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How to Cite Web Sources

The web has made it easier than ever to do research, but citing web sources in a paper can be a major challenge. How do you cite a website if you can't determine who wrote it? What about if you aren't sure what individual or organization sponsors the site or when particular material was posted online?

Because of issues like these, you might be tempted to not cite web sources. But if you don't, or if you cite them improperly, you're committing cyber-plagiarism. And if you plagiarize, it's likely you'll be caught. Nowadays, professors not only plug suspicious passages into search engines, but also scour web sites that sell papers and Internet forums that abet plagiarism. Many schools use sophisticated software and/or subscribe to online programs to detect plagiarism.

So educate yourself about how to cite web sources. Here's some information to get you started.

When to Cite Web Sources

The rules for when to cite are the same for print and Internet sources.

Do cite:

  • Direct quotations
  • Ideas that you get from a source but express in your own words
  • Statistics and other facts/figures

Cite all the sources you use in these ways, even those written in a casual tone, like a blog or a post in a comment thread.

Do not cite:

  • Your own original ideas
  • Information that is widely-known

Unsure whether something is common knowledge? Check with your instructor or be safe by citing the source.

How to Cite Web Sources

After finding a website that you want to use, do some investigating. Who is the author? When was the material posted? Does an organization sponsor the site? If this information isn't on a web page, check the site's homepage or click the "about this site" link. You still might come up empty-handed. Bloggers often write under screen names only. Wiki sites, like Wikipedia, allow any user to post or edit content, often anonymously. You should reconsider citing from Wikipedia, blogs and similar sites unless you can ascertain how authoritative/accurate they are.

Ask your instructor which citation manual to use. Commonly-used manuals include the Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook and the Chicago Manual of Style. Current editions of these and other manuals demonstrate how to cite a variety of Internet sources in the text of your paper and in works cited or bibliography pages.

Look over the appropriate manual before you start writing, so you can use strategies to cut down on the number of citations or make them less obtrusive. For instance, you might employ a signal phrase to clarify that one of your paragraphs is paraphrased entirely from a particular web page, avoiding repetitive citations throughout the paragraph.

Manuals also specify how to handle tricky situations common to the Internet. For example, if a blog author provides both a name and screenname, in your works cited entry you should put the screenname first and then the author name in brackets, according to the MLA Handbook. Also be aware of stipulations about citing specific web pages versus sites in general.

Finally, good news: the web has in some ways made citing sources easier. There are sites that organize electronic source material and generate proper bibliographic citations. You can ask you instructor or a research librarian about these, but be sure you always refer to the manuals and double-check your work.

General rule of thumb: always err on the side of caution. You'd much rather cite too often than get in academic trouble for plagiarism.

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