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Academic Writing:
Writing an Essay — Finding and referencing sources

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Academic Writing: finding and referencing sources
by Averil Coxhead

Academic Writing tasks aim to find out how well you can research a topic, argue a point of view, evaluate evidence, and organize your thinking. In this series on Academic Writing I would like to provide general advice about different aspects of academic writing and what resources you can use for more specific advice.

Identifying and evaluating resources

Once you have identified the different parts of an essay topic and established a basic framework, it is time to gather evidence, statistics, and other information.

You should start by surveying a wide variety of books and other material that might be useful. These are what we call your 'sources' - the evidence you will need in order to write the essay. Your lecturers may supply a reading list.

Here are some other things to consider:

Look for up-to-date books and articles.
Read the bibliographies of these sources and look for any useful materials you find listed there.
Think carefully about the purpose of the writer and any possible bias they might have in writing.
Read selectively, taking brief notes that will help you to answer your questions.
Note any areas of disagreement between your sources. Sometimes experts disagree, and this is worthy of discussion.
Set a time limit on your reading to ensure that you start writing early.

Avoiding plagiarism and quoting sources directly

In writing an essay, you may be tempted to copy straight from materials because you do not think you can write as well as the original writer, or you think that the reader might not know the original source and that you might get a better mark for your essay. Copying directly from another writer and pretending that their words or phrases are your own is called plagiarism. You must avoid this as it is a form of intellectual theft and is treated very seriously when it is discovered. You can avoid plagiarism by using the correct methods for quoting, paraphrasing, and referencing.

Why and how should you quote?

When you quote someone, you use their exact words in your text. Keep quotations as short as possible by quoting only the essential part of what the author says. Try to restrict yourself to quoting only if the original statement is forceful, well written, or contains ideas that are so controversial that you feel it is best that the exact words of the author are used, so that there can be no misunderstanding.

Paraphrasing

Whereas quoting means you use the exact words of the writer, paraphrasing means restating the words or ideas from a book or article in your own words. This is helpful as you can make the ideas fit into your writing style. You need to follow the rules of paraphrasing carefully in order to avoid being accused of plagiarism. Here is a procedure you can follow for paraphrasing:

Read the original passage very closely to make sure that you are clear about what it says.
  Put the text to one side. Write the main points of the passage down on a separate piece of paper.
  Compare your notes with the original and check that you have got the main points.
  Check that you have not added anything that is not in the original.
  Check that you have used your own words, and that you have fairly represented what the author stated.

Make sure you include the reference directly after the paraphrase in your text so that it is clear where you got the information from. There are many ways of showing that you are reporting the words of others. For example, you can say that the author:

argues
asserts
believes
claims
concludes

confirms
emphasizes
explains
hypothesizes

insists
maintains
observes
notes
points out
questions
says
states
something.

You can also say:
  According to X, ...
  In X's opinion, ...
  In X's view, ...

You can learn other ways of reporting and paraphrasing from your reading. You should include the page number in the reference because you are reporting on a particular part of a reference.

Referencing in texts and in bibliographies

In-text referencing is used when you are quoting or paraphrasing sources in your essay. A bibliography is a list at the end of your essay that shows which sources you have read or used to help you prepare your essay. Each academic subject has its own rules for writing references and your lecturer should supply you with clear guidelines on which system you should use. Be consistent when formatting references.

Two common formats are the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). There are websites that have up-to-date information on these systems, along with examples of in-text and bibliographic references. Academic writing books will also contain sections on these systems. Some are listed in the Further reading section.

Further reading

Here is a selection of websites and books that will tell you more about academic writing:

www.apastyle.org/elecref.html - Electronic Reference Format, American Psychological Association
http://webster.commnet.edu/apa/apa_index.htm - A Guide for Writing Research Papers based on styles recommended by the American Psychological Association
http://webster.commnet.edu/mla/index.shtml A Guide for Writing Research Papers based on Modern Language Association (MLA) Documentation

Usage Notes

You can find Usage Notes on Academic Writing at the following entries in the Macmillan English Dictionary:

cause example quote significant
compare list related summary
definite paraphrase

result

topic
evaluate prove

Next in the series

  Structuring an academic essay
  Linking parts of an essay together
  Words to learn for academic study
  Low-frequency vocabulary