Integrating Source Material with Your Ideas

When style guides want you to list sources at the end, they only want you to list the sources that you have actually cited in your work. It is not enough to have the required number of sources in the list of references at the end of your project. Instead, you must actually use those sources in the text. This means that the sources cannot simply be decoration.

You can use the instructions for checking citations as a technical way to check that you have referenced all of your sources, but beyond the technical necessity of having in-text citations for all of your sources, but more is involved in using sources well.

Quoting and Paraphrasing Successfully

Every time you use information from another source, you have to cite that material. But what else do you have to include? It depends on how many sources you are bringing together, but in general, you will need to have these elements:

  • Some attribution for the source, usually in the form of an attribute tag and/or a citation
  • The quotation itself (only if you are quoting; you don’t need this if you are just paraphrasing)
  • A paraphrase of the text you are using
  • A connection to your claim in the paragraph or in the paper as a whole

Attributive Tags and Citations

An attributive tag is usually a quick phrase that indicates who said the words you are quoting or where the information comes from. For example, you could begin your introduction of the source material with “Jones argues …,” or  “According to the National Institutes of Health ….” This approach works best when you are using a single source.

However, sometimes, you don’t want to highlight the source, or you are following a style guide that only wants references to sources in citations. Citations can serve the same purpose in many circumstances, and they work particularly well when you are paraphrasing multiple sources.

Quotations and Paraphrases

If you are quoting, you need the quotation, obviously. Less obvious, however, is that you usually need a paraphrase even when you are quoting from a source—simply because your reader needs to understand how you understand the quotation you’ve selected. Sometimes, the quotation is so plain that a paraphrase is simply redundant, but more often, you need the paraphrase to point out what you think is important about the quotation.

It may seem easier to quote complete sentences, even if you need to write additional sentences of paraphrase. However, one way to increase the level of sophistication in your writing is to quote the bare minimum of what you need from the passage you have selected and to use a paraphrase to explain the idea behind the full passage. This mixture of paraphrase and quotation demonstrates very well your understanding of the material, and it shows your reader that you are working actively to explain what the original says.

Example: Increasing Your Sophistication

Let’s look at an example of the kind of difference in sophistication level that I am talking about. Nikk Ogasa reported on “ghost games” in soccer and the effects on referees for the site ScienceNews. Here’s a paragraph from that story:

“Referees indeed give advantage to the home teams, because of the crowds,” Leitner [a sports psychologist who is one of the researchers on this study] says. But the findings suggest that referee bias tends to disappear when fans do. While it’s natural for people to change their opinions under pressure from others, Leitner says, hopefully this work can help referees become more aware of their biases. “When you know it, you can train against it.”

The ideas in this paragraph are central to the point that referees have bias when fans are present. I could choose to quote full sentences from this paragraph:

Ogasa reports that “’Referees indeed give advantage to the home teams, because of the crowds,’ Leitner [a sports psychologist who is one of the researchers on this study] says. But the findings suggest that referee bias tends to disappear when fans do.”

However, if I choose just the words I really want to quote and blend in paraphrase, my explanation will be clearer and my own writing will be stronger:

According to research by sports psychologists at the University of Salzburg in Austria, referees are affected by the presences of fans. They found that referees favor home teams when crowds are present, but “that referee bias tends to disappear when the fans do” (Ogasa).

Most of my paragraph is paraphrase, but I have kept a little quotation, selected specifically because it is phrased so well (remember the reasons for quoting!). The result is a much more sophisticated version of the material.

Making Connections Between the Source and Your Ideas

Finally, your reader needs you to make a connection between the source you have quoted and/or paraphrased and the claim you are making. In other words, it is not enough to drop a quotation in and expect your reader to understand, even if you properly paraphrase and cite it. Your reader also needs to know how you think this source is connected to your point.

Students sometimes tell me that they don’t include this because they think the quotation speaks for itself. But in academic writing, you cannot make that assumption. Your readers need that explanation, even if the connection seems obvious to you. Remember that readers (including your professor!) want to hear you, not just your sources, so make your ideas clear. You can also use this as an opportunity for paragraph development, which will help you meet your word count.

There are no rules about where this explanation appears. Sometimes it appears after you have presented the source material, but it can also appear before—or both. The connections you make can also appear in your topic sentence.

Differing Numbers of Sources

What you need to include changes a bit depending on how many sources are involved.

Using a Single Source

If you are focusing attention on one source in a paragraph, you need to have all of the elements listed above. Your reader needs to know why you have focused attention on this particular source, so your explanations may be more specific or involved. Don’t be afraid to give your reader a little extra information about the source itself or the background behind the material you are using. And definitely make a clear connection between that source and your point in the paragraph.

Using Multiple Sources

If you are focusing an idea and using multiple sources in the same paragraph, what you need to include changes a bit, though the parts are all still present:

  • Attribution, which usually comes in the form of citation for all sources when there are multiple sources
  • Information from the sources, usually in the form of paraphrase, but quotations can also be appropriate, if used sparingly
  • Explanatory sentences that connect the source material to your claim in the paper

When you are using multiple sources in the same paragraph, it can be easy to get caught up in using those sources, and forget the explanation. Don’t! Your reader needs that explanation.

Sometimes, though, you may need to use a couple of paragraphs to fully present the ideas from multiple sources and the explanation to go with it. There is nothing wrong with that. Remember that some topics take more than one paragraph to explain.

Key Points: Integrating Source Material with Your Ideas

  • Each time you use source material in your writing, you need the following
    • A reference to the source in a citation or attributive tag
    • A quotation (if you are quoting)
    • A paraphrase, even if you are quoting, unless the meaning of the quotation would be completely obvious to your reader
    • An explanation that connects the idea of your source to the point in your paragraph or in your paper as a whole.
  • Your quotation use can be more sophisticated if you minimize the number of words you quote and incorporate them into paraphrases.
  • When you are using only one source, you can provide your reader with additional information about that source, assuming the style you are using allows for that.
  • When you are using multiple sources in a paragraph, you will rarely quote, and your citations will often contain references to multiple entries in your references list.


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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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