When and What to Document or Cite
Most facts are common knowledge or public record and do not need to be documented: when Charles Lindbergh was born, how long his flight from New York to Paris was, when he died, where he is buried.
Of course, this may be information you didn’t know until you began researching. However, because these are all easily verifiable facts that are not questioned or disputed, they do not require documentation.
Ideas or opinions are not common knowledge. These must be gathered from reputable sources and must be documented.
The year-long investigation into TWA Flight 800 is a good example. Federal Aviation Administration officials hold the opinion that mechanical failure caused the crash. Pierre Salinger’s opinion is that a Navy missile was the cause. Ideas from both sides of this controversy must be documented.
Statistics and studies also require citations because sources can interpret numbers or results differently. When the President announces that inflation rose 3 percent but leading economists say 7.55, an intelligent reader asks where the facts and figures each side is using came from.
Paraphrase vs. Direct Quote
This method is useful for long blocks of information. You rephrase the author’s idea in YOUR own words. A doctor, for instance, might tell you, “You have sustained an acute myocardial infarction.”
Someone who understands medical jargon can paraphrase the doctor’s message: “You’ve had a serious heart attack.” That person put the doctor’s exact words into a shorter, easier-to-understand form without changing the meaning.
Notice that paraphrasing someone else’s words does not require quotation marks.
You reproduce the author’s exact words inside quotation marks, copying words and punctuation exactly as they appear.
This method works better than paraphrasing when the impact of the statement would be lost by changing the author’s words.
For example, in July 1969, millions of Americans watched TV as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder from his spacecraft, stepped onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The impact of that first moonwalk would have been destroyed if reporters had tried to paraphrase Armstrong’s words on that historic occasion.
WARNING: Do not overuse direct quotes! Many student writers string quotes together like beads on a necklace. This kind of “writing” will not satisfy most instructors, who want your ideas and opinions about the topic, not just a copy of what other writers have said.
Adapted from Jean Sherry’s MLA Guidelines for Simplified Documentation