Research Writing: The Basics

Research Writing: The Basics

Research Writing: The Basics by Shaelynn Long-Kish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Writing the Research Paper

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The Research Essay

While teachers assign and students write essays in college classes that are commonly called “research papers,” there is no clear consensus on the definition of a research paper.  This is because the definition of “research” differs from field to field, and even between instructors within the same discipline teaching the same course.

Second, while the papers we tend to call “research papers” do indeed include research, most other kinds of college writing require at least some research, as well.   

A third reason has to do with the connotations of the word “paper” versus the word “essay.” "Paper” can sometimes suggest something static, concrete, routine, and uninteresting—think of the negative connotations of the term bureaucratic “paperwork,” or the policing mechanism of “showing your papers” to the authorities.  On the other hand, the word “essay” has more positive connotations:  dynamic, flexible, unique, and creative.  The definitions of essay in dictionaries I have examined include terms like “attempt,” “endeavor,” and “a try.”   As a writer, I would much rather work on something that was a dynamic and creative endeavor rather than a static and routine document.  My hope is that you, as a student and a writer, feel the same way.

This chapter is about writing a research essay.  While I cannot offer you exact guidelines of how to do this for each and every situation where you will be asked to write such a paper or essay, I can provide you with the general guidelines and advice you’ll need to successfully complete these sorts of writing assignments.  In the next chapter, I’ll describe a few alternatives to presenting your research in a conventional essay.

Getting Ready:  Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Research Essay

If you are coming to this chapter after working through some of the writing exercises in Part Two, “Exercises in the Process of Research,” then you are ready to dive into your research essay.  By this point, you probably have done some combination of the following things:

•    Thought about different kinds of evidence to support your research;

•    Been to the library and the internet to gather evidence;

•    Developed an annotated bibliography for your evidence;

•    Written and revised a working thesis for your research;

•    Critically analyzed and written about key pieces of your evidence;

•    Considered the reasons for disagreeing and questioning the premise of your working thesis; and

•    Categorized and evaluated your evidence.

In other words, you already have been working on your research essay through the process of research writing.  

But before diving into writing a research essay, you need to take a moment to ask yourself, your colleagues, and your teacher some important questions about the nature of your project.

•    What is the specific assignment?

It is crucial to consider the teacher’s directions and assignment for your research essay.  The teacher’s specific directions will in large part determine what you are required to do to successfully complete your essay, just as they did with the exercises you completed in part two of this book.

If you have been given the option to choose your own research topic, the assignment for the research essay itself might be open-ended.  For example:

Write a research essay about the working thesis that you have been working on with the previous writing assignments.  Your essay should be about ten pages long, it should include ample evidence to support your point, and it should follow MLA style.

Some research writing assignments are more specific than this, of course.  For example, here is a research writing assignment for a poetry class:

Write a seven to ten page research essay about one of the poets discussed in the last five chapters of our textbook and his or her poems.  Besides your analysis and interpretation of the poems, be sure to cite scholarly research that supports your points.  You should also include research on the cultural and historic contexts the poet was working within.  Be sure to use MLA documentation style throughout your essay.

Obviously, you probably wouldn’t be able to write a research project about the problems of advertising prescription drugs on television in a History class that focused on the American Revolution.

•    What is the main purpose of your research essay?  

Has the goal of your essay been to answer specific questions based on assigned reading material and your research?  Or has the purpose of your research been more open-ended and abstract, perhaps to learn more about issues and topics to share with a wider audience?  In other words, is your research essay supposed to answer questions that indicate that you have learned about a set and defined subject matter (usually a subject matter which your teacher already more or less understands), or is your essay supposed to discover and discuss an issue that is potentially unknown to your audience, including your teacher.

The “demonstrating knowledge about a defined subject matter” purpose for research is quite common in academic writing.  For example, a political science professor might ask students to write a research project about the Bill of Rights in order to help her students learn about the Bill of Rights and to demonstrate an understanding of these important amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  But presumably, the professor already knows a fair amount the Bill of Rights, which means she is probably more concerned with finding out if you can demonstrate that you have learned and have formed an opinion about the Bill of Rights based on your research and study.

Even if all of your classmates have been researching a similar research idea, chances are your particular take on that idea has gone in a different direction.   For example, you and some of your classmates might have begun your research by studying the effect on children of violence on television, either because that was a topic assigned by the teacher or because you simply shared an interest in the general topic.  But as you have focused and refined this initially broad topic, you and your classmates will inevitably go into different directions, perhaps focusing on different genres (violence in cartoons versus live-action shows), on different age groups (the effect of violent television on pre-schoolers versus the effect on teen-agers), or on different conclusions about the effect of television violence in the first place (it is harmful versus there is no real effect).

•    Who is the main audience for your research writing project?  

Besides your teacher and your classmates, who are you trying to reach with your research?  Who are you trying to convince as a result of the research you have done?  What do you think is fair to assume that this audience knows or doesn’t know about the topic of your research project?  Purpose and audience are obviously closely related because the reason for writing something has a lot to do with who you are writing it for, and who you are writing something for certainly has a lot to do with your purposes in writing in the first place.  

In composition classes, it is usually presumed that your audience includes your teacher and your classmates.  After all, one of the most important reasons you are working on this research project in the first place is to meet the requirements of this class, and your teacher and your classmates have been with you as an audience every step of the way.

Contemplating an audience beyond your peers and teachers can sometimes be difficult, but you probably have at least some sense of an audience beyond the confines of your class.  Directly and indirectly, you’ve probably been thinking about your readers for a while now.

Still, it might be useful for you to try to be even more specific about your audience as you begin your research essay.  Do you know any “real people” (friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.) who might be an ideal reader for your research essay?  Can you at least imagine what an ideal reader might want to get out of reading your research essay?

I’m not trying to suggest that you ought to ignore your teacher and your classmates as your primary audience.  But research essays, like most forms of writing, are strongest when they are intended for a more specific audience, either someone the writer knows or someone the writer can imagine.  Teachers and classmates are certainly part of this audience, but trying to reach an audience of potential readers beyond the classroom and the assignment will make for a stronger essay.

•    What sort of “voice” or “authority” do you think is appropriate for your research project?

Do you want to take on a personal and more casual tone in your writing, or do you want to present a less personal and less casual tone?  Do you want to use first person, the “I” pronoun, or do you want to avoid it?

It is perfectly acceptable in many types of research and academic writing for writers to use the first person pronoun, “I.”  It is an approach that is very common in many fields, particularly those that tend to be grouped under the term “the humanities."

For example, consider this paragraph from Kelly Ritter’s essay “The Economics of Authorship:  Online Paper Mills, Student Writers, and First-Year Composition,” which appeared in June 2005 issue of one of the leading journals in the field of composition and rhetoric, College Composition and Communication:

When considering whether, when, and how often to purchase an academic paper from an online paper-mill site, first-year composition students therefore work with two factors that I wish to investigate here in pursuit of answering the questions posed above:  the negligible desire to do one’s own writing, or to be an author, with all that entails in this era of faceless authorship vis-á-vis the Internet; and the ever-shifting concept of “integrity,” or responsibility when purchasing work, particularly in the anonymous arena of online consumerism. (603, emphasis added)

Throughout her thoughtful and well-researched essay, Ritter uses first person pronouns (“I” and “my,” for example) when it is appropriate:  “I think,” “I believe,” “my experiences,” etc.

This sort of use of the personal pronoun is not limited to publications in English studies.  This example comes from the journal Law and Society Review (Volume 39, Issue 2, 2005), which is an interdisciplinary journal concerned with the connections between society and the law.  The article is titled “Preparing to Be Colonized:  Land Tenure and Legal Strategy in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii” and it was written by law professor Stuart Banner:

The story of Hawaii complicates the conventional account of colonial land  tenure reform.  Why did the land tenure reform movement of the  late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries receive its earliest implementation in, of all places, Hawaii?  Why did the Hawaiians do this to themselves?  What  did they hope to  gain  from it?  This article attempts to answer  these questions.  At  the end,  I  briefly  suggest why the answers may  shed some light on the process of colonization in other times and places, and thus why the answers may be of interest to people  who are not historians of Hawaii. (275, emphasis added)

Banner uses both “I” and “my” throughout the article, again when it’s appropriate.

