Using and Documenting Sources

Mastering the craft of documenting sources is one of the most important skills you can develop as an undergraduate researcher. Using sources in an academic paper — whether a short argumentative essay or a doctoral thesis — involves two key steps: (1) critically evaluating the source, and (2) citing it properly within your own writing. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Add to that basic formula the fact that most high school students should’ve been trained in fundamental citation procedures, and you might be tempted to assume that all college students are comfortable with and skilled at source documentation.

In fact, that’s not the case, for the very good reason that documenting sources isn’t all that simple. Paraphrasing is tougher than it looks at first glance, and the fact that there are many different documentation styles in current use (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA) creates more confusion than clarity. Moreover, becoming good at citing/documenting sources takes time and practice, just as with writing.

In the end, our obligation for proper source documentation boils down to three things: using sources intelligently and critically; writing clearly and effectively; and maintaining high ethical standards as a student researcher.

Overall Considerations on Using Sources

  • One good source is often better than ten mediocre ones. Every semester I get someone (usually the class jokester) who reads this and says, “So it’s OK to use just one source for our paper, right?” No. Good one, though! I simply mean that quality is more important than quantity when gathering and using sources in a research paper. Most readers (and almost all teachers) can see through a padded bibliography, especially one with a lot of “lightweight” sources.
  • Be aware of unconscious bias in searching for and/or reviewing your sources. This applies mostly to the “hunt” for sources, but also the selection process in which you determine which source you actually cite in a paper. Sometimes when a writer has developed a strong thesis (and opinion) on her issue, she’s tempted to look for sources that support that opinion and ignore (or suppress, or minimize) ones that don’t. Interestingly, this could happen on a sub-conscious as well as a conscious level. As a researcher, therefore, you need to strive for some measure of objectivity in your search for information — a degree of fairness and open-mindedness about what sorts of things you’re looking for. Sure, you could write a convincing paper which cites only sources that confirm your preliminary hypothesis; but if you’ve simply scrounged up support for a preconceived notion, have you really learned anything? Moreover, are you going to convince astute and intelligent readers (such as your critically reasoning classmates), who might very well check on your sources and see whether or not you’ve “cooked” your research?
  • Don’t let one source dominate your research. This is an easy trap to fall into, for students and pros alike. You’re searching for books or articles on your topic, innocently enough, and then bam! You find a paper that’s exactly like what you wanted to say. Or you find a book that’s so comprehensive and well-executed that you cannot for the life of you imagine any other way of approaching the topic. So, you use that source in your paper — and more often than not, that sources ends up completely taking over your structure and ideas. That’s unfortunate, because at that point — even if you’ve properly cited and ethically paraphrased the source — you’ve no longer written an original paper; you’ve just summarized that key source. Instead, you need to find multiple sources/perspectives on your topic. Keep in mind that no single source, no matter how good it is, represents the end-all and be-all on your topic — other viewpoints are out there, and you should be able to find them with a little more work. The hunt is part of the fun and joy of research!

Reading Sources Critically

  • Comprehend it, then evaluate it. If you can’t understand a source after two readings, move on to something else. Once you understand what the source is saying, don’t stop there: go into critical evaluation mode.
  • Read source as thoroughly as possible. No problem with periodical and most web sources, which are of shorter length. Books are a different matter, depending on the length, difficulty, and time frame for your research. If you’re pressed for time on a given project, read the introduction, conclusion, and the most relevant chapters. Other key sections of the book can be identified using the table of contents and the index. If you’ve got the luxury of time, it goes without saying you should read the entire text. Nevertheless, very few researchers can read everything they want to with the reality of an approaching writing deadline.
  • Represent the source fairly. This seems obvious, but it simply means making sure you understand the overall context and purpose of a given source, and keeping that in mind as you evaluate and represent it. I once had a student several years ago who cited a book by a certain author (call him Stevens) in a very negative way. However, her source for this harsh review of Stevens was a different author writing a newspaper review. When I asked her if she had read the book in question by Stevens, or even looked at it, she said “no”; she didn’t want to waste her time reading a book she already knew was junk. Huh? How can you know a book is “junk” if you don’t at least take the time to read it yourself? (Turns out her source for this bad review of Stevens had a particular axe to grind against the author, so the negative review was not a big surprise.)

