and testing it. However, the origins of this existing knowledge must be acknowledged through appropriate citation practices.

Padding Your Bibliography

Your bibliography should list only the sources you have consulted in your research. Although when time is short you may be tempted to make it appear that you have done more research than you actually have, misrepresenting the number of sources consulted breaches academic integrity codes for three reasons:

  • such practices represent attempts to obtain grades by avoiding required work and, as such, are forms of cheating
  • such practices could lead you to misattribute and misrepresent source material and are thus irresponsible research practices
  • such practices constitute a form of falsification and fabrication