“The worst loss is a number of manuscript footnotes and two manusript appendices that I had to put in at the last moment to refute what seemed to me some very ill-considered statements in Mr. Elkbottom’s new book on Modern Verse Forms. I stupidly wrote those on the blank pages of the proofs and they are quite irrecoverable. I shall have to verify all the references again in Elkbottom. It’s so tiresome....”
— Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
Every claim made in an essay should be substantiated with documentation of facts or with the opinion of a recognized authority. You may hold whatever opinion you like, for whatever reason you like, but if you are going to convince anyone else of your position, you must show good reason for others to hold this opinion.
Often, this means that you need to do some research to find the details to support your thesis; or you may simply want to check facts you think you know already to be sure that you get them right. While some mistakes, like the claim that George Washington was born in Pennsylvania instead of Virginia, will not itself nullify your assessment of his presidency, it will call into question your overall credibility. Other errors in fact may undermine your argument completely. When in doubt, take the time to look it up! (Of course, in an exam situation, you won’t be able to look up facts; this is why you need to study them ahead of time.)
Doing research is a little like controlled brainstorming. Instead of thinking up ideas, you look facts up. You don’t always know what facts will be important to your final essay as you study, so you need to write down whatever strikes you as a possibility—more than you will actually use in your final product. As with brainstorming, though, don’t worry about organizing your facts until you have a number of them. Once you have finished checking your sources, you can evaluate your information, group it into concepts or categories, and decide which facts are more important which less, and which support your thesis statement.
main points for this unit
Research and source materials come into play in different ways for different types of essays. Choosing what type of evidence to use and cite depends on the type of essay and its subject matter. The following does not make up an exhaustive list, but it suggests the way these questions frame themselves up.
We don’t have time here to go deeply into research techniques, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind in chosing your sources and gathering materials from them.
Primary source materials are raw information such as experimental data and reports, eyewitness accounts of an event, historical documents, literary works or poetry, or survey results.
Secondary source materials are summaries or interpretations of these primary materials. These include textbooks, encylopaedias, academic papers, magazine articles that express opinions about an issue.
In some cases, the type of source depends on the question that you are asking. Page Smith’s The Shaping of America is a secondary source about American history, but a primary source if your question is about views of American history in the second half of the twentieth century. For some kinds of literature papers, a translation of an original text would be considered a primary source; for others, a secondary source. Much of this has to do with the level of the work, and reader expecations.
In general, you can use secondary sources if there is no controversy over the interpretation of the material they present. If there are conflicting views in different secondary sources, then it is a good idea to find and asses the primary sources yourself and identify them for your readers.
You include source material in your essay in one of three ways: as a direct quotation in the words of the source, as a paraphrase of the original that includes its main points stated in your own words, or in a summary form that picks one or two main points and leaves out most of the details in the source. In all three cases, you must properly credit your source so that you dont plagiarize the material and so that your reader has enough information about your source to look it up and verify your interpretation of the facts. If you are writing a formal research paper, you will create footnotes for each reference citing a published work, giving the name of the author, the title of the work, the city and the date of its first publication (not reprints), and the page on which the information or quotation appears. If some other form of reference is more suitable, use it according to the normal professional guidelines (e.g., when citing Plato in Greek, one would use not the page numbers of a modern edition, but the Stephanus numbers, which uniquely identify a given passage in Plato in whatever edition one might consult. If you’re in a situation where something like this is expected, you’ll know it.).
The actual format of the the citation and the footnote can vary, depending on how your work will be published. Different teachers have different requirements; different academic journals in different fields do as well.
In a short essay, such as the kind you write for this class, you can often accomplish the purpose of a footnote with an inline citation, especially if you are writing for an audience that you know is acquainted with your source, such as your teacher or fellow students.
For example, in our definition essay, we might start (after our thesis statement) with something like “Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines “civilization” as....”. This is certainly enough information for anyone to check your definition, since a dictionary has a well-defined organization that makes finding the definition easy.
A history essay might refer to a specific document: “Magna Carta granted the barons of England particular rights, guaranteed by the King’s coronation oath.” The document is well enough known and available in enough locations that your claim can be readily verified. If you need to refer to an historian’s conclusions, you may want to be more specific: “Page Smith sums up the cause of the American Revolution in chapter 15 of The Shaping of America as...”
A literature essay might cite a specific incident in a work of fiction by chapter, or a particular line of a poem. “In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s character is first tested in the chapter ‘The Shadow of the Past’, when Gandalf asks him to leave the Shire.” Since this is a general claim, you do not need to add page references. Likewise, the reference to a widely published poem does not need to include the actual book and page in which you found it: “In Shakespeare’s Sonnet LVII, lines 1-2 set up the poet’s complaint clearly.”
Not every single statement you make needs to be substantiated by reference to an outside authority. Events that are general knowledge or easily verifiable from multiple sources by your audience, such as “George Washington was the first president of the United States,” do not need a reference. Notice that the fact to back up the claim exists; you merely assume that your audience knows the fact or can very easily find it in this case. What qualifies as general knowledge will of course vary considerably with your audience.
You should identify as your own work (cite yourself) the results of lab or field research, surveys, or interviews that you personally carried out and have not formally published before.
Any other source material must be properly identified. This includes any fact that is not widely known or that is the product of specialized research, the opinions of others (especially if the opiniion is controversial), research results of others, and help you receive from peers or teachers in putting your papers together (check the acknowledgments page of most textbooks for examples of this type of citation). You must do this regardless of the form of publication—which means that you need to cite audio and vidio clips and web pages as well as books or other written documents.
Plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s work as your own, and taking credit for it. It is a kind of intellectual theft, and you should take care to avoid even the appearance of doing so. When in doubt, cite your source.
Contents of this page © Copyright 2010 by Bruce A. McMenomy and Christe A. McMenomy.
Permission to download or print this page is hereby given to students of Scholars Online currently enrolled in Advanced Writing for the College-Bound for purposes of personal study only. Any other reproduction or use for profit constitutes a violation of copyright.