How do first-year writing students cite research?

A large-scale citation analysis


Research-based writing is a foundational component of freshman and advanced writing programs across the nation. Regardless of scope or prompt, research-based writing springboards students into conversations about information literacy, academic integrity, and source evaluation. Just as freshman composition serves as the near-universal introduction to college-level writing and analysis, the research-based writing assignment introduces students to the concepts of academic research and scholarly conversation. My presentation will showcase citation data analyzed from over 2000 freshman composition citations in order to help define weaknesses in freshman information literacy abilities and source discrimination techniques.

literature review + research questions

Many researchers have already begun to probe student citations for what they can uncover about student research and writing patterns. The citation project, for example, collects and analyzes student citations in order to discuss plagiarism in first-year writing (Moore; Sandra; Serviss). These projects dig into student writing and examine the context around a student’s in-text citations. Citation analysis has also been used to evaluate the effectiveness of one-shot library instruction (Mohler; Silfen and Zgoda; Ursin and Lindsay; Howard), the impact of course-mandated citation guidelines (Carlson; Davis; Robinson and Schlegl), and the frequency of different source-types in bibliographies (Cooke and Rosenthal; Gadd, Baldwin and Norris; Jenkins; Krause; Leiding; Mill). Previous studies have used rubrics that measure sources on scales such as “outstanding,” “acceptable,” or “unacceptable” (Lantz). These rubrics assign value to sources without categorizing what types of sources are appearing with relative frequency. While those citation analysis studies help to improve research-based writing by examining student writing bordering in-text citations, so far very few of these studies attempt to define the shape of student citation patterns in the works cited page itself–specifically within the first-year writing classroom. This presentation will do just that by attempting to answer the following questions: 


To uncover the shape of research in this corpus, we conducted a citation analysis on 200 papers and 2048 citations from students enrolled in a 2019 semester of first-year writing. Because we had many questions, we broke data analysis into 4 passes. The purpose and methodology for each pass is outlined below:

Pass 1: Organize and clean data

Pass 2: Perform citation analysis

Pass 3: Assess accuracy of sources (superficial “correctness”)

Pass 4: Label publisher for each source

results + initial discussion

What types of sources are students citing?

This graph on the right shows that students are overwhelmingly citing peer-reviewed, academic sources. Their next go-to source types are popular and self-published sources.

This is just another way to look at what types of sources students are using. Maybe it’s easier for you contextualize this data when it is seen as a percentage of a whole instead of just as a bar.

How accurately are students citing sources?

While these categories are rather broad, they do help inform us that students are generally able to mimic the forms of MLA convention. 

How old are student sources?

Not old. In fact, very, very young. I broke this data down into discrete sections to see how old popular sources were, how old books were, how old academic articles were, but there is not much difference. 

std dev12.84746128

How many sources are students using?

Students are using ~10 sources per paper on average. I’m pretty sure that the template assignment page that the new GSIs get every August says 8-10, so that is about as expected. But now we know.

std dev4.402192236

What sources are students citing the most?

The most popular sources are almost all popular news outlets. In fact, the first non-popular source that appears “PLoS ONE” is a database similar to EEBSCO rather than an individual magazine or publisher.

There is a huge spread. The most popular source is only 1.4% of the total citations. Of the 1037 citations coded in pass 4, there 837 sources used only once.

For a full list of the most popular sources, click the tab below labeled “Open full list.”


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Cooke, R., & Rosenthal, D. (2011). Students Use More Books after Library Instruction: An Analysis of Undergraduate Paper Citations | Cooke | College & Research Libraries. College & Research Libraries, 72(4), 332–343.
Davis, P. M. (2003). Effect of the Web on Undergraduate Citation Behavior: Guiding Student Scholarship in a Networked Age. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 3(1), 41–51.
Gadd, E., Baldwin, A., & Norris, M. (2010). The citation behaviour of Civil Engineering students. Journal of Information Literacy, 4(2), 37–49.
Howard, K., Nicholas, T., Hayes, T., & Appelt, C. W. (2014). Evaluating One-Shot Library Sessions: Impact on the Quality and Diversity of Student Source Use. Community & Junior College Libraries, 20(1–2), 27–38.
Howard, R. M. (2016). Plagiarism in Higher Education: An Academic Literacies Issue? – Introduction. In T. Bretag (Ed.), Handbook of Academic Integrity (pp. 499–501). Springer.
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Robinson, A. M., & Schlegl, K. (2004). Student Bibliographies Improve When Professors Provide Enforceable Guidelines for Citations. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 4(2), 275–290.
Sandra, J. (2016). What the Citation Project Tells Us about Information Literacy in College Composition. In B. D’Angelo, S. Jamieson, B. Maid, & J. R. Walker (Eds.), Information Literacy: Research and Collaboration Across Disciplines (pp. 115–138). The WAC Clearinghouse.
Serviss, T., & Jamieson, S. (2018). Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods. University Press of Colorado.
Silfen, K., & Zgoda, K. (2008). Evidence-Based Practice and Information Literacy in Social Work: An Assessment of Students’ Reference Lists. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 27(2), 104–115.
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