Given that this site may be a bit more scientific than some of the other sites in the Stack Exchange network, and as mentioned in this related meta question we will often be linking to non-free books / research papers / etc, it is very important that we cite properly and give proper attribution to prior works of others.

Given that this still is a Stack Exchange site, and answers are not actual papers, what is sufficient / best practice on this site for giving attribution? In a proper research paper a reference section would be the proper way to do this, but that's rather overkill. Is a simple link giving credit enough?

  • 1
    Good question. This is important and distinct from the issue of stylistic conventions about referencing. Jan 25, 2012 at 2:30
  • @Jeromy I felt it was so important it needed it's own topic, but if you feel I'm duplicating yours I'll vote to close!
    – Josh
    Jan 25, 2012 at 2:32
  • I completely agree that it needs its own meta question. Jan 25, 2012 at 2:36
  • 2
    Footnotes are 100% NOT the only way to give proper attribution and are in fact not standard APA format; footnotes harm readability and encourage readers NOT to make the link between statement and reference. I edited your question to say "reference section" instead as this IS required in journal articles.
    – Ben Brocka
    Jan 25, 2012 at 13:13
  • Thanks @BenBrocka! Having never written a journal article I was unsure :-)
    – Josh
    Jan 25, 2012 at 13:25

1 Answer 1


If a statement made in an answer is derived from a particular source, the link between the statement and the source should be made clear. For example,

  • If the statement is a direct quote, then it should be in quotation marks or use the indented quotation markup feature.
  • If the statement summarises the ideas of another source, then statements like "Author X suggests" or "Author X states" or "Author X found", are good strategies, etc.

Of course, there are many ways of communicating the link between statement and source. The important point is that the writing communicate this link.

Perhaps some notes I wrote a while back on how to write a literature review are of some relevance.

Making the link clear: Good literature reviews clearly communicate the relationship between a statement and an accompanying citation. Is the citation a baseless assertion, an established theory, or an empirical finding? The following examples tend to be superior to ending a sentence with a mystery citation: “A study by Smith showed”, “Smith has suggested that”, “Smith has theorised”, “Smith obtained results supporting the idea that”. Good literature reviews give a sense of the strength and nature of the evidence provided by the citation. Putting an author’s name at the end of a sentence tends to not fulfil this need. Thus, the words around the citation can explain the reasons why the author asserted the idea in the first place. Did the author base the claim on common sense? Was it an empirical finding? Was it based on the summary of a set of empirical results or meta-analysis?

For example: Poor: “Perceptual speed, psychomotor and general abilities relate to the three phases of skill acquisition in different ways (Ackerman, 1988).” Better: “Ackerman (1988) has theorised that perceptual speed, psychomotor and general abilities relate to skill acquisition phases in different ways.” Even Better: “Ackerman (1988) performed a series of large sample empirical studies using a range of simple psychomotor tasks which provided partial support for his theory that perceptual speed, psychomotor and general abilities relate to skill acquisition phases in different ways.”

  • Nice answer, thanks! So would you say how I handled attribution here is acceptable? (Specifically attribution to Patrick David Wall)
    – Josh
    Jan 25, 2012 at 2:38
  • @Josh looks fine to me. Jan 25, 2012 at 2:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .