Citing – Part I: Why Use Citations?

Citing is a form of reference that is essential to many non-fiction books. To cite is to acknowledge that you are drawing on something or someone else to make your own claims and conclusions. However, many authors struggle to understand the purpose of a citation. What will a citation bring to my work? Here are three important reasons citations exist:

Giving Credit: If you come up with a brilliant way to be successful in business, would do want someone else to take that idea and not give you credit? I did not think so. The main purpose for citing is to give credit where credit is due. If you someone else’s ideas are foundational to your own, then it is important to acknowledge that. There is no shame in telling your reader that you did not come up with every idea under the sun. They already know that to be the case. Your reader came to you because they trust or value your perspective on the wealth of information already available.

Helping the Reader: One of the greatest gifts citations bring to writing is expanding conversations. To write a book is to enter yourself into a conversation—be it the history of person or how to navigate the healthcare industry. A citation tells your reader, “If you like this idea, go here for some further information.” Your book cannot cover everything; therefore, anything you think is valuable, but beyond the scope of your book, can be cited to help further expand your reader’s knowledge. Giving your reader this additional information will also engender their trust, because they will see you are invested in their overall understanding and well-being.

Legality: No one wants to be told they plagiarized something. It sounds like you stole something, that you did something illegal. The truth is, to not cite someone for their ideas is plagiarism, it is stealing and illegal. When someone writes down an idea, it gives copyright over those ideas. To use those ideas without permission and acknowledgement is illegal and can result in legal action. However, just because you cite something does not mean you are completely protected from legal action. Using a citation means you did not steal the ideas, but you generally still need permission to even use the ideas. The issue of permission is different for the type of book you are doing; each field of study has different expectations. Talk with your editor to determine what you need for your book.

When you are writing your book, ask yourself these questions. If you say yes to any of them, you probably need citations.

“Did I do any research to write this book?”

“Did I go on Wikipedia (or any other information aggregator)?”

“Did I copy and paste from a website, book, or copyright-able material?”

“Am I a novice, or untrained, in this field of study?”

“Am I summarizing a complicated or generally unknown concept that I did not originate?”

Citations may seem superfluous or you may think that your book contains only your ideas. However, to create non-fiction content, in many cases, is to expand, complicate, or challenge existing ideas. Ultimately, understanding the value of citations will make you a better writer, show your investment in the ongoing dialogue, and want your readers to succeed.