Speaking with Citation

Citation is one of the distinguishing features of scholarly speaking. The literary theorist Kenneth Burke compares intellectual engagement to a never-ending conversation—a conversation that started before you joined and will continue after you leave. Your job as a scholar is to catch up on what’s been said before your arrival so that you’re able to contribute something that might change the direction of the conversation that ensues.  

 If you think about academic scholarship as a conversation, citation: 

  • allows you to demonstrate your knowledge of the conversation; 
  • helps you bring your audience up to speed on the conversation—remember, many audience members are involved in different conversations and don’t share your expertise;
  • establishes the relevance and importance of your contribution to the conversation, i.e., your argument 

In an oral setting, we put the metaphor of a scholarly conversation into action. Citation can present some unique challenges, though. The tools you might use in writing—footnotes, for example—are not available. Without these tools, how will you communicate what others have said about your research subject?  

Below, you will find examples of different forms of citation you might include in an academic oral presentation. Remember that no two presentations are the same, and make sure to reflect on which techniques work best for your specific needs. 

Without the benefit of a written bibliography, you’ll likely have to be more selective in what you choose to cite orally. What criteria might you use to determine which among your sources are best to cite?

While the conventions for citation differ in an oral setting, academic presentations are subject to the same expectations for academic integrity as scholarly writing: you must cite any words and ideas that are not your own. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Be sure to provide enough information so your listeners will be able to track down the sources you cite in your presentation.  
  • In general, there’s no need to provide page number citations for quotations like you would in written work. 
  • You can also use slides to provide bibliographical information, whether during the presentation or at its conclusion. 

In written scholarship, there are many conventions for indicating when you are quoting from someone else’s work—quotation marks, indentation, footnotes, parenthetical citations. Here you can learn about some of the conventions we use in spoken scholarship.   

  • Presenters often say “quote” at the beginning of the quoted passage and “unquote” or “end quote” when the quotation is finished.  
  • If you’re integrating words from another source into your own sentence, making “air quotes” with your fingers can be less disruptive.  
  • In either case, make sure to frame your quotation with the necessary contextual information: whose words are you quoting, and why?

Sometimes you may want to do more than bring in a brief quotation – you may want to summarize a source that is important to your research. An effective summary will explain, in your own voice, your source’s original contribution to the scholarly conversation you’re entering. You can provide a stand-alone summary, or a “literature review,” which brings multiple summaries into conversation with one another to provide an overview of existing scholarship on your research subject. 

 You can learn more about using literature reviews to identify "research gaps" in our Joining the Conversation guide.

Tip: Be careful not to allow another scholar’s argument to overwhelm your own. Typically your goal won't be to recap everything another scholar says, but only to underline what’s most relevant for your own argument. Always summarize with a purpose.

Starting from a more extensive bibliography, determine which are the two or three most important, relevant, or exemplary recent works on your subject. Practice explaining—to yourself or to a friend—how these sources can be placed in conversation with one another. 

Academic research includes references to many kinds of texts. Sometimes you will give a brief quote, sometimes a longer summary. Sometimes a source will be foundational to your whole project--providing a theoretical or methodological foundation for your presentation. These kinds of sources can be especially complex, so be sure to provide your audience an explanation that gives them the best chance to understand the ideas. Here are strategies scholars sometimes use:

  • Paraphrasing can be more effective than quoting, particularly in an oral setting.  
  • Including a quotation on a slide, or repeating it for listeners, can help them keep up. 
  • Paraphrasing after a quotation can give the audience an extra chance to hear and understand the idea. 
  • Avoiding highly specific language, or jargon, when possible, or else providing definitions of these special terms, can also help.

Defining your key terms is an important way you can anticipate your audience’s needs. Providing a definition is all about making sure you and your audience have the same understanding of how you’re using a specific term. Sometimes a technical or theoretical term will need to be explained for your audience. In other instances, you’ll want to define a term that is likely familiar to your audience but being used in a way that’s specific to your context. In either case, it’s important that your definition explains how you will be using the term.

Tip: The definition should be clarifying for your audience, so it likely shouldn't include more technical language that will only complicate things further.

In many disciplines, you’ll be citing not just other scholars’ ideas, but also their data. Make sure to indicate what studies any data is drawn from, as well as contextual information that might help your audience evaluate its relevance to your presentation. In some circumstances, for example, it might be important to indicate when, where, and how a study was conducted.

Tip: Slides can help convey complex data to your audience.