Research Paper Basics

Quotations in Research Papers


Before you insert a direct quotation—of any length whatsoever—ask yourself why you are quoting rather than summarizing or paraphrasing. Is it because you do not want to do the work of figuring out what the source really said? Is it because your paper is running short and you want to pad it out? Is it because someone somewhere taught you that a research paper is nothing more than an assortment of quotations?

Your main workhorse should be the indirect quotation, not the direct quotation.

Ta-Nehisi Coats, writing in the Atlantic, claims that unrestrained violence by police is a large part of the problem in our cities (108).

Often just a few words will really drive your point home:

Years later, Coates’ words still ring true: “If citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work” (108).

Quotations should support your ideas but not substitute for your ideas. A string of quotations does not equal a research paper; you must do the critical thinking and make a point of your own.

Here are some criteria for choosing to use a direct quotation:

  1. The quotation is evidence for your own assertion.
  2. The quotation has a scholarly voice that adds authority to your passage.
  3. The quotation adds color or feeling to the essay that would be lost through paraphrasing.

Strategies for direct quotations

Quotation Strategies that Don’t Work Too Well

The epigraph. This is a pithy quotation at the top of the paper that somehow shows the theme. It’s a hackneyed strategy, and while there’s nothing really wrong with it, most teachers consider it filler. If your epigraph doesn’t really relate to your theme, it’s just a waste. Post the brilliant but off-topic quote on Facebook instead.

The translation paper. This strategy consists of a long quotation plus the student’s attempt to show what the author was “trying to say.” One paragraph like this in a paper comes off as annoying and arrogant (both because the writer assumes the original source did a poor job of communicating and because the writer assumes the reader cannot understand ordinary text). If the whole paper is built this way, quotation plus translation, paragraph after paragraph, you can expect a very poor grade because there’s no real thinking involved and you usually have not followed the assignment. If your “translation” is actually wrong, your grade will be disastrous.

The endorsement paper. If you write, “Einstein formulated the relationship between mass and energy as E=mc² and I approve,” you have only demonstrated that you don’t have anything to say. Scholars do not need your approval and the teacher who assigned the essay is not looking for advice on which authors to include in the course next time around. Don’t bother telling us that you liked the source.

Trigger phrases: When you type these (and phrases like them) into a paper, both you and the teacher know that you are about to take flight into a discussion of your own emotions, not the subject matter: “I think that,” “To me this means,” “The author was trying to say,” etc. Do not use a quotation as an excuse to chatter about how you feel about the subject; use it to back up a point you are making.



Dropped Quotations

A “dropped quotation” just falls from the sky into the paper. There’s no introduction telling who said it or why it is interesting or important, and there’s no discussion afterward showing how it supports the point of the paper. Often, dropped quotations simply substitute for the student’s own writing. Here is an example:

For some people in the world it takes a long time for them to notice that they need help and most screw their lives up in the whole process. “Many people feel the compulsion to spend so much time computing that it causes problems with their health, finance, and relationships” (Smith 123). Some of the questions people wonder the answer to are: Who suffers from computer addictions? What does it mean to be addicted? Where can we find help?

Avoiding Dropped Quotations

  1. Remember why you are putting in a direct quotation—it’s to add an authoritative voice to support your claim, not to just move the paper forward.
  2. As the writer of a research paper, your job description is explainer. Don’t assume your readers can just “figure it out for themselves.” You have to tell them why you put that quotation in.
  3. Do not depend on quotation marks to do all the work. The text should give the reader a hint that you are moving from your words to the source’s and back again.
  4. The “Quotation Sandwich” is a great tool to avoid dropped quotes.

Use introductory words that will really work for you.

Students often use these awkward lead-ins because they cannot think of anything else to do. In 50 Essays, the section “Sentence Guides for Academic Writers” (pages xxxi-xli) gives an enormous variety of alternatives for presenting your views and integrating quotations.

Work Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Paranoid Style of American Policing.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited by Samuel Cohen, 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020, pp. 106-09. Originally published in The Atlantic, 30 Dec. 2015.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 6/11/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: