Writing With Sources

Documenting research papers is easier than sometimes made out. You just answer the question who said what, where, and when. But don't be surprised if English teachers want you to answer it one way and history teachers another—but the information you need is exactly the same.

Research writing can be only as convincing as the authority which informs it. Remember that every paper you write is an attempt to create belief, to convince your readers that you know what you are talking about, and that what you say is true. Though good personal writing often uses researched information (journal entries, letters, on-site descriptions), its primary means of persuasion derives from recreating the images, impressions, and language of your own experience and speculation. In research and report writing, however, persuasive authority is based on information outside the writer's self, by citing other people's ideas, knowledge, demonstrations, and proofs.


Good sources make your papers believable. For a source to be "good" it needs to answer "yes" to two questions: (1) Is the source itself credible? (2) Does it help my paper? The following guidelines will help you assess the credibility of sources found in the field, in the library, and on the Internet.

Evaluating Field Sources

The reliability of field sources is often problematic because it is difficult for readers to track down people and, sometimes, places after they were first visited by the researcher. An interview is a one-time event, so a subject available one day may not be the next. A location providing information one day may change or become off-limits the next. To critically examine field sources, you need to freeze them and make them hold still. Here's what to do:

Interviews To freeze an interview, use a tape recorder and transcribe the whole session. Once an interview is taped, apply to it the critical questions you would a written source (see above). If you cannot tape-record, take careful notes, review main points with your subject before the interview ends, and apply to your notes these same critical questions.

Identifying Perspective Assuming you have identified an interviewee because he or she has some special expertise that would be useful in advancing your paper, you still need to assess, for yourself, the person's credibility. Keep the following questions in mind as you talk, listen, and take notes:

• What, specifically, is the source of your interviewee's expertise? (Can you see credentials? A résumé? Any authored position statements?)

• Can you classify your interviewee's point of view (liberal, conservative, religious, commercial, etc.) and differentiate it from other points of view?

• What does he or she assume about the subject or about the audience? (Note here the level of unexplained jargon.)

• How persuasive are your source's facts, inferences, and judgments? (See Chapter Eight.)

• Are there relevant points you are aware of that the speaker doesn't mention? (Can you ask about these?)

Site Observations To freeze a site, make photographic or video records of what it looked like and what you found, in addition to taking copious notes about time; include details about the location, size, shape, color, number, and so forth. If you cannot make photo records, sketch, draw, or diagram what you find. Pictures and careful verbal descriptions add credibility to papers by providing specific details that would be difficult to invent had the writer not been present. Even if you don't use them directly in your paper, visual notes will jog your memory of other important site events.

Personal Bias Evaluating in-person observations is complicated since you are both the creator and the evaluator of the material at the same time. First, you shape interview material by the questions you ask, the manner in which you conduct the interview, and the language of your notes. Second, you shape on-site material by where you look, what you notice, and the language of your notes. In other words, in field research, the manner in which you collect and record information is most likely to introduce the most difficult bias to control—your own.

Evaluating Library Sources

Unlike most field sources, library sources are generally credible because experts have already screened them. The books, periodicals, documents, special collections, and electronic sources have been recommended for library acquisition by scholars, researchers, and librarians with special expertise in the subject areas the library catalogues. Consequently, library resources have been prejudged credible, at some level, before you locate them. However, just because some authorities judged a source to be credible at one time does not necessarily mean it still is, nor that it's the best available, nor that it's not contested, nor that it's especially useful to the paper you are writing. Two of the main reasons for distrusting a source found in the library have to do with time (when was it judged true?) and perspective (who said it was true and for what reason?).

Identifying Dated Sources Most library documents include their date of publication inside the cover of the document itself, and in most cases this will be a fact that you can rely on. In some cases, such as articles first published one place and now reprinted in an anthology, you may have to dig harder for the original date, but it's usually there (check the permissions page).

