MLA Research and Citation

Kirk Fontenot

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Define the purpose of citation
  • Correctly use in-text citations
  • Write a properly formatted Works Cited page

Introduction to Citation

There are two main reasons why we research:

  1. To learn new information.
  2. To give credibility to our writing.

Of course, if no one knows that we have conducted the research, then it does nothing for our credibility. This is why we cite our sources, both in the text of the essay and at the end in a Works Cited page or bibliography.

MLA stands for Modern Language Association. This professional organization publishes a handbook of rules and standards that you should use when formatting your papers and citing your sources. MLA is generally used when writing about the liberal arts and the humanities; other disciplines may use other formatting guides, such as APA (American Psychological Association).

In this module, you will develop your skills in citing your research in an essay, using both in-text citation (also called parenthetical citation) and a Works Cited page. Specifically, this chapter will focus on MLA citation.

Integrating sources into your essay

When you mention information in your essay that came from an outside source, it’s a good idea to use a signal phrase to introduce that information. You want it to be extra clear that the information came from a source, not from your own experience.

Some common and easy-to-use signal phrases include:

According to (author’s name), …

In (author name)’s view, …

In (title of article or book), (author’s name) states that…

The author points out that…. She [or he] also stresses that…

You can vary the signal phrases by using one of the following verbs instead of state, point out, or stress:

























What is the difference between a direct quote and a paraphrase?

Direct quote

Direct quotes are placed in quotation marks and are taken word-for-word from the source. Direct quotations draw attention to key passages. Include a direct quotation in a paper only if:

  • you want to retain the beauty or clarity of someone’s words
  • you need to reveal how the reasoning in a specific passage is flawed or insightful
  • you plan to discuss the implications of the quoted material

Can you make changes to a direct quote? Yes!

If you need to clarify a quotation by changing it in any way, place square brackets around the added or changed words.

“In this role, he successfully conveys a wide range of emotion.”

“In this role, he [Robin Williams] successfully conveys a wide range of emotion.”

The brackets clearly indicate to your reader that this is added information that did not appear in the original, but it does not change the intended meaning.

If you want to omit part of a quotation, replace the deleted words with ellipsis points.

“Overseas markets such as China, India, and Korea, which have rapidly growing middle classes, are critical to the financial success of Hollywood films.”

“Overseas markets…are critical to the financial success of Hollywood films.”

The second example has deleted information from the original quote that was not necessary for that writer’s thesis. The basic meaning is still there.

When modifying a quotation, be sure not to alter its essential meaning.

Why are you quoting this?

Readers will also want to know how a quotation is related to the point you are making.

When the connection is not readily apparent, provide an explanation in a sentence or two following the quotation.

Don’t assume your quote is self-explanatory!

What is a paraphrase?

paraphrase is a restatement of someone else’s ideas in approximately the same number of words.

Paraphrasing allows you to demonstrate that you have understood what you have read. It also enables your audience to understand it.

Paraphrase when you want to:

  • clarify difficult material by using simpler language
  • use someone else’s ideas but not their exact words
  • create a consistent tone for your paper as a whole
  • interact with a point that a source has made

Any paraphrase must accurately maintain the sense of the original.

Caution: If you unintentionally misrepresent the original because you did not understand it, you are being inaccurate.

If you deliberately change the gist of what a source says, you are being unethical.

What about summarizing?

Summarizing is different from paraphrasing in that a summary is much shorter than the source material.

A paraphrase of a paragraph should also be approximately a paragraph long; a summary of a paragraph may be just one sentence.

The reason that all of the distinctions are important is that we want to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism.

The Basics of In-Text Citation (Also Known as Parenthetical Citation)

When we’re writing an essay using research, it’s important to always be clear when information is coming from a source. A source is any place where we get information—a website, book, journal article, video, news report—really, anything that is not first-hand experience.

We place an in-text citation immediately after whatever information we’ve just written. Whether it’s a direct quote (word-for-word from the source, in quotation marks) or a paraphrase (information rewritten in our own words), we must IMMEDIATELY write an in-text citation, every single time.