Even this cursory examination of the sort of writing academic writers publish in scholarly journals will demonstrate my point:  academic journals routinely publish articles that make use of the first person pronoun.  Writers in academic fields that tend to be called “the sciences” (chemistry, biology, physics, and so forth, but also more “soft” sciences like sociology or psychology) are more likely to avoid the personal pronoun or to refer to themselves as “the researcher,” “the author,” or something similar.  But even in these fields, “I” does frequently appear.

The point is this: using “I” is not inherently wrong for your research essay or for any other type of academic essay.  However, you need to be aware of your choice of first person versus third person and your role as a writer in your research project.

Generally speaking, the use of the first person “I” pronoun creates a greater closeness and informality in your text, which can create a greater sense of intimacy between the writer and the reader.  Using the first person pronoun in a textbook (like this one, for instance) lessens the distance between us (you as student/reader and me as writer), and I think it makes for easier reading of this material.

If you do decide to use a first person voice in your essay, make sure that the focus stays on your research and does not shift to you the writer.  When teachers say “don’t use I,” what they are really cautioning against is the overuse of the word “I” such that the focus of the essay shifts from the research to “you” the writer.  While mixing autobiography and research writing can be interesting (as I will touch on in the next chapter on alternatives to the research essay), it is not the approach you want to take in a traditional academic research essay.

The third person pronoun (and avoidance of the use of “I”) tends to have the opposite effect of the first person pronoun:  it creates a sense of distance between writer and reader, and it lends a greater formality to the text.  This can be useful in research writing because it tends to emphasize research and evidence in order to persuade an audience.

(I should note that much of this textbook is presented in what is called second person voice, using the “you” pronoun.  Second person is very effective for writing instructions, but generally speaking, I would discourage you from taking this approach in your research project.)

In other words, “first person” and “third person” are both potentially acceptable choices, depending on the assignment, the main purpose of your assignment, and the audience you are trying to reach.  Just be sure to consistent—don’t switch between third person and first person in the same essay.

•    What is your working thesis and how has it changed and evolved up to this point?

Remember:  a working thesis is one that changes and evolves as you write and research.  It is perfectly acceptable to change your thesis in the writing process based on your research.

Apply This!

Working alone or in small groups,  answer these questions about your research essay before you begin writing it:  

•    What is the specific research writing assignment?  Do you have written instructions from the teacher for this assignment?  Are there any details regarding page length, arrangement, or the amount of support evidence that you need to address?  In your own words, restate the assignment for the research essay.

•    What is the purpose of the research writing assignment?  Is the main purpose of your research essay to address specific questions, to provide new information to your audience, or some combination of the two?

•    Who is the audience for your research writing assignment? Besides your teacher and classmates, who else might be interested in reading your research essay?

•    What sort of voice are you going to use in your research essay?  What do you think would be more appropriate for your project, first person or third person?

•    What is your working thesis?  Think back to the ways you began developing your working thesis in the exercises in part two of The Process of Research Writing.   In what ways has your working thesis changed?

If you are working with a small group of classmates, do each of you agree with the basic answers to these questions?  Do the answers to these questions spark other questions that you have and need to have answered by your classmates and your teacher before you begin your research writing project?

Once you have some working answers to these basic questions, it’s time to start thinking about actually writing the research essay itself.  For most research essay projects, you will have to consider at least most of these components in the process:

•    The Formal Outline

•    The Introduction

•    Background Information

•    Evidence to Support Your Points

•    Antithetical Arguments and Answers

•    The Conclusion

•    Works Cited or Reference Information

The rest of this chapter explains these parts of the research essay and it concludes with an example that brings these elements together.

Creating and Revising a Formal Outline

Frequently, research essay assignments will also require you to include a formal outline, usually before the essay begins following the cover page.  Formal outlines are sort of  table of contents for your essay:  they give the reader a summary of the main points and sub-points of what they are about to read.  

The standard format for an outline looks something like this:

I.    First Major Point

    A.    First sub-point of the first major point

        1.    First sub-point of the first sub-point

        2.    Second sub-point of the first sub-point

    B.    Second sub-point of the first major point

II.    Second Major point

And so on.  Alternatively, you may also be able to use a decimal outline to note the different points.  For example:

1.    First Major point

    1.1.    First sub-point of the first major point

        1.1.1    First sub-point of the first sub-point

        1.1.2    Second sub-point of the first sub-point

    1.2.    Second sub-point of the first major point

2.    Second Major point

Sometimes, teachers ask student writers to include a “thesis statement” for their essay at the beginning of the outline.

Generally speaking, if you have one “point,” be it a major point or a sub-point, or sub-point of a sub-point (perhaps a sub-sub-point!), you need to have at least a second similar point.  In other words, if you have a sub-point you are labeling “A.,” you should have one labeled “B.”  The best rule of thumb I can offer in terms of the grammar and syntax of your various points is to keep them short and consistent.

Now, while the formal outline is generally the first thing in your research essay after the title page, writing one is usually the last step in the writing process.  Don’t start writing your research essay by writing a formal outline first because it might limit the changes you can make to your essay during the writing process.

Of course, a formal outline is quite different from a working outline, one where you are more informally writing down ideas and “sketching” out plans for your research essay before or as you write.  There are no specific rules or methods for making a working outline-- it could be a simple list of points, it could include details and reminders for the writer, or anything in-between.

Making a working outline is a good idea, particularly if your research essay will be a relatively long and complex one.  Just be sure to not confuse these two very different outlining tools.  

If you’re having trouble starting to write your research essay, revisit some of the tips I suggest in the “Brainstorming for Ideas” section of Chapter Five, “The Working Thesis Exercise.”

Apply This!

•    Working alone or in small groups,  make a formal outline of an already completed essay. You can work with any of the sample essays in previous chapters in The Process of Research Writing or any other brief sample.   Don’t  work with the sample research essay at the end of this chapter, though-- there is a sample formal outline included with it.

•    If you and your classmates made a formal outline of the same essay, compare your outlines.  Were there any significant differences in your approaches to making an outline?  What were they?

The Introduction of the Essay

Research essays have to begin somewhere, and this somewhere is called the “introduction.”  By “beginning,” I don’t necessarily mean only the first paragraph—introductions in traditional research essays are frequently several paragraphs long.  Generally speaking though, the introduction is about 25 percent or less of the total essay; in other words, in a ten-page, traditional research essay, the introduction would rarely be longer than two and a half pages.

Introductions have two basic jobs to perform:  

•    To get the reader’s attention; and

•    To briefly explain what the rest of the essay will be about.  

What is appropriate or what works to get the reader’s attention depends on the audience you have in mind for your research essay and the sort of voice or authority you want to have with your essay.  Frequently, it is a good idea to include some background material on the issue being discussed or a brief summary of the different sides of an argument.  If you have an anecdote from either your own experience or your research that you think is relevant to the rest of your project or will be interesting to your readers, you might want to consider beginning with that story.  Generally speaking, you should avoid mundane or clichéd beginnings like “This research essay is about…” or “In society today…”  

The second job of an introduction in a traditional research essay is to explain to the reader what the rest of the essay is going to be about.  This is frequently done by stating your “thesis statement,” which is more or less where your working thesis has ended up after its inevitable changes and revisions.  

A thesis statement can work in a lot of different places in the introduction, not only as the last sentence at the end of the first paragraph.  It is also possible to let your readers know what your thesis is without ever directly stating it in a single sentence.  This approach is common in a variety of different types of writing that use research, though traditionally, most academic research essays have a specific and identifiable thesis statement.

Let’s take a look at this example of a WEAK introductory paragraph:

In our world today, there are many health problems, such as heart disease and cancer.  Another serious problem that affects many people in this country is diabetes, particularly Type II diabetes. Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough insulin, and the body needs insulin to process sugars and starches.  It is a serious disease that effects millions of people, many of whom don’t even know they have the disease. In this essay, I will discuss how eating sensibly and getting plenty of  exercise are the most important factors in preventing Type 2 Diabetes.

The first two sentences of this introduction don’t have much to do with the topic of diabetes, and the following sentences are rather vague.  Also, this introduction doesn’t offer much information about what the rest of the essay will be about, and it certainly doesn’t capture the reader’s attention.