One of the main reasons any source may become unreliable—and incredible—is the passage of time. For example, any geographical, political, or statistical information true for 1950 or even 1999 will be more or less inaccurate by the time you examine it—in many cases, radically so. (See atlas or encyclopedia entries for Africa or Asia from 1950!) Yet at one time this source was judged to be accurate.

Check the critical reception of books when published by reading reviews in The Book Review Digest (also on-line); often you can tell if the critical argument over the book twenty years ago is still relevant or has been bypassed by other events and publications.

At the same time, dated information has all sorts of uses. In spite of being "dated" works such as the Bible, the I Ching, the novels of Virginia Woolf, and the writings of Malcolm X are invaluable for many reasons. In studying change over time, old statistical information is crucial. Knowing the source date lets you decide whether to use it.

Identifying Perspective Who created the source and with what purpose or agenda? Why has someone or some organization written, constructed, compiled, recorded, or otherwise created this source in the first place? This second critical question is difficult to answer by reviewing the source itself. While most library texts include the dates they were published, few accurately advertise their purpose or the author's point of view—and when they do, this information cannot always be believed.

To evaluate the usefulness of a text, ask questions about (1) the assumptions it makes, (2) the evidence it presents, and (3) the reasoning that holds it together. Finding answers to these critical questions reveals an author's bias.

• What is this writer's purpose—scholarly analysis, political advocacy, entertainment, or something else?

• Can you classify the author's point of view (liberal, conservative, religious, commercial) and differentiate it from other points of view?

• What does the writer assume about the subject or about his or her audience? (What does unexplained jargon tell you?)

• How persuasive is the evidence? Which statements are facts, which inferences drawn from facts, which matters of opinion? (See Chapter Eight.)

• Are there relevant points you are aware of that the writer doesn't mention? What does this tell you?

• How compelling is the logic? Are there places where it doesn't make sense? How often?

Cross-Referencing Sources While at first it may seem daunting to answer all these questions, have patience and give the research process the time it needs. On a relatively new subject, you won't know many answers; however, the more you learn the more you know! As you read further, you begin to compare one source to another and to notice differences, especially if you read carefully and take notes to keep track of each source's timeliness and perspective. The more differences you note, the more answers to the above questions you find, and the more you know if a source might be useful.

Evaluating Electronic Sources

You need to apply the same critical scrutiny to Internet sources as to both field and library sources, only more so! Like field sources, Intenet sources change without warning, so you need to capture as much as you can when you find a source. Like library sources, Web sites are texts that can be held still and examined critically. However, unlike library sources, many Web sites are not screened by editors, librarians, or review boards for accuracy, reliability, or integrity, as anyone with a computer can publish personal opinions, commercial pitches, bogus claims, bomb-making instructions, or smut on the World Wide Web. While the Internet is a marvelous source of research information, it's also a trap for unwary researchers. So, in addition to timeliness and perspective, what do you need to look out for?

First, look at the electronic address (URL) to identify the type of organization sponsoring the site:

• .gov = government institutions

• .museum = accredited museums worldwide

Each abbreviation suggests the potential bias in sites: .com and .biz sites are usually selling something; .coop and .pro may be selling something, but may have a stronger interest in promoting the public welfare; .mil and .org are nonprofit, but each has an agenda to promote and defend; .edu, .gov, .museum, and .net should be most neutral and unbiased, but still need careful checking; and .info, .name and ~ could be anyone with any idea.

Second, ask as many critical questions as you would of a library source (see above). An additional way to do this is to ask reporter's questions (Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?) and see what the answers tell you. Ask:

Who is the site author?

• Look for individual name: Check beginning or end.

• Look for expert credentials: Scholar, scientist, doctor, college degrees, experience?

• Look for author's connection to organization or agency: University, government, NRA, Sierra Club?

• If no individual name, look for sponsoring organization: what does it stand for?

• Look for links to the author's/agency's home page.

• Look for a way to contact the author or agency by E-mail, phone, mail to ask further questions.

