As the title suggests, it's not a usual practice but should one do it? All I know that one can study for an exam and simply write the answers needed in order to succeed, no one tells us to include the names of authors of the ideas we memorized to write (except rarely).

  • 6
    With the very limited exam duration it could be infeasible to provide accurate citations for unpredictable questions - neither from memory nor from an online access.
    – Orion
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 3:52
  • What discipline or subject are you asking about?
    – stjep
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 3:52
  • Mainly business courses (marketing, management, etc...)
    – R. AS.
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 3:54

4 Answers 4


In most technical university exams, there is no expectation of citations since the concepts are typically "textbook-level" material and thus established as part of the "common knowledge" of a subject. Such information is rarely cited in the scientific literature, as it taken to be part of the shared background knowledge that has been so accepted as to no longer require explicit crediting. For example, Newton is almost never cited when discussing basic physics.

In a literature or similar humanities course, on the other hand, the subject of an exam may explicitly be discussion and analysis of ideas presented by others. In this case, one would be typically be expected to at least informally cite the people whose ideas are being discussed, e.g.:

Rawls' theory of justice, while more sophisticated than the simple utilitarianism of Locke, is considerably more difficult to comprehend"

Full formal citation, however, is typically both impractical and not useful within the scope of an exam.

Where business courses fall on this spectrum will depend on the course: when discussing case studies, I would expect informal citation to be appropriate, whereas an operational research and statistics course would more likely fall into the technical end of the spectrum where there are no citations.

  • Thanks. But then, in such business courses (either formal knowledge or theories discussions), if one does not (informally) cite, can he or she be accused of plagiarism? Or is it always understood by doctors and unis that it's always within the context of exams?
    – R. AS.
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 4:22
  • @R.AS. If you're talking about Locke and can't remember his name, you will merely lose points. If you claim to have invented utilitarianism, then you could be accused of plagiarism---though in a classroom setting it is likely to be so laughably transparent that your instructors are more likely to consider your foolishness not worth their time and merely give you a failing grade.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 4:30
  • Yes. Well usually, the case is that one is simply answering the questions asked based on what he or she has learned in the class and studied at home, however minus the name of the authors. Given the marketing definition by Kotler for example, one can write it during exams however without citing Kotler (either for not remembering the name or simply no need for the name since it's just an exam)
    – R. AS.
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 4:35

Proper citation? No. I couldn't even give you a citation of one of my own papers from memory.

Should you be able to recall a name of some prominent figure that is relevant to your exam? Probably, but that depends on the type of material your professor expects to learn. I've taken plenty of exams like this.

  • Of course. If you are taking a test and your mind focuses on an article you remember reading, you might remember enough to be able to write "A study by Smith in the early 2000's identified X as the leading cause of Y.", but you probably don't remember if the article was published in 2002 or 2003, whether it is by "C Smith" or "D Smith", or the exact journal page number it is found in. Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 22:30

Building on jakebeal's excellent answer, let's consider that citation has two purposes:

  • Let the reader know what ideas and findings are your own original contributions.
  • Inform readers where they can find the stuff that doesn't belong to you.

As others have mentioned here, #2 is practically infeasible in a standard exam venue, at least to the standard of most academic writing. Do you have a photographic memory of every article and book you have read, including page numbers and full bibliographic data (I think Smith and Johnson found that x > 3 when p < 5, but was that C Smith and D Johnson, or D Smith and C Johnson? Or maybe it was C John Smith and D Jones? Was this in the May issue or the April issue?)? What remains, then is to inform your readers that you are basing part of your answer on someone else's work, quite possibly in the form of a disclaimer. So, you could say something like:

According to a study in the late 1970's, quantum hypotunneling was found to have a statistically significant benefit in trimming the positive ion matrix when the average manifold area under the curve is finite. As I have shown above (using Jackson's Stepwise Theorem) that this area with respect to the problem at hand is, in fact, finite, we can conclude that quantum hypotunneling is likely an effective solution. McFielding's theory that the positive ion matrix is a purely sociopolitical construct and ineffective for practical engineering work does not apply for the following reasons....


Perhaps we should consider that the exam is just a piece of a larger work - the course itself - which already has a reference section: the syllabus.

If during the exam you feel compelled to use material from outside the assigned reading of the course, then you should cite it in such a way that the marker can easily find it.

Or perhaps you should confine yourself to the assigned reading.

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