Now, consider this revised and BETTER introductory paragraph:

Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough of insulin to process starches and sugars effectively.  According to the American Diabetes Association web site, over 18 million Americans have diabetes, and as many as 5.2 million of these people are unaware that they have it. Perhaps even more striking is that the most common form of diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes, is largely preventable with a sensible diet and exercise.

This introduction is much more specific and to the point, and because of that, it does a better job of getting the reader’s attention.  Also, because it is very specific, this introduction gives a better sense to the reader where the rest of the essay will be leading.

While the introduction is of course the first thing your readers will see, make sure it is one of the last things you decide to revise in the process of writing your research essay.  You will probably start writing your essay by writing an introduction—after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.  But it is nearly impossible to write a very effective introduction if the rest of the essay hasn’t been written yet, which is why you will certainly want to return to the introduction to do some revision work after you’ve written your essay.  

Apply This!

•    Working alone or in small groups, revise one of the following “bad” introductions, being sure to get the reader’s attention, to make clear what the essay being introduced would be about, and to eliminate unneeded words and clichés.  Of course, since you don’t have the entire essay, so you may have to take certain liberties with these passages.  But the goal is to improve these “bad beginnings” without changing their meaning.

Example #1:

In society today, there are many problems with television shows.  A lot of them are not very entertaining at all.  Others are completely inappropriate for children.  It’s hard to believe that these things are on TV at all.  In fact, because of a lot of the bad things that have been on television in recent years, broadcasters have had to censor more and more shows.  They have done some of this voluntarily, but they have also been required to do this by irate advertisers and viewers as well.  For example, consider Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl.  I contend that Jackson’s performance in the 2004 Super Bowl, accident or not, has lead to more censorship on television.

Example #2:

There are a lot of challenges to being a college student.  We all know that studying and working hard will pay off in the end.  A lot of college students also enjoy to cheer for their college teams.  A lot of colleges and universities will do whatever it takes to have winning teams.  In fact, some colleges and universities are even willing to allow in students with bad test scores and very low high school grades as long as they are great athletes and can make the team better.  All of this leads to a difficult to deny observation:  college sports, especially Division I football, is full of corruption and it is damaging the academic integrity of some of our best universities.

Background Information (or Helping Your Reader Find a Context)

It is always important to explain, contextualize, and orientate your readers within any piece of writing.  Your research essay is no different in that you need to include background information on your topic in order to create the right context for the project.

In one sense, you’re giving your reader important background information every time you fully introduce and explain a piece of evidence or an argument you are making.  But often times, research essays include some background information about the overall topic near the beginning of the essay.  Sometimes, this is done briefly as part of the introduction section of the essay; at other times, this is best accomplished with a more detailed section after the introduction and near the beginning of the essay.

How much background information you need to provide and how much context you need to establish depends a great deal on how you answer the “Getting Ready” questions at the beginning of this chapter, particularly the questions in which you are asked to consider you purpose and your audience.  If one of the purposes of your essay is to convince a primary audience of readers who know little about your topic or your argument, you will have to provide more background information than you would if the main purpose of your essay was to convince a primary audience that knows a lot about your topic. But even if you can assume your audience is as familiar with the topic of your essay as you, it’s still important to provide at least some background on your specific approach to the issue in your essay.  

It’s almost always better to give your readers “too much” background information than “too little.”  In my experience, students too often assume too much about what their readers (the teacher included!) knows about their research essay.  There are several reasons why this is the case; perhaps it is because students so involved in their research forget that their readers haven’t been doing the same kind of research.  The result is that sometimes students “cut corners” in terms of helping their audience through their essay.  I think that the best way to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings is for you to always remember that your readers don’t know as much about your specific essay as you do, and part of your job as a writer is to guide your reader through the text.

In Casey Copeman’s research essay at the end of this chapter, the context and background information for the subject matter after the introduction; for example:

The problems surrounding corruption in university athletics have been around ever since sports have been considered important in American culture. People have emphasized the importance of sports and the significance of winning for a long time. According to Jerome Cramer in a special report published in Phi Delta Kappan, "Sports are a powerful experience, and America somehow took this belief of the ennobling nature of sports and transformed it into a quasi-religion" (Cramer K1).

 Casey’s subject matter, college athletics, was one that she assumed most of her primary audience of fellow college students and classmates were familiar with.  Nonetheless, she does provide some basic information about the importance of sports team in society and in universities in particular.  

Weaving in Evidence to Support Your Point

Throughout your research essay, you need to include evidence that supports your points.  There is no firm rule as to “how much” research you will want or need to include in your research essay.  Like so many other things with research writing, it depends on your purpose, the audience, the assignment, and so forth.  But generally speaking, you need to have a piece of evidence in the form of a direct quote or paraphrase every time you make a claim that you cannot assume your audience “just knows.”

Stringing together a series of quotes and paraphrases from different sources might show that you have done a lot of research on a particular topic, but your audience wants to know your interpretation of these quotes and paraphrases, and your reader wants and needs to be guided through your research.  To do this, you need to work at explaining the significance of your evidence throughout your essay.

For example, this passage does a BAD job of introducing and weaving in evidence to support a point.

In America today, the desire to have a winning team drives universities to admit academically unqualified students.  “At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive by championship-winning teams” (Duderstadt 191).

The connection between the sentence and the evidence is not as clear as it could be.  Further, the quotation is simply “dropped in” with no explanation.  Now, compare it with this revised and BETTER example:

The desire to always have a winning team has driven many universities to admit academically unqualified student athletes to their school just to improve their sports teams. According to James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, the corruption of university athletics usually begins with the process of recruiting and admitting student athletes. He states that, "At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive but championship-winning teams" (Duderstadt 191).

Remember:  the point of using research in writing (be it a traditional research essay or any other form of research writing) is not merely to offer your audience a bunch of evidence on a topic.  Rather, the point of research writing is to interpret your research in order to persuade an audience.  

Antithetical Arguments and Answers

Most research essays anticipate and answer antithetical arguments, the ways in which a reader might disagree with your point. Besides demonstrating your knowledge of the different sides of the issue, acknowledging and answering the antithetical arguments in your research essay will go a long way toward convincing some of your readers that the point you are making is correct.

Antithetical arguments can be placed almost anywhere within a research essay, including the introduction or the conclusion.  However, you want to be sure that the antithetical arguments are accompanied by “answering” evidence and arguments.  After all, the point of presenting antithetical arguments is to explain why the point you are supporting with research is the correct one.

In the essay at the end of this chapter, Casey brings up antithetical points at several points in her essay.  For example:

To be fair, being a student-athlete isn’t easy.  They are faced with difficult situations when having to juggle their athletic life and their academic life at school. As Duderstadt said, "Excelling in academics is challenging enough without the additional pressures of participating in highly competitive athletic programs" (Duderstadt 190). So I can see why some athletes might experience trouble fitting all of the studying and coursework into their busy schedules.

The Conclusion

As research essays have a beginning, so do they have an ending, generally called a conclusion.  While the main purpose of an introduction is to get the reader’s attention and to explain what the essay will be about, the goal of a conclusion is to bring the reader to a satisfying point of closure.  In other words, a good conclusion does not merely “end” an essay; it wraps things up.

It is usually a good idea to make a connection in the conclusion of your essay with the introduction, particularly if you began your essay with something like a relevant anecdote or a rhetorical question.  You may want to restate your thesis, though you don’t necessarily have to restate your thesis in exactly the same words you used in your introduction.  It is also usually not a good idea to end your essay with obvious concluding cues or clichéd phrases like “in conclusion.”

Conclusions are similar to introductions on a number of different levels.  First, like introductions, they are important since they leave definite “impressions” on the reader—in this case, the important “last” impression.  Second, conclusions are almost as difficult to write and revise as introductions.  Because of this, be sure to take extra time and care to revise your conclusion.  

Here’s the conclusion of Casey Copeman’s essay, which is included at the end of this chapter:

As James Moore and Sherry Watt say in their essay “Who Are Student Athletes?”, the “marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics has been turbulent, and always will be" (7).  The NCAA has tried to make scholarly success at least as important as athletic success with requirements like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16.  But there are still too many cases where under-prepared students are admitted to college because they can play a sport, and there are too still too many instances where universities let their athletes get away with being poor students because they are a sport superstar.  I like cheering for my college team as much as anyone else, but I would rather cheer for college players who were students who worried about learning and success in the classroom, too.