Taking Good Notes on Your Sources

In this day of copy-and-paste from the internet and e-books, taking good notes on sources is a bit of a lost art. However, this craft of research is still important, and there are as many note-taking methods as there are researchers. Personally, I use a variety of methods, and the choice varies according to the type of project I’m working on, where I’m working (at home or at a research library), and how I need to use the research. Whether you use the old-fashioned note card method or a more sophisticated computer-based system, you need to make sure you mark all quotations as quotations, cite the pages from which you get information, paraphrase your sources accurately, and record the full bibliographic information for each source. Can I be blunt here? Nothing sucks quite so much as having returned a key book to the library, only to find out that you didn’t fully document a juicy quote from p. 44 of that book. Trust me!

It’s absolutely critical in the note-taking stage to take great pains to document your sources carefully, and to indicate what is and what isn’t a direct quote. Historian and popular author Doris Kearns Goodwin got herself in hot water several years ago when she plagiarized dozens of passages in one of her books. When called on it, she said in official statements that the slips resulted from sloppy note-taking methods on her part in which she neglected to properly indicate that certain handwritten notes were in fact quotations from other sources. I couldn’t help but think that her explanations were lame excuses along the lines of “the dog ate my homework.” Any competent undergraduate writer should be able to take accurate notes and distinguish between quoted and original material. I certainly think a professional historian and best-selling author should, too!

Should I Quote . . . or Paraphrase?

So, you’ve got some sources, you’ve taken notes and read them critically, and now you want to incorporate them into your paper. How should you do it: by summarizing, quoting, paraphrasing, or all three? As a veteran writer and reader of scholarly prose, I’d recommend the last approach: a mixture of ways to refer to sources increases the readability of your prose (good for your readers) and is more interesting to write (good for you the writer). Consider these additional observations:

Think about Using Direct Quotations:

  • When you use the work of others as primary data (e.g., when you quote a section of Dickinson’s poetry and then analyze that quote)
  • When you want to appeal to the source’s authority (e.g., a weighty quote from Albert Einstein or inspirational words from Martin Luther King can lend context and force to one of your points)
  • When the specific words of the source are important (i.e., you can’t say them any other way without losing the luster and bite of the original)

On the Other Hand, Paraphrase your Sources:

  • When you’re more interested in content rather than in how a writer expresses herself
  • When you could say the same thing more clearly
  • When it’s advantageous to show your mastery of the subject matter

Mike’s Golden Tip on the Value of Paraphrasing: Want in on a little secret that nobody ever told me, and that I had to figure out the hard way?  Effective paraphrasing has a hidden but palpable benefit: it shows your mastery of the material. Think about it: how hard is it to quote a source? Not very, because all you have to do is copy the original. Anybody, no matter how intellectually-challenged, can quote. Paraphrasing, however, takes mental gumption: you must understand the source in order to paraphrase it effectively. Therefore, if you want to show a tough-minded professor that you know your stuff — paraphrase! Just make sure you do it right. More on that below.

Tips on Quoting

Any writing handbook worth its salt provides useful and concrete guidelines on quoting. While copying text isn’t tough, there is a certain amount of craft involved in (1) providing informative and artful transitions into quotes, and (2) making the quotation fit into the structure and grammar of your sentence. I’ve also take pains as a writer to introduce and edit my quotes carefully, so that they seamlessly blend with my own prose — it takes practice, but like riding a bike, once you get it you never forget it.

  • Introduce a quotation with a brief introductory phrase (or signal phrase). Don’t begin a sentence with quoted material.
  • Weave the quotation into your own sentence. Make sure the grammatical structures match.
  • Set off longer passages (four or more lines) in a block quote format

Tips on Paraphrasing — Read this Section!!

Paraphrasing is hard. It involves thinking and work. That is why, I believe, some people get sloppy with their paraphrasing; it’s just easier to breeze through the process, make minimal changes to a source’s words, and then present them as your own. But here’s the thing: a paraphrase is writing that’s in your own words. If you paraphrase inadequately, you are in effect claiming another person’s writing as your own, and that’s unethical. Remember, that author probably went to a lot of work crafting those sentences, deciding on word choices, etc. Give her credit and make your paraphrasing thorough and true!

