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College-Level Writing: Sources & Citations

In our last installment, I introduced you to Natasha, a star student who was surprised when she got to college and realized her writing still needed to develop quite a bit to meet her professors’ standards.

We’ve already discussed the basics of formulating an argument based on your own academic research and conclusions, but Natasha still needs to get comfortable with using her sources properly—both to remain academically honest and also to make sure her argument has all the force it deserves!

That’s right, it’s time to chat citation.


There are two main types of research sources: primary and secondary.

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or moment in history, generated by people or institutions who either participated in the event or otherwise experienced it directly. Primary sources could include newspaper reports, diary entries, speeches, interviews, datasets, survey results, or visual evidence like photographs.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, are a step removed from the primary sources, but have used the primary sources to analyze or interpret an event or set of events. Secondary sources could include books, data reports, scholarly articles, or documentaries.

In most college-level writing courses, you will be required to know the difference between these two categories of research materials and how to engage with each effectively to produce your own argument or thesis on a particular topic.

For example, if you were enrolled in a history course about the Scientific Revolution and you needed to write a paper about the impact of lens instruments like telescopes and microscopes on the process of scientific discovery, your professor might require that you use at least three primary sources and at least three secondary sources in support of your thesis. This requirement would ensure that you demonstrated your ability to consider the interpretations of other historians in the process of investigating the historical context of the invention of telescopes and microscopes for yourself.


No matter what style of citation you are asked to use, all college-level research papers will require that you cite your primary and secondary sources clearly and consistently.

If you don’t cite correctly, you may be accused of sloppy research, or, in the worst case scenario, plagiarism.

There are various citation standards, but the most commonly used in college are the MLA and the Chicago style. Your professors should instruct you on which they prefer.

The MLA (Modern Language Association) standard is often prefered for papers in the social sciences, and applies to the format of your entire paper: Times New Roman font, size 12, double-spaced, 1-inch margins on all sides. The structure of source citations differs depending on the source, which is one of the reasons why it’s important for you to understand primary versus secondary source material. Generally speaking, when you use a source in the text, you will cite it in abbreviated form parenthetically and then include the full citation in a Works Cited section at the end of your paper.  For more information on how to use the MLA style for citing your sources, visit the MLA Style Center.

The Chicago style of citation is often preferred for papers in the humanities and differs from the MLA style mainly in its use of footnotes and endnotes instead of in-text parenthetical citations. This helps to ensure that heavily-cited research papers (i.e. rigorously researched arguments!) demonstrate credibility without sacrificing flow. For more information on how to use the Chicago style for citing your sources, visit the Chicago Manual of Style.