“Works Cited” or “Reference” Information

If I were to give you one and only one “firm and definite” rule about research essay writing, it would be that you must have a section following the conclusion of your essay that explains to the reader where the evidence you cite comes from.  This information is especially important in academic essays since academic readers are keenly interested in the evidence that supports your point.

If you’re following the Modern Language Association rules for citing evidence, this last section is called “Works Cited.”  If you’re following the American Psychological Association rules, it’s called “References.”  In either case, this is the place where you list the full citation of all the evidence you quote or paraphrase in your research essay.  Note that for both MLA and APA style, research you read but didn’t actually use in your research essay is not included.   Your teacher might want you to provide a “bibliography” with your research essay that does include this information, but this is not the same thing.

Frankly, one of the most difficult aspects of this part of the research essay is the formatting—alphabetizing, getting the spacing right, underlining titles or putting them in quotes, periods here, commas there, and so forth.  Again, see the appendix for information on how to do this.  But if you have been keeping and adding to an annotated bibliography as you have progressed through the process of research (as discussed in chapter six), this part of the essay can actually be merely a matter of checking your sources and “copying” the citation information from the word processing file where you have saved your annotated bibliography and “pasting” it into the word processing file where you are saving your research essay.

A Student Example of a Research Essay

“The Corruption Surrounding University Athletics” by Casey K. Copeman

The assignment that Casey Copeman followed to write this research essay is similar to the assignment described earlier in this chapter:

Write a research essay about the working thesis that you have been working on with the previous writing assignments.  Your essay should be about ten pages long, it should include ample evidence to support your point, and it should follow MLA style.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that Casey’s work on this project began long before she wrote this essay with the exercises she worked through to develop her working thesis, to gather evidence, and to evaluate and categorize it.

The Corruption Surrounding University Athletics

By Casey Copeman


I.    Introduction

II.    Origins and description of the problem

    A.    The significance of sports in our society

B.    The drive and pressure for universities to win leads to admitting academically unqualified student athletes

III.    The Eligibility Rules Proposition 48 and Proposition 16

    A.    Proposition 48 explained

    B.    Proposition 16 explained

    C.    Proposition 16 challenged but upheld in the courts

    D.    Academic eligibility rules still broken

IV.    Rules Broken At School

A.    The pressures faced by athletes and universities

        1.    The pressures of being a student athlete

2.    The pressures put on universities to recruit “good players”

B.    “Athletics” emphasized over studies indirectly and directly

    1.    The indirect message is about sports above academics

2.    Occasionally, the message to emphasize sports is direct

3.    Student-athletes often steered into “easy” classes

C.    Good student athletes, mostly in sports other than football and men’s basketball, get a bad name

V.    Conclusion

    Most young people who are trying to get into college have to spend a lot of time studying and worrying.  They study to get good grades in high school and to get good test scores, and they worry about whether or not all of the studying will be enough to get them into the college of their choice.  But there is one group of college students who don’t have to study and worry as much, as long as they are outstanding football or basketball players:  student athletes.

Issues involving student athletes with unsatisfactory test scores, extremely low grade point averages, special privileges given to them by the schools, and issues concerning their coaches' influence on them academically, have all been causes of concern with university athletics. The result is a pattern where athletics at the university level are full of corruption surrounding the academic standards and admittance policy that are placed upon some university athletes.  In this essay, I will explain what I see as the source of this corruption and the ways in which academic standards are compromised in the name of winning.

The problems surrounding corruption in university athletics have been around ever since sports have been considered important in American culture. People have emphasized the importance of sports and the significance of winning for a long time. According to Jerome Cramer in a special report published in Phi Delta Kappan, "Sports are a powerful experience, and America somehow took this belief of the ennobling nature of sports and transformed it into a quasi-religion" (Cramer K1).  Cramer also says,

"The original sin of sports in United States society seems to have been committed when we allowed our games to assume too much of our lives. It was as if we could measure our moral fiber by the won/lost record of our local team. Once schools began to organize sports, winning became a serious institutional consideration. Our innocence vanished when we refused to accept losing" (Cramer K1).

This importance of sports and winning in the United States today is what has led to this corruption that we now see in our top universities when it comes to athletes and how they are treated by their schools.

The desire to always have a winning team has driven many universities to admit academically unqualified student athletes to their school just to improve their sports teams. According to James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, the corruption of university athletics usually begins with the process of recruiting and admitting student athletes. He states that, "At many universities, the tradition of athletic success requires coaches to produce not only competitive but championship-winning teams" (Duderstadt 191). This, in turn, "puts enormous pressure to recruit the most outstanding high school athletes each year, since this has become the key determinant of competitive success in major college sports"(Duderstadt 192).

According to Duderstadt, "Coaches and admissions officers have long known that the pool of students who excel at academics and athletics is simply too small to fill their rosters with players who meet the usual admissions criteria" (Duderstadt 193). This pressure put on coaches to recruit the best athletes "leads them to recruit athletes who are clearly unprepared for college work or who have little interest in a college education" (Duderstadt 193). This obviously leads to a problem because although most universities have standards that must be met for students to be admitted, "in all too many cases, recruited athletes fail to meet even these minimum standards" (Duderstadt 193).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) set some minimum standards for admission in January of 1986. They had decided that "the time had come to make sure that college athletes were not only athletically qualified, but that they also were academically competent to represent schools of higher learning" (Cramer K4). Proposition 48 required that "all entering athletes score a minimum of 700 on their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and achieve a minimum high school grade point average in core academic courses of 2.0, or sit out their first year" (Duderstadt 194). This seemed like a fairly reasonable rule to most universities around the country, and some even thought, "a kid who can not score a combined 700 and keep a C average in high school should not be in college in the first place" (Cramer K4).  

In 1992, the NCAA changed these requirements slightly with the introduction of proposition 16.  According to the document “Who Can Play? An Examination of NCAA’s Proposition 16,” which was published on the National Center for Educational Statistics in August 1995, Proposition 16 requirements are “more strict than the current Proposition 48 requirements. The new criteria are based on a combination of high school grade point average (GPA) in 13 core courses and specified SAT (or ACT) scores.”

Some coaches and college athletes have argued against proposition 48 and proposition 16 because they claim that they unfairly discriminate against African-American students.  According to Robert Fullinwider’s web-based article “Academic Standards and the NCAA,” some “black coaches were so incensed that they toyed with the idea of boycotting NCAA events.”  Fullinwider goes on:

John Thompson, then-coach of Georgetown University’s basketball team, complained that poor minority kids were at a disadvantage taking the "mainstream-oriented" SAT. "Certain kids," he noted just after the federal court’s decision, "require individual assessment. Some urban schools cater to poor kids, low-income kids, black and white. To put everybody on the same playing field [i.e., to treat them the same in testing] is just crazy."

Fullinwider writes that the legality of Proposition 16 was challenged in March 1999 on the basis that it was discriminatory to African-American student athletes.  However, in its summary of the case Cureton v. NCAA, the Marquette University Law School You Make the Call web site explains that the federal courts ultimately decided that Proposition 16 was not a violation of students’ civil rights and could be enforced by the NCAA.

With rules like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16, "the old practice of recruiting athletes who are clearly unqualified for admission with the hope that their contributions on the field will be sufficient before their inadequacy in the classroom, slowed somewhat" (Duderstadt 195). However, as facts show today, it seems as if these rules are harder to enforce in some universities than the NCAA originally thought.

There have been many documented instances of athletes being admitted to a university without even coming close to meeting the minimum requirements for academic eligibility set by the NCAA. One such instance happened just one year after Proposition 48 was enacted. North Carolina State University signed Chris Washburn, "one of the most highly recruited high school seniors in the nation" (Cramer K4). Although Washburn proved to be valuable to the team, it was later found out that "his combined score on the SAT was a whopping 470," and that he had "an abysmal academic record in high school" (Cramer K4). Both his SAT score and his poor grades in high school all fell much lower than the standards set by the NCAA.

According to Art Padilla, former vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina System, student athletes like Chris Washburn are not uncommon at most universities (Cramer K5). He states, "Every major college sports institution has kids with that kind of academic record, and if they deny it, they are lying" (Cramer K5).