So how best to paraphrase? Here’s some key tips. I recommend taking this list to heart; it will prove infinitely helpful, and once you master the art of paraphrasing, you’ll never forget how to do it.

  • Read source thoroughly and make sure you understand it. If you don’t understand it, you can’t paraphrase it — period.
  • Put the original away before you start writing. Hugely important! 95% of unintentional plagiarism results from a writer working with the source open and in front of him. Faced with that unwitting temptation, even the best of writers will plagiarize. Put it away, walk around, go to the bathroom, get a cup of java, whatever . . . then come back and write down the idea in your own words.
  • Change paragraph organization, sentence structure, word choices. You can’t just rearrange a few words in a sentence, substitute a verb, toy with the grammar of a sentence, etc. Your changes must be substantial. Do you need to change every word?  No — sometimes you can’t, particularly when no clear synonym exists for a word or phrase. But you do have to change most of them.
  • Avoid “cosmetic” changes: As implied above, minor word changes here and there might represent good intentions, but this is still plagiarism! This is true even if you provide a citation at the end of the passage. Many students are surprised to discover this.
  • Check against original for accuracy. Make sure you represent the ideas in a source clearly and accurately — you don’t want to distort the original meaning or emphasis of the passage.
  • Document passage properly with a parenthetical citation. Just because you put a source’s idea in your own words doesn’t mean you don’t have to cite it. You do, unless it’s common knowledge.

Plagiarism and Academic Honesty

Throughout this discussion I’ve referred several times to the issues of academic honesty, the ethical use of sources, and plagiarism. I don’t mean these references to be scary or intimidating, though undoubtedly they can have that effect. Rather, I wish to point out that a clear knowledge of what plagiarism is — and is not — is a very critical part of your academic training, and one which will pay off for you again and again in your academic career and beyond. That’s because the ethical use of sources isn’t just about following the rules — it’s about fundamental intellectual honesty. As someone who works with developing writers and scholars, it’s an important part of my job to help you gain confidence in and mastery of paraphrasing and citing sources. If you’re ever unsure how (or when) to document a source, or wonder if your paraphrasing is adequate, just ask, and I’ll be happy to give you all the help you need.

In a rather fascinating sequence of events, plagiarism has shown up in major news stories over the years surrounding at prominent writers/scholars — including the previously mentioned Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late historian Stephen Ambrose. Despite being outstanding (and best-selling) authors and trained academics, both Goodwin and Ambrose near-copied (or, inadequately paraphrased) several passages from other writers in their books. As it turns out, Goodwin and Ambrose cheated on two counts: they often failed to attribute given passages properly with a specific footnote or reference; and they failed to put quotation marks around quoted passages (or merely engaged in “cosmetic” paraphrasing). While Ambrose passed away relatively soon after the controversy erupted, Goodwin saw her public profile slip considerably, especially after losing her coveted spot as a respected historical commentator on PBS. As an educator and scholar, I was greatly dismayed that both authors deceived their readers, refused to issue sincere and thorough apologies without making lame excuses, and set an extremely poor example for other writers and student researchers.

For more information on plagiarism in relation to our course, see Roosevelt University’s Academic Integrity:  A Guide for Students. Reading this document carefully and print it out for your records. This is the standard that all RU students are held to.

Documenting Your Sources Using APA Guidelines

While there are several systems of documentation in current use, we in the Professional and Liberal Studies faculty recommend the APA system developed by American Psychological Association and used in the many of the social sciences. Another excellent documentation style is the MLA system, which is used in many of the humanities disciplines. These links take you to online guides which provide instructions and resources on how to use each system.

The key thing to know is that citing sources in the APA or MLA systems does away with complicated footnotes or endnotes. Instead, a citation consists of two things: a brief in-text reference (called a “parenthetical” reference, because it occurs in parentheses), and a detailed works cited entry for each source in the Works Cited List at the end of the paper. Footnotes are used for explanation or clarification of ideas, not for routine bibliographic references — and they usually aren’t necessary in a short paper.