Why must I document sources?

You must document sources of information in academic papers because using information that someone else has created, discovered or collected without giving him or her credit is theft of intellectual property (when this applies specifically to textual work, it is usually called "plagiarism"). Professors often spend their lives producing such information and have little or no patience with those who attempt to steal it.

This doesn't mean that you can't use information or resources created by someone else; on the contrary, a free exchange of ideas is one of the forces that drives intellectual discovery. You simply have to let everyone know what your sources are and where they come from.

But not all sources are equally valuable, especially for academic work. If you are writing a paper on Shakespeare, for example, information you gather from a class lecture is more authoritative than that drawn from another student's essay, but less authoritative than information you read in an essay published in a scholarly journal. Your professor usually knows much more about the topic than your roommate--but that lecture may be partly spontaneous, peppered with interesting comments and opinions that wouldn't stand up to review by other scholars. One of the reasons you need to make your sources clear is so that your readers (including you) can evaluate the evidence you're using to support your thesis.


Do not merely repeat information from a class lecture as accepted fact! Cite such information as a class lecture. Professors generally don't appreciate having their lectures recycled as papers with your name on them.

Natalie Grinnell
Wofford College
429 North Church Street
Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303
Last Update: July 17, 2009