The admitting of unqualified students is not the only place where colleges seem to step out of bounds though. Once the athlete has been admitted and signed with the university, for some, a long list of corruption from the university is still to follow when it comes to dealing with their academics.

Furthermore, many universities face a lot of pressure to recruit good players to their schools regardless of their academic skills. Debra Blum reported in 1996 about the case of a star basketball player who wanted to attend Vanderbilt University.  As Blum writes, “Vanderbilt denied him (basketball player Ron Mercer) admission, describing his academic record as not up to snuff.  So he enrolled at Kentucky, where he helped his team to a national championship last season” (A51).  The case of Vanderbilt losing Mercer caused a lot of “soul searching” at Vanderbilt, in part because there was a lot of pressure from “other university constituents, particularly many alumni ... to do what it takes to field more-competitive teams, especially in football and men’s basketball” (A51).

But these pressures are also the point where school officials are tempted to break the rules. As John Gerdy wrote in his article "A Suggestion For College Coaches: Teach By Example,” in universities where the purpose of recruiting a great athlete is to improve the team, they often claim, "intercollegiate athletics are about education, but it is obvious that they are increasingly about entertainment, money, and winning" (28).

Mixed messages are sent when some student-athletes "are referred to as "players" and "athletes" rather than "students" and "student-athletes" (Gerdy 28). It is clear that these student-athletes are sometimes only wanted for their athletic ability, and it is also clear that there are sometimes many pressures to recruit such students. As Austin C. Wherwein said, many student athletes "are given little incentive to be scholars and few persons care how the student athlete performs academically, including some of the athletes themselves" (Quoted in Thelin 183).  

In some cases, coaches directly encourage students to emphasize their athletic career instead of their studies.  One such instance, reported in Sports Illustrated by Austin Murphy, involves an Ohio State tailback, Robert Smith, who quit the football team "saying that coaches had told him he was spending too much time on academics" (Murphy 9). Smith claims that offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac "encouraged him to skip a summer-school chemistry class because it was causing Smith, who was a pre-med student, to miss football practice" (Murphy 9). Smith did not think this was right so he walked off the team (Murphy 9). Supposedly, "the university expressed support for Uzelac, who denied Smith's allegations" (Murphy 9).

Another way some universities sometimes manage the academic success of their student-athletes is to enroll them in easier classes, particularly those set up specifically for student-athletes. The curriculum for some of these courses is said to be "less than intellectually demanding"(Cramer K2). Jan Kemp, a remedial English professor at the University of Georgia who taught a class with just football players for students, was "troubled by the fact that many of her students seemed incapable of graduating from college" (Cramer K2). This seems surprising, but in fact some athletes from the University of Georgia "were described as being given more than four chances to pass developmental studies classes" without ever being successful (Cramer K2). Also, "school records show that in an effort to keep athletes playing, several were placed in the regular academic curriculum without having passed even the watered-down classes" (Cramer K2). Although this particular story comes from the University of Georgia, it is not just unique to that school. Many universities have been guilty of doing such things for their athletes just so they could continue to play on the team.

Of course, not all student-athletes are bad students. Many student-athletes actually do well in school and excel both athletically and academically. But although these true "student-athletes" do exist, they are often overshadowed by those negative images of athletes who do not do as well in school. And while all sorts of different sports have had academic problems with their athletes, the majority of corruption at the university level exists in football and basketball teams (Cramer K3). According to Duderstadt, "football and basketball are not holding their own when it comes to student academic honors" (Duderstadt 190). He says "Football and basketball have developed cultures with low expectations for academic performance. For many student-athletes in these sports, athletics are clearly regarded as a higher priority than their academic goals" (Duderstadt 191). So although this label of the bad student-athlete does not even come close to applying to all athletes, some universities are still considered, as John Thelin wrote in his book Games Colleges Play, "academically corrupt and athletically sound" (199).

As James Moore and Sherry Watt say in their essay “Who Are Student Athletes?”, the “marriage between higher education and intercollegiate athletics has been turbulent, and always will be" (7).  The NCAA has tried to make scholarly success at least as important as athletic success with requirements like Proposition 48 and Proposition 16.  But there are still too many cases where under-prepared students are admitted to college because they can play a sport, and there are too still too many instances where universities let their athletes get away with being poor students because they are a sport superstar.  I like cheering for my college team as much as anyone else, but I would rather cheer for college players who were students who worried about learning and success in the classroom, too.

Works Cited

Blum, Debra E. "Trying to Reconcile Academies and Athletics." Chronicle of Higher Education 42 (1996): A51-A52.

Cramer, Jerome. "Winning or Learning? Athletws- and Academws- In America." Phi Delta Kappan 67 (1986): KI-K9.

“Cureton v. NCAA.”  You Make the Call.  University of Marquette Law School. 2.3 (2000). 2 August 2005.

Duderstadt, James J. Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University: A University President's Perspective. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Fullinwider, Robert K. “Academic Standards and the NCAA.” Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. 19.2/3 (1999).  2 August 2005.

Gerdy, John R. "A Suggestion For College Coaches: Teach By Example." Black Issues In Higher Education 14 (1997): 28-29.

Moore, James L. III, and Sherry K. Wart. "Who Are Student Athletes?" New Directions For Student Services 93 (2001): 7-18.

Murphy, Austin. "Back On the Team." Sports Illustrated 76 (1992): 9.

Thelin, John R. Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

“Who Can Play? An Examination of NCAA’s Proposition 16.”  National Center for Educational Statistics Web Site.  August 1995.  2 August 2005.  <>.

Research Questions

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Research questions are very important.

Both professional researchers and successful student researchers develop research questions. That’s because research questions are more than handy tools; they are essential to the research process.

By defining exactly what the researcher is trying to find out, these questions influence most of the rest of the steps taken to conduct the research. That’s true even if the research is not for academic purposes but for other areas of our lives.

For instance, if you’re seeking information about a health problem in order to learn whether you have anything to worry about, research questions will make it possible for you to more effectively decide whether to seek medical help–and how quickly.

Or, if you’re researching a potential employer, having developed and used research questions will mean you’re able to more confidently decide whether to apply for an internship or job there.

The confidence you’ll have when making such decisions will come from knowing that the information they’re based on was gathered by conscious thought rather than serendipity and whim.

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out instead of only what you want to “write about.”

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out instead of only what you want to “write about.”

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out instead of only what you want to “write about.”

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out instead of only what you want to “write about.”

Most of us look for information to answer questions every day, and we often act on the answers to those questions. Are research questions any different from most of the questions for which we seek information? Yes.

See how they’re different by looking over the examples of both kinds below and answering questions about them in the next activity. After you’ve considered the examples, see the bottom of the page for a summary of the differences.

Examples: Regular vs. Research Questions

Regular Question: What time is my movie showing at Lennox on Friday?

Research Question: How do “sleeper” films end up having outstanding attendance figures?

Regular Question: What can I do about my insomnia?

Research Question:  How do flights more than 16 hours long affect the reflexes of commercial jet pilots?

Regular Question:  How many children in the U.S. have allergies?

Research Question:  How does his or her country of birth affect a child’s chances of developing asthma?

Regular Question:  What year was metformin approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration?

Research Question:  Why are nanomedicines, such as doxorubicin, worth developing?

Regular Question: Could citizens register to vote at branches of the Columbus Public Library in 2012?

Research Question:  How do public libraries in the United States support democracy?

Regular Question:  What is the Whorfian Hypothesis?

Research Question:  Why have linguists cared about the Whorfian hypothesis?

Regular Question: Where is the Apple, Inc. home office?

Research Question:  Why are Apple’s marketing efforts so successful?

Regular Question:  What is Mers?

Research Question:  How could decision making about whether to declare a pandemic be improved?

Regular Question: Does MLA style recommend the use of generic male pronouns intended to refer to both males and females?

Research Question:  How do age, gender, IQ, and socioeconomic status affect whether students interpret generic male pronouns as referring to both males and females?

Summary: Regular vs. Research Questions

Research questions cannot be answered by a quick web search. Answering them involves using more critical thinking than answering regular questions because they seem more debatable. Research questions require more sources of information to answer and, consequently, take more time to answer. They, more often than regular questions, start with the word “How” or “Why.”