• If you cannot tell who created the site or contact its sponsors, site credibility is low. Don't rely on this site's information.

What ideas or information does the site present?

• Look for concepts and terminology you know.

• Summarize the claim or central idea in your own language: How does it match your research needs?

• Look for facts versus inferences versus opinions versus speculations—be wary of opinion and speculation.

• Look for balanced versus biased points of view—what tips you off? Which would you trust more?

• Look for missing information: Why is it not there?

• Look for advertising: Is it openly identified and separated from factual material?

• Look for a "hit count" to suggest the popularity of the site—a sign that others have found it useful.

How is the information presented?

• Look at the care with which the site is constructed, an indication of the education level of the author: If it contains spelling and grammatical errors or is loaded with unexplained jargon, do you trust it? Will your readers?

• Look at the clarity of the graphics and/or sound features: Do they contribute to the content of the site?

• Look for links to other sites that suggest a connected, comprehensive knowledge base.

Where does the information come from?

• Identify the source of the site: .edu, .gov, .com, etc. (see above).

• Identify the source of site facts: Do you trust it?

• Look for prior appearance as a print source: Are you familiar with it? Is it reputable?

• Look for evidence that the information has been referred: If so, from where? By whom?

When was the site created?

• Look for creation date; a date more than a year old suggests a site not regularly updated.

• Look for absence of a creation date: Would lack of a date affect the reliability of the information?

• Look at whether or not the site is complete or still under construction. If incomplete, note that.

Why is the information presented?

• Look for clues to agenda of the site: Is it to inform? persuade? entertain? sell? Are you buying?

• Does getting information from the site cost money? (You should not have to pay for reference material for a college paper.)


As you prepare to draft, you need to assess all the credible, reliable information you've found and integrate it skillfully into your paper. In other words, you need to combine unorganized raw material written in somebody else's voice into your own writing plan and make it compatible with your voice.

To synthesize notes in preparation for writing, (1) look for connections among similar statements made by several sources; (2) look for contradictions between and among sources; (3) marshal the evidence that furthers your paper's goal and set aside that which doesn't—everything you've collected cannot possibly fit, and shouldn't.

Be careful not to construct a source-driven paper, one whose direction is dictated by what you've found rather than what you are curious about and want to explore and examine. Above all, don't quit pursuing an interesting question because your first few sources don't answer it: If you need more evidence, go get it rather than settling for answers to a question you haven't asked or faking it. Source-driven papers are obvious and odious to practiced instructors in every discipline.


Citing authority includes paraphrasing, summarizing, and directly quoting other sources, and working these intelligently, logically, smoothly, and grammatically into your text. Regardless of which method you use, you will need to cite the sources in which you found the information using the documentation conventions appropriate to the discipline for which the paper is being written.

Paraphrase and Summary

When you repeat another author's ideas in your own words to simplify or clarify it, you are paraphrasing, When you condense an author's idea, you are summarizing it. Notice in the following example how a direct quotation is changed first to a paraphrase, then to a summary:

Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (115).

A paraphrase of this same passage might go something like this:

Henry David Thoreau claims that many of the luxuries that people believe are necessary for living a comfortable life actually get in the way of living a spiritual life (115).

A summary of the same passage might go like this:

Thoreau argues in Walden that material possessions interfere with spiritual thought (115).

Notice that the paraphrase is not much shorter—twenty-nine versus thirty-two words—but uses simpler, more conversational language. The summary, however, is significantly shorter—eleven words—but, like the paraphrase, it remains faithful to the original idea.

Whether you quote, paraphrase, or summarize depends on your purpose in using the reference. For example, if you want to feature an especially colorful, precise, or otherwise well-written passage from a text, quote it directly. The Thoreau passage above is well written and might well be quoted directly. However, if you sense the original might confuse your audience, then you want to simplify or clarify the passage, so you paraphrase it. Finally, if you are short on space and wish only to capture the essence of the idea, you summarize it. In one sense, paraphrase and summary are weaker than direct quotation, since readers are viewing material filtered through your perspective, not reading the expert's own formulation. However, paraphrasing is the better choice for dense or jargon-filled language, just as summary saves you space and helps get to your own point more rapidly.

