The point of documenting sources in academic papers

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The point of documenting sources in academic papers is not just to avoid unpleasant visits to the Dean's office, but to demonstrate that you know what is going on in your field of study. Get credit for having done your reading! Precise documentation is also a courtesy to your readers because it lets them look at the material you've found. That's especially important for Internet sources. The different systems for typing up references are admittedly a nuisance. See the handout “Standard Documentation Formats” for an overview. But the real challenge is establishing the relationship of your thinking to the reading you've done. Here are some common questions and basic answers. 1. Can't I avoid problems just by listing every source in the reference list? No, you need to integrate your acknowledgements into your own writing. Give the reference as soon as you’ve mentioned the idea you’re using, not just at the end of the paragraph. It’s often a good idea to name the authors (“X states” and “Y argues against X”) and then indicate your own stand (“A more inclusive perspective, however, . . . ”). The examples on the next page demonstrate various wordings for doing this. Have a look at journal articles in your discipline to see how experts refer to their sources. 2. If I put the ideas into my own words, do I still have to clog up my pages with all those names and numbers? Sorry—yes, you do. In academic papers, you need to keep mentioning authors and pages and dates to show how your ideas are related to those of the experts. It's sensible to use your own words because that saves space and lets you connect ideas smoothly. But whether you quote a passage directly in quotation marks, paraphrase it closely in your own words, or just summarize it rapidly, you need to identify the source then and there. (That applies to Internet sources too: you still need author and date as well as title and URL. The handout “Standard Documentation Formats” gives examples for a range of types.) 3. But I didn't know anything about the subject until I started this paper. Do I have to give an acknowledgement for every point I make? You’re safer to over-reference than to skimp. But you can cut down the clutter by recognizing that some ideas are “common knowledge” in the field—that is, taken for granted by people knowledgeable about the topic. Facts easily found in standard reference books are considered common knowledge: the date of the Armistice for World War I, for example, or the present population of Canada. You don’t need to name a specific source for them, even if you learned them only when doing your research. They’re easily verified and not likely to be controversial. In some disciplines, information covered in class lectures doesn't need acknowledgement. Some interpretive ideas may also be so well accepted that you don't need to name a specific source: that Picasso is a distinguished modernist painter, for instance, or that smoking is harmful to health. Check with your professor or TA if you're in doubt whether a specific point is considered common knowledge in your field.
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  • Spring '08
  • Abraham
  • Writing, Academia, common knowledge, drop boxes

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