Whether you’re developing research questions for your personal life, your work for an employer, or for academic purposes, the process always forces you to figure out exactly:

  • What you’re interested in finding out.
  • What it’s feasible for you to find out (given your time, money, and access to information sources).
  • How you can find it out, including what research methods will be necessary and what information sources will be relevant.
  • What kind of claims you’ll be able to make or conclusions you’ll be able to draw about what you found out.

For academic purposes, you may have to develop research questions to carry out both large and small assignments. A smaller assignment may be to do research for a class discussion or to, say, write a blog post for a class; larger assignments may have you conduct research and then report it in a lab report, poster, term paper, or article.

For large projects, the research question (or questions) you develop will define or at least heavily influence:

  • Your topic , in that research questions effectively narrow the topic you’ve first chosen or been assigned by your instructor.
  • What, if any, hypotheses  you test.
  • Which information sources  are relevant to your project.
  • Which research methods  are appropriate.

What claims you can make or conclusions  you can come to as a result of your research, including what thesis statement  you should write for a term paper or what results section  you should write about the data you collected in your own science or social science study.

Influence on Thesis

Within an essay, poster, or term paper, the thesis is the researcher’s answer to the research question(s). So as you develop research questions, you are effectively specifying what any thesis in your project will be about. While perhaps many research questions could have come from your original topic, your question states exactly which one(s) your thesis will be answering.

For example, a topic that starts out as “desert symbiosis” could eventually result in a research question that is “how does the diversity of bacteria in the gut of the Sonoran Desert termite contribute to the termite’s survival?” In turn, the researcher’s thesis will answer that particular research question instead of the numerous other questions that could have come from that topic.

It’s all part of a process that leads to greater and greater specificity.

Sometimes students inexperienced at working with research questions confuse them with the search statements they will type into the search box of a search engine or database when looking for sources for their project. Or, they confuse research questions with the thesis statement they will write when they report their research.

Influence on Hypothesis

If you’re doing a study that predicts how variables are related, you’ll have to write at least one hypothesis. The research questions you write will contain the variables that will later appear in your hypothesis(es).

Influence on Resources

You can’t tell whether an information resource is relevant to your research until you know exactly what you’re trying to find out. Since it’s the research questions that define that, it’s they that divide all information sources into two groups: those that are relevant to your research and those that are not—all based on whether each can help you find out what you want to find out and/or report the answer.

Influence on Research Methods

Your research questions will help you figure out what research methods you should use because the questions reflect what your research is intended to do. For instance, if your research question relates to describing a group, survey methods may work well. But they can’t answer cause-and-effect questions.

Influence on Claims or Conclusions

The research questions you write will reflect whether your research is intended to describe a group or situation, to explain or predict outcomes, or to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship(s) among variables. It’s those intentions and how well you carry out the study, including whether you used methods appropriate to the intentions, that will determine what claims or conclusions you can make as a result of your research.

Developing Your Research Question

Because of all their influence, you might worry that research questions are very difficult to develop. Sometimes it can seem that way. But we’ll help you get the hang of it and, luckily, none of us has to come up with perfect ones right off. It’s more like doing a rough draft and then improving it. That’s why we talk about developing research questions instead of just writing them.

Steps for Developing a Research Question

The steps for developing a research question, listed below, help you organize your thoughts.

Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).

Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.

Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.

Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.

Step 5: Change that question you’re interested in so that it is more focused.


Once you know the order of the steps, only three skills are involved in developing a research question:

  • Imagining narrower topics about a larger one,
  • Thinking of questions that stem from a narrow topic, and
  • Focusing questions to eliminate their vagueness.

Every time you use these skills, it’s important to evaluate what you have produced—that’s just part of the process of turning rough drafts into more finished products.

For each of the narrow topics below, think of a research question that is logically related to that topic. (Remember that good research questions often, but not always, start with “Why” or “How” because questions that begin that way usually require more analysis.)


  • U.S. investors’ attitudes about sustainability
  • College students’ use of Snapchat
  • The character Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Nature-inspired nanotechnologies
  • Marital therapy

After you think of each research question, evaluate it by asking whether it is:

  • Logically related to the topic
  • In question form
  • Not answerable with a quick Google search
  • Specific, not vague

Sometimes the first draft of a research question is still too broad, which can make your search for sources more challenging. Refining your question to remove vagueness or to target a specific aspect of the topic can help. Get a good look at your topic through background reading.

It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic once you have it. For one reason, you probably don’t know much about it yet. For another, such reading will help you learn the terms used by professionals and scholars who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms are certain to be helpful when you’re looking for sources later, so jot them down or otherwise remember them.

For instance, if you were going to do research about the treatment for humans with bird flu, this background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term avian influenza instead of bird flu when they write about it. (Often, they also use H1N1 or H1N9 to identify the strain.) If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment.

Most sources other than journal articles are good sources for this initial reading, including the New York Times  or other mainline American news outlets, Wikipedia, encyclopedias for the discipline your topic is in (horticulture for the crabapple bud development topic, for instance), dictionaries for the discipline, and manuals, handbooks, blogs, and web pages that could be relevant.

This initial reading could cause you to narrow your topic further, which is fine because narrower topics lead to greater specificity for what you have to find out.After this upfront work, you’re ready to start developing the research question(s) you will try to answer for your assignment.

Tip: Keeping Track of Your Information

While you are in the discovery phase of your research you will come across a lot of sources and won’t know yet if they will prove useful in the long run. A handy type of software to help you keep track of all your findings that will also be extremely valuable when it comes to using the resources you end up needing is called citation management software.

Understanding and Using the Library and the Internet for Research

CC By Steven D. Krause - NC - SA

Defining “The Library” and “The Internet:” An Introduction

You might think the answers to the questions “what is a library?” and “what is the Internet?” are pretty obvious. But actually, it is easy to get them confused, and there are a number of research resources that are a bit of both:  library materials available over the Internet or Internet resources available in the library.  

Understanding the differences between the library and the Internet and knowing where your research comes from is crucial in the process of research writing because research that is available from libraries (either in print of electronic form) is generally considered more reliable and credible than research available only over the Internet.  Most of the publications in libraries (particularly in academic libraries) have gone through some sort of review process.  They have been read and examined by editors, other writers, critics, experts in the field, and librarians.  

In contrast, anyone with appropriate access to the Internet can put up a Web page about almost anything without anyone else being involved in the process:  no editors, other writers, critics, experts, or anyone else review the credibility or reliability of the evidence.

However, the line between what counts as library research and what counts as Internet research is becoming blurred.  Plenty of reliable and credible Internet-based research resources are available: online academic and popular journals, Web-based versions of online newspapers, the homepages of experts in a particular field, and so forth.  

Let’s begin with the basics of understanding the differences between libraries and the Internet.  

Libraries are buildings that house and catalog books, magazines, journals, microfilm, maps, government documents, and other resources.  It would be surprising if you attended a community college, college, or university that did not have a library, and it would be equally surprising if your school’s library wasn’t a prominent and important building on campus.  

As you might expect, libraries at community colleges, colleges, and universities tend to specialize in scholarly materials, while public libraries tend to specialize in non-scholarly materials.  You are more likely to find People magazine or the latest best-selling novels in a public library and a journal like College English  and scholarly books in a college library.  

Many universities have different libraries based on distinctions like who tends to use them (“graduate” or “undergraduate” libraries) or based on specific subject matter collected within that particular library (education, social work, law, or medicine).  Almost all college and university libraries also have collections of “special items,” which include items like rare books, maps, and government documents.  

While we tend to see the library as a “place,” most people see the Internet as something less physically tangible (though still somehow a “place”).  Basically, the Internet is the international network of computers that makes things like email, the World Wide Web, blogs, and online chat possible.  In the early 1970s, the beginnings of the Internet (then known as “ARPANET”) consisted of about a half-dozen computers located at research universities in the United States.  Today, the Internet is made up of tens of millions of computers in almost every part of the world.  The World Wide Web appeared in the mid-1990s and has dramatically changed the Internet.  The Web and the Web-reading software called “browsers” (Internet Explorer and Netscape, for example) have made it possible for users to view or “surf” a rich mix of Web pages with text, graphics, animations, and video.

Almost all universities, colleges, and community colleges in the United States provide students and faculty with access to the Internet so they can use email and the World Wide Web, or even so they can publish Web pages.  Millions of people both in and out of school have access to the Internet through “Internet Service Providers,” which are companies both large and small that provide customers access to the ‘net for a monthly fee.