Direct Quotation

Quoting authors directly brings the full authority of their voices into your text. When used carefully, a direct quotation both substantiates and enlivens your ideas. I use direct quotations when the language of the quote is especially strong—better than I could paraphrase—or when it is important for my argument that the reader see exactly what the expert said. Some people are experts by reputation or fame: "According to Albert Einstein (or Virginia Woolf, or Tony Morrison, or Mick Jagger)." Other people become experts because of labels or titles: "According to President Smith (or Secretary Jones, or Captain Bob, or poet Joy Harju)." Citing the precise language of respected authorities allows readers to check your sources and see that, yes, Einstein,Woolf, Morrison, or Jagger really did say that. You and your argument each gain strength by association.

At the same time, control your sources; don't let them control you. When you write a research essay it is your paper and not your sources'. A good research essay is not a string of expert citations held together by your introduction and transitions; instead, it's your idea supported carefully and judiciously by others whose opinions matter to your audience.

The following guidelines for incorporating direct quotations into your papers apply to whatever documentation system you select:

1. Introduce each quotation with a lead that makes it clear who is speaking: According to Arthur Miller, "The play failed." If there is any doubt about the speaker's identity, add that information briefly: According to playwright Arthur Miller.. . .

2. Quote only as much of your source as you need to make your point so that readers know exactly why you are quoting. Insert an especially careful or colorful phrase, then paraphrase the rest: In Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Shell argues that "knowledge is the deterrent" to nuclear war.

3. Work each quoted passage into your text smoothly and grammatically:

• Use a comma to introduce most quotations, such as the first quotation (above).

• Use a colon to introduce quotations that are examples (often a long indented quote), explanations, or elaborations of the previous sentence, or lists of items.

• Use no punctuation to introduce quoted language that,without the quotation marks, does not need punctuation (see number two above).

4. Include commas and periods within quotation marks: "Theplay failed." Put all other punctuation outside quotation marks, unless it is part of the quoted material itself: Arthur Miller asked, "What is drama?"

5. If you make changes in punctuation or capitalization in order to integrate quotations smoothly into your sentences, enclose the changes in brackets.

6. If you make changes in words or verb tense to integrate quotations smoothly into your sentences, you must put the changed word(s) in brackets: Before the end of the Cold War, Jonathan Shell argued that "knowledge [was] the deterrent" to nuclear war.

7. If you add language in the middle of a quotation, include the additions in brackets: Arthur Miller asked, "What is [American] drama?"

8. If you delete material from within a quotation, indicate the omitted material with a three dot ellipsis: If you delete material, . . . indicate. . . with [an] ellipsis. If you delete material at the end of a sentence, add a period to the ellipsis, making four dots. ... If you omit words at the beginning of a sentence, make sure the quote is grammatical, but do not use an ellipsis.

9. After including a quotation that is complex or capable of being interpreted in more than one way, be sure to explain your reason for including it, the meaning you intend, or the value you believe it has.


1. Make a list of library or Internet services you want to learn more about. Ask a librarian or media expert to help you; record what you learn.

2. Select a book at random from your roommate's bookshelf, one you haven't read, and see how much you can learn about it by using the Evaluating Research Sources guidelines in this chapter.


1. INDIVIDUAL: To any of the research ideas suggested in the last few chapters, add a substantial amount of library research: Can you use some of the reference works listed here? Can you include current periodicals as well as books? Will you make sure to look at more than one source? Plan to include at least three Internet sources.

2. COLLABORATIVE: Select a historical subject to research that all members of your group agree upon. Divide up research tasks so that each of you brings back to the group a one- or two-page review of a book and an article to share with others. Invent an interesting form in which to report the results of your investigation.

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