Using Sources

A central aspect of writing scientific texts is using sources. Using sources makes your text more credible, complex and generally more interesting to the reader (as opposed to a text which merely outlines one person’s thoughts and ideas). When you write about a study that you have conducted, sources are also used to highlight the contribution of the study.

Whenever you use sources – text, illustrations or figures from them – you need to clearly signal where you have found the material and how you have used it. An important part of doing that is providing clear references. You need to provide clear references for several reasons: to enable the reader to find the information and in that way assess your work, to indicate that you are a conscientious student, and to avoid plagiarism.

Different Ways of Using Sources: Quoting and Paraphrasing

There are different ways of using sources in your text, and awareness about the different ways enables you to use sources with precision. You may quote or paraphrase. Quoting means that you use the words of the original text, whereas paraphrasing means that you use your own words when you relate information or illustrations from sources. In medical writing, paraphrasing is much more common than quoting.


When you quote, you use information from your source word by word – and in addition to providing a source, you must also use quotation marks. As mentioned, quotes are not very common in medical writing; they should only be used when not merely the information, but also the exact words are important. One such example is when a definition is provided. In some kinds of studies, quotes are more common than in other kinds. One such example is interview studies, since the exact words of an informant may be central and may also give readers a better sense of your interview results.


When you paraphrase, you provide information from one or several sources using your own words. Paraphrases are very common in academic writing; in fact, if you do not have a strong reason for quoting, you need to use your own words. Paraphrasing may entail communicating exact information from one source, or summarizing several different sources or several pages from the same source into a sentence or two.

Different Ways of Indicating Sources in Your Text

There are different ways of indicating sources in your text: you may provide just the reference and not mention the authors at all, or you may both mention the authors and give a reference. You may also mention something about the study in your text (but not the names of the authors) and provide a reference. These different ways of indicating sources signal slightly different things and are used to different extents in different parts of the scientific text.

Common knowledge

There are some occasions when you do not need to provide a source when you state something: when you relate something “commonly known” in your text, that is, something that everyone is supposed to know. It may however be difficult to determine what is “commonly known” as it depends on the context as well as the intended readers. If in doubt, it is always better to provide a reference when one is not strictly needed than to not provide one.


Plagiarism means using someone else’s results, words, or illustrations without clearly showing that they are not one’s own. It also means re-using one’s own work without being transparent about it. Plagiarism may, for example, mean that a person:

  • cuts and pastes an entire text, or parts of it, and then uses the material in their own text without indicating the source.
  • cuts and pastes an entire text, or parts of it, and then uses the material in their own text – even if there is a reference. If quotation marks have not been used, the person has plagiarized the words of the text.
  • copies another student’s text.
  • works too closely with another student (if the teacher has not assigned group work)
  • submits an assignment that they have previously submitted for another course and their current teacher has not approved the re-submission.

In all the cases above, it appears as though the person has done more work than they actually have, which makes assessment unfair. Deliberate plagiarism is a serious offence which may cause a person to be suspended from their studies for up to six months.

Still uncertain?

If you feel uncertain about using sources in your text, you may make an appointment with Academic Writing Support to discuss your text. You can also ask your teacher; it is much better to ask before you hand in your assignment than to risk being suspected of plagiarism. If you are still not sure, remember that it is better to give a reference when one is not strictly needed than to omit one that your reader expects.

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Academic Writing Support

Academic Writing Support helps you improve your academic writing, reading and oral presentation skills, as well as your popular science writing. 

Last updated: 2021-08-22