An enormous variety of information, text, and media are available to almost anyone via the Internet:  discussion groups, books available for download or for online reading, journal and magazine articles, music and video clips, virtual “rooms” for live “chats.”  

In the simplest sense, the differences between libraries and the Internet is clear:  buildings, books, magazines, and other physical materials, versus computers everywhere connected via networks, the World Wide Web, and other electronic, digitized, or “virtual” materials.  

However, in practice, these differences are not always so clear.

First, almost all university, college, and community college libraries provide patrons access to the Internet on their campuses.  Being able to access almost anything that is available on the Internet at computers in your library has the effect of blurring the border between library and non-library resources.  And just because you happened to find your research on a Web page while you were physically in the library obviously doesn’t make your Web-based research as credible as the materials housed within the library.

Second, many libraries use the Internet or the World Wide Web to provide access to electronic databases, some of which even contain “full text” versions of print publications.  This will be covered in more detail in the next section of this chapter, “Finding Research in the Library: An Overview;”  however, generally speaking, the research from these resources (even though it looks  a lot like what you might find on a variety of Internet-based Web pages) is considered as reliable and credible as more traditional print sources.

Third, most libraries allow for patrons to search their collections via the Internet.  With an adequate Internet connection, you don’t have to actually go to the library to use the library.  

The point is that while some obvious differences still exist between research you find in the library versus research you find on the Internet, there are many interesting similarities and points where the library and the Internet are actually one in the same.  

Libraries, The Internet, and Somewhere In-between


•  Traditional books

•  Traditional academic journals and popular magazines

•  Newspapers

•  Microfilm and microfiche documents

•  Government documents

•  Rare books and materials

Somewhere In-between

•  Electronically reproduced books

•  Digitized articles from journals or magazines found in a library database

•  Database search tools

The Internet

•  Email between friends

•  Newsgroups

•  Personal homepages

•  Internet Search Engines

•  Web versions of printed newspapers

•  Web-based academic journals or popular “magazines”

•  Web pages for groups or organizations

Researching in the Library

The best source for information about how to find things in your library will come directly from the librarians who can answer your questions. But here is an overview of the way most academic libraries are organized and some guidelines for finding materials in the library.

On most campuses, the main library is a very prominent building, although some schools have several smaller libraries focused on particular subjects housed within other academic buildings.  Almost all libraries have a circulation desk, where patrons can check out items.  Most libraries also have an information or reference desk  that is staffed with reference librarians to answer your questions about using reference materials, about the databases available for research, and other questions about finding materials in the library.  Libraries usually have a place where you can make photocopies for a small cost and they frequently have computer labs available to patrons for word processing or connecting to the Internet.

Many libraries still have a centralized area with computer terminals that are connected to the library’s computerized databases, though increasingly, these terminals are located throughout the building instead of in one specific area.  (Very few libraries still actually have card catalogs, and when they do, these catalogs are usually for specialized and small collections of materials.)  You will want to get familiar with your library’s database software because it will  be your key resource in finding just about anything in the building.

Libraries tend to have particular reading rooms or places where they keep current newspapers and periodicals, and where they keep bound periodicals, which are previous editions of journals and magazines bound together by volume or year and kept on the shelf like books.  Many libraries also have specialized areas where they keep government documents, rare books and manuscripts, maps, video tapes, and so forth.

How do you find any of these things in the library?  Here are some guidelines for finding books, journals, magazines, and newspapers.


You will need to use the library’s computerized catalog to find books the library owns.  Most library database systems allow you to conduct similar types of searches for books.  Typically, you can search by:

Author or editor.  Usually, this is a “last name first” search, as in “Krause, Steven D.”  If you are looking for the name of a writer who contributed a chapter to a collection of essays, try using a “key word” search instead.

Title.Most library databases will allow you to search by typing in the complete title or part of the title.

Key word.  This is different from the other types of searches in that it is a search that will find whatever words or phrases you type in.  

Whatever you type into a key word search is what you’re going to get back.  For example, if you typed in “commercial fishing” into a key word search, you are likely to get results about the commercial fishing industry, but also about “commercials” (perhaps books about advertising) and about “fishing” (perhaps “how to” books on fly fishing, or a reference to the short story collection Trout Fishing in America).  

Most library computer databases will allow you to do more advanced key word searches that will find phrases, parts of words, entries before or after a certain date, and so forth.  You can also increase the quality of your results by doing more keyword searches with synonyms of the word or words you originally have in mind.  For example, if you do a keyword search for “commercial fishing,” you might also want to try searching for “fish farming,” “fisheries,” or “fishing industry.”

Library of Congress Subject.Chances are, your university, college, or community college library arranges their books according to the same system used by the U.S. Library of Congress.  (The other common system, the Dewey Decimal System, is sometimes the organizational system used at public libraries and high school libraries.)  The Library of Congress system has a long but specific list of subjects that is used to categorize every item.  For example, here are some Library of Congress subjects that might be of interest to someone doing research on the ethical practices of the pharmaceutical industry:

    •    Pharmaceutical ethics.

    •    Pharmaceutical ethics, United States.

    •    Pharmaceutical industry.

    •    Pharmaceutical industry, Corrupt practices, United States.

Each one of these categories is actually a Library of Congress subject that is used to categorize books and materials.  In other words, when a new book on pharmaceuticals comes into the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a librarian categorizes it according to previously determined subject categories and assigns the book a number based on that category.  These “official” categories and the related Library of Congress Call Numbers (more on that in a moment) are the way that libraries that use the Library of Congress system keep track of their books.  

Call Number.  Most academic library database systems will allow you to search for a book with a particular call number.  However, this feature is probably only useful to you if you are trying to find out if your library has a specific book you want for your research.

When you are first searching for books on a research idea or topic at your library, you should begin with key word searches instead of author, title, or subject searches.  However, once you find a book that you think will be useful in your research, you will want to note the different authors and subjects the book fits into and search those same categories.

Here’s an example of a book entry from a library computer database with the most important parts of the entry labeled:

The “Subjects” information might be particularly helpful for you to find other books and materials on your topic.  For example, if you did a subject search for “Drugs- - Side effects,” you would find this book plus other related books that might be useful in your research.

In most university libraries, to retrieve this book, you need to find it on one of the book shelves, or, as they are often known, the “stacks.”  This can be an intimidating process, especially if you aren’t used to the large scale of many college and university libraries.  But actually, finding a book on a shelf is no more complicated than finding a street address.  

The Library of Congress Call Number— in this example, RM 302.5 .C64 2001– is essentially the “address” of that book within the library.  To get to it, you will first want to find out where your library keeps the books.  This might be very obvious in many libraries, and not at all obvious in others.  When in doubt, check with a librarian.  

The Library of Congress Call Number system works alphabetically and then numerically, so to find the book in our example, you need to find the shelf (or shelves) where the library keeps books that begin with the call letters “RM.” Again, this will be very obvious in many libraries, and less obvious in others.  At smaller academic libraries, finding the location of the “RM” books might be quite easy.  But at some large academic libraries, you might need to find out what floor or even what building houses books that begin with the call letters “RM.”

If you were looking for the book in our example (or any other with a call number that began with “RM”), you can expect it to be somewhere between where they keep books that begin with the call letters “RL” and “RN.”  Once you find where the “RM”s are, you’ll need to find the next number, 302.5.  Again, this will be on the shelf numerically, somewhere between books with a call number that begins with “RM 302.4” and “RM 302.6.”  By the time you get to this point, you are getting close.  Then you’ll want to locate the “.C64” part, which will be between “.C63” and “.C65, “ then the next “.D7”, and then finally the 2001.

If you go to the shelf and are not able to locate the book, there are three possible explanations:  either the book is actually checked out, you have made a mistake in looking the book up, or the library has made a mistake in cataloging or shelving the book.  It’s very easy to make a mistake and to look for a book in the wrong place, so first double-check yourself.  However, libraries do make mistakes either by mis-shelving an item or by not recording that it has been checked out.  If you are sure you’re right and you think the library has made a mistake, ask a librarian for help.

One last tip:  when you find the book you are looking for, take a moment to scan the other books on the shelf near it.  Under the Library of Congress system, books about similar subjects tend to be shelved near each other.  You can often find extremely interesting and useful books by looking around on the shelf like this.