In MLA format, generally, you want your in-text citation to include the author’s last name and the page number where you found the information. You put both in parenthesis, and that’s it; you don’t add a comma or “pg” or anything else. Save the period until after the in-text citation, like this:

According to the article “Artificial Intelligence and Intellectual Property” from CQ Researcher, “Some worry that generative AI’s output will become so much like human-generated works that it will be next to impossible to detect—and so pervasive that tracking it down becomes too onerous. It could make college essays obsolete, for example, or at least an endeavor that would have to be completed in class under close scrutiny” (Day 5).

  • The signal phrase tells the reader that the information came from an article from the database CQ Researcher.
  • The quotation marks tell the reader that this is a direct quote, word-for-word from the article.
  • The in-text citation at the end tells the reader that the author of this article is named Day, and the quote came from page 5 of the article. Notice that the period that you might expect to find at the end of the quote is instead found after the in-text citation.

Of course, there will be exceptions to the formatting of your in-text citations. For example, web articles don’t have page numbers, and some articles don’t have a credited author. Below are some examples of what in-text citations will look like in those circumstances.

Examples of In-Text Citations

In-text citation, one author, direct quote:

“Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard 4).

Two authors, direct quote:

“Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard and Smith 4).

Three authors, direct quote:

“Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard et al 4).

No author, direct quote:

“Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (“Fast-Food Shakeout” 4).

Two articles by the exact same author:

“Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard, “Fast-Food Shakeout” 4).


According to Maynard, “Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (“Fast-Food Shakeout” 4).

Direct quote with a signal phrase:

According to Maynard, “Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (4).


According to the article “Fast-Food Shakeout,” “Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard 4).


One change that fast-food restaurants are making is to switch to packaging that is better for the environment, so that the environmental advocates are happy (Maynard 4).

Watch the following video for even more explanation of how in-text citations work:

In-Text Citation in Action!

Some of you may be wondering what this all will actually look like in your essay. Let’s look at a sample body paragraph that incorporates research using direct quotes, paraphrasing, signal phrases, and in-text citations.

When writing the research essay, you will need to read all that you can about your topic and pick out selections you’ll want to mention in your essay—BEFORE you begin writing. It’s a terrible idea to try to skim through articles while you are also drafting your essay. Instead, make an outline, write out quotes that might go in each body paragraph, and add the in-text citations before you begin.

For this example, I’ve already picked out quotes from my sources and copied and pasted them into a blank document. Now I’ll start writing a body paragraph using this formula:

  • Topic sentence (never start with a direct quote)
  • First supporting point (1-2 sentences)
  • Evidence: Direct quote or paraphrase from your source (1-2 sentences)
  • Explanation of the direct quote or paraphrase. How does that prove anything about your topic sentence? (1-2 sentences)
  • Repeat until you have made all your points about that topic

Now I will write my thesis statement. This will be the point I’m making in the whole essay. It will also preview my three supporting points. Each supporting point will then become its own body paragraph!

Thesis statement: The fast-food industry is under pressure to make changes to its packaging, its menus, and its advertising.

And here is my sample body paragraph. Notice how it starts with a topic sentence. It uses only information from my sources, both as direct quotes and as paraphrasing. Each piece of info is immediately followed by an in-text citation.

    The first major change the fast-food industry is under pressure to make is to its packaging. One fast-food place that is making this change right now is Starbucks. According to NPR, “Starbucks announced a goal in 2020 to reduce waste by 50% by 2030” (Shivaram). Starbucks also says that by 2025 they want customers to either use their own cup or a reusable cup they buy from Starbucks (Shivaram). Environmental groups are flexing their muscles and pressuring restaurants like McDonald’s to change packaging. CQ Researcher points out, “Environmentalists are demanding that fast-food chains adopt eco-friendly packaging” (Maynard 4). This pressure is not new. McDonald’s faced this same pressure back in the ’80s. “McDonald’s felt [activists’] early wrath when [they] hatched the ‘McToxics’ campaign in 1987 to persuade the fast-food chain to stop using wasteful Styrofoam clamshell containers, which carry suspected carcinogens” (Raeburn). They are still feeling this pressure. An article from PBS Newshour explains, “[In September 2021], the company announced they will drastically cut its use of plastic by the end of 2025. One way they’ll do that is by replacing the 1 billion children’s toys it sells each year with cardboard or recycled or plant-based plastics” (“McDonald’s Pledges”). Cutting out plastic from Happy Meals will obviously greatly reduce the amount of plastic McDonald’s uses, which is a good thing for the environment. These are all examples of activists putting pressure on fast-food places to change their packaging to be more eco-friendly.

