Acknowledging Your Sources

There are a variety of reasons for acknowledging the sources upon which you have built your own work. Here are the key reasons:

  • To distinguish your own work from that of your sources.
  • To receive credit for the research you’ve done on a project.
  • To establish the credibility and authority of your knowledge and ideas.
  • To place your own ideas in context, locating your work in the larger intellectual conversation about your topic.
  • To permit your reader to pursue your topic further by reading more about it.
  • To permit your reader to check on your use of source material.

In all of these reasons, the essential element is intellectual honesty. You must provide your reader with an honest representation of your work so that the reader may evaluate its merits fairly. Proper citation demonstrates the depth and breadth of your reading—in effect, documenting the hard work you’ve put into your research. Proper citation permits a reader to determine the extent of your knowledge of the topic. And, most important, proper citation permits a reader to more readily understand and appreciate your original contribution to the subject. In contrast, a very well-informed, complex, or sophisticated piece of work, without adequate or accurate acknowledgment of sources, will only provoke your reader’s concern or suspicion.

Such intellectual honesty is important, not only for your reader, but also for you as the author. For example, you may footnote a paper diligently only to discover that you can hardly find an original idea or sentence of your own. Then you’ll know you have more work to do in order to develop a substantial original idea or thesis.

This website emphasizes the positive reasons for properly citing your sources rather than the negative consequences for failing to do so. You need to know, however, that those consequences can be severe. Failure to acknowledge the sources—textual, personal, electronic—upon which you’ve relied is a serious breach of academic integrity. Such a failure can lead to the accusation of plagiarism—defined in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities as: “The use of any outside source without proper acknowledgment. ‘Outside source’ means any work, published or unpublished, by any person other than the student.” (2.4.7) Plagiarism is a very serious charge at Princeton, and it can result in disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion. The disciplinary process is explained later on this website.

The most important thing to know is this: if you fail to cite your sources, whether deliberately or inadvertently, you will still be found responsible for the act of plagiarism. Ignorance of academic regulations or the excuse of sloppy or rushed work does not constitute an acceptable defense against the charge of plagiarism. As a Princeton student, you’re expected to have read and understood the University’s academic regulations as described in this website and in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities. In fact, you must type the following sentence and sign your name on each piece of work you submit: “This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.” For electronic submissions, you may type your name preceded by the notation /s/, which stands for “signature.” This signed pledge symbolizes your adherence to the University’s core values of honesty and integrity in intellectual work.