The Works Cited Page

Here is a sample Works Cited page. It is created from the sources used in the sample paragraph above. Notice that you can use the in-text citations to easily find the corresponding article in the Works Cited page.

MLA style Works Cited page with four references.

As you can see, a Works Cited page is essentially just a list of the sources that you use in your paper. However, the list has to be written in a very specific format.

Online databases from your college’s library usually provide MLA citations for you. When reading an article from a database, look for a button or link that says “Cite” or “Cite Now.”

Articles from other web sources or print sources will not provide citations for you. However, you can easily write them yourself! Follow the citations in the sample Works Cited page above like a model. You can also find worksheets online that will walk you through writing a Works Cited citation, like this one: MLA 8th Edition Worksheet: Web Page on a Website (

You can also use shortcut tools that generate a citation for you when you copy and paste the link. However, use these shortcuts with caution. Like with any shortcut, you run the risk of making mistakes. If you use a shortcut tool that you find online, double-check the output to make sure your citation is free of errors. Remember, it is up to you, not the shortcut tool, to be accurate.

Here are eight quick rules for this Works Cited page:

  1. Start a new page for your Works Cited list (e.g., if your paper is 4 pages long, start your Works Cited list on page 5).
  2. Center the title, Works Cited, at the top of the page and do not bold or underline it. Look for the alignment option in Word.
  3. Double-space the list.
  4. Start the first line of each citation at the left margin; each subsequent line should be indented (also known as a “hanging indent”).
  5. Put your list in alphabetical order. Alphabetize the list by the first word in the citation. In most cases, the first word will be the author’s last name. Where the author is unknown, alphabetize by the first word in the title, ignoring the words a, an, the.
  6. For each author, give the last name followed by a comma and the first name followed by a period.
  7. Italicize the titles of full works: books, audiovisual material, and websites.
  8. Do not italicize titles of parts of works, such as articles from newspapers, magazines, or journals/essays; poems; short stories; or chapter titles from a book / chapters or sections of an Internet document. Instead, use quotation marks.

With the Works Cited page, formatting matters. Before you submit your Works Cited page, go to Google, type in “Sample MLA Works Cited,” and click “Images.” You’ll see many examples of how a Works Cited page should look. Compare your Works Cited to the images you see. Yours should look exactly like the ones in the search results. If something about yours is different, make it match the examples.

Your Turn

Choose one of the following options:

Option 1

Read an article on a topic you find interesting. Write a one-paragraph summary of the article. In your summary, include at least one example of each of the following:

  1. A signal phrase that integrates a source into your writing
  2. A direct quote with an in-text citation
  3. A paraphrase with an in-text citation

Option 2

Pick a topic that you find interesting. Find at least three articles on that topic, whether from the web or your library’s databases. Write a Works Cited page using those three articles.

Key Terms

  • Cite
  • Works Cited
  • In-text citation
  • Direct quote
  • Paraphrase
  • Summarize
  • Signal phrase


  • When writing papers in the liberal arts or humanities, use MLA guidelines for formatting and citation.
  • Citing your sources gives appropriate credit and provides authority to your writing.
  • In-text citation credits the source within the text of the paper itself.
  • A Works Cited page is a carefully formatted list of sources used in the paper.
  • A direct quote is word-for-word from the source, while a paraphrase has been reworded.
  • Signal phrases add further clarity to your writing and ensure that proper credit is given to your sources.

Reflective Response

Why do you think it is important to give credit to the sources we use when writing research papers? Put yourself on the other side of the equation: If you published a paper, would you want other writers to give you appropriate credit when they mention your ideas? Why or why not?



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Writing Rhetorically: Framing First Year Writing Copyright © 2022 by Kirk Fontenot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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