Journals, Magazines, and Newspapers

Libraries group journals, magazines, and newspapers into a category called “periodicals,” which, as the name implies, are items in a series that are published “periodically.”  Periodicals include academic periodicals that are perhaps published only a few times a year, quarterly and monthly journals, or weekly popular magazines.  Newspapers are also considered periodicals.

Periodical Indexes

Your key resource for finding articles in periodic materials for your research project will be some combination of the many different indexes that are available.  There are hundreds of different indexing tools, so be sure to ask the librarians at your library about what resources are available to you.

Many indexes are quite broad in their scope—The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and the online resources ArticleFirst  and WilsonSelect  are common examples—while others are quite specific, like The Modern Language Association Bibliography (which covers fields like English, Composition and Rhetoric, and Culture Studies, not to mention studies in other languages) and ABI/INFORM (which indexes materials that have to do with business and management).

It is crucial that you examine different indexes as you conduct your research:  different indexes will lead you to different articles that are relevant for your research idea or topic.

While indexes frequently overlap with each other, using different indexes will give you a wider variety of results.  Some library computer systems make this easy to do by allowing you to search multiple indexes at the same time.  However, not all libraries have this capability and not all indexes will allow for these kinds of searches.

Most periodical indexes have gone the way of the card catalog and are now available electronically.  How these electronic databases work varies, but typically patrons can search by keyword or author, and sometimes by subject (though “subject” in these online databases isn’t necessarily as strict as the “subject” used in the Library of Congress system).  A few indexes are still only available in “paper” form and these tend to be kept in library reference areas.  

Database interfaces:  differences and similarities

As I’ve mentioned previously, there are too many differences between library databases to provide too many details about how to use them in this chapter.  You may have already noticed this in your own experiences with databases in your library.  

Some of these differences can be rather confusing.  For example, a “subject search” for a book in a database that uses the Library of Congress cataloging system is not at all the same as a “subject search” with a periodical database like WilsonSelect.

This is the search screen of the “FirstSearch” database system.  While this particular example is of the MLA database, all of the databases supported by FirstSearch use a similar search screen.  However, different database systems will have different search screens with different options and commands.

Fortunately, there are two common features with just about any library search software tool that will aid you in your research:

•    Author searches, which almost always works the same in different databases; and

•    Keyword searches.  Keyword searches usually allow for different Boolean search functions.  In some databases, you need to indicate that you are searching for a phrase.  This is often done with putting quotes around a phrase:  “space shuttle” will find just that phrase; without quotes, it will find all occurrences of the keywords space and shuttle.  Some keyword searches also allow a “not” function.  For example, shuttle NOT space would exclude keyword references to the space shuttle.  Boolean searches also usually allow for “and/or” searches:  “Hillary and/or Bill Clinton” would return information about Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and information that was about both Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Indexes typically provide the key information a reader needs to make some judgment about a periodical article and the information about where to actually find the article:  the title of the publication, the title of the article, the name of the author, the date of publication, and the page numbers where the article appears.  Sometimes, indexes also provide abstracts, which are brief summaries of the article that can also let readers know if it is something they are interested in reading.  

Here is an example of a typical entry from a periodical index resource; specifically, this example is a portion of an entry from the online database Wilson Select Plus:

Accessing an Article

To find the article, you first have to determine if your library has the particular periodical.  This is a key step because just because an item is listed in an index you have available to you in your library doesn’t mean that your library subscribes to that particular periodical. If you know it is an article that is critical to your research and it is in a periodical your library doesn’t carry, you might want to discuss your options with a librarian.  You still might be able to get access to the article, but you will probably have to wait several days or even weeks to get it, and your library might charge you a fee.

The process of how to find out if your library subscribes to a particular periodical varies from library to library.  At many libraries, you can learn whether or not a particular periodical is available by doing a “title” search of the library’s main electronic catalog.  At other libraries, you have to conduct a search with a different electronic database.

You will also want to figure out whether or not the article you are looking for appears in a more current issue of the periodical.  Most libraries keep the current magazines, journals, and newspapers in a reading room of some sort that is separate from where they keep older issues of periodicals.  What counts as “current” depends on the periodical and your particular library’s practices.  For daily newspapers, libraries might only make a few weeks of the current editions available, while they might consider all of a year’s worth of a journal that is only published three or four times a year as current.

If your library does carry the particular periodical publication where the article appears, your next step is to figure out how  the library carries the item.  Unlike books, libraries store periodical materials in several different ways.  Ask your librarian how you can find out how your library stores particular periodicals, though this information is usually provided to you when you find out if your library carries the periodical in the first place.

Bound periodicals. Most libraries have shelves where they keep bound periodicals,which are groups of individual issues of a periodical that are bound together into book form.  Individual issues of a magazine or journal (usually a year’s worth) are made into one large book with the title of the periodical and the volume or year of editions of the periodical printed in bold letters on the spine of the book.

Microfilm/microfiche. Libraries also store periodicals by converting them to either microfilm or microfiche because it takes much less room to store these materials.  Newspapers are almost always stored in one of these two formats or online.  Microfilms are rolls of film where a black-and-white duplicate of the periodical publication appears, page for page as it appeared in the original.  Microfiche are small sheets of film with black-and-white duplications of the original.  To read these materials, library patrons must use special machinery that projects the images of the periodical pages onto a screen.  Check with a librarian in your library about how to read and make copies of articles that are stored on microfilm or microfiche.

Electronic periodicals. Most college and university libraries also make periodicals available electronically through a particular database.  These articles are often available as just text, which means any illustrations, charts, or photographs that might have accompanied the article as it was originally published won’t be included.  However, some online databases are beginning to provide articles in a format called “Portable Document File” (PDF), which electronically reproduces the article as it originally appeared in the periodical.  

Periodicals from Electronic Databases

The example of an entry from a periodical database, “International concern for the sustainability of the world's fisheries,” is an example of one where the full text of the article is available online through the library’s database.  This example also demonstrates how the differences between “the library” and “the Internet” can be confusing.  Periodical articles available online, but originally published in a more traditional journal, magazine, or newspaper, are considered “library” and not “Internet” evidence.  

For example, I was able to read the article, which appeared in TheColorado Journal of International Environmental Law & Policy, even though my library doesn’t subscribe to the paper version of this journal, because I was able to read it electronically with the WilsonSelect database. But even though I was only able to read an electronic version of this article delivered to me via a library database accessed through the World Wide Web, I still consider this article as a “periodical” or “library” source.  

Hyperlink: For guidelines for properly citing research materials you find as “complete text” in online databases, see “Citing Your Researching Using MLA or APA Style.”

Some Final Tips

Photocopy or print out your articles.  Most academic libraries won’t let you check out periodicals.  This means you either have to read and take your notes on the article while in the library, you have to make a photocopy of the article, or, if it is available electronically, you have to print it out.  It might cost you a dollar or two and take a few minutes at a photocopier or a printer, but it will be worth it because you’ll be able to return to the article later on when you’re actually doing your writing.

Write down all the citation information before you leave the library.  When you start using the evidence you find in journals, magazines, and newspapers to support your points in your research writing projects, you will need to give your evidence credit.

The key pieces of information to note about your evidence before you leave the library include:

• the type of periodical (a journal, a magazine, or a newspaper)

•the title of the publication

•the author or authors of the article

•the title of the article

•the date of the publication

•the page numbers of the article

Recording all of this information does take a little time, but it is much easier to record that information when you first find the evidence than it is to try to figure it out later on.  

Other Library Materials

Chances are, the bulk of your library research will involve books and periodicals. But libraries have many other types of materials that you might find useful for your research projects as well.  Here are some examples and brief explanations of these materials.

Government Documents.Most college and university libraries in this country collect materials published by the United States federal government.  Given the fact that the U.S. government releases more publications than any other organization in the world, the variety of materials commonly called “government documents” is quite broad.  They include transcripts of congressional hearings and committee meetings; reports from almost every government office, agency and bureau; and pamphlets, newsletters, and periodic publications from various government sponsored institutes and associations.  If your research project is about any issue involving an existing or proposed federal law, a government reform or policy, a foreign policy, or an issue on which the U.S. Congress held hearings about, chances are the federal government has published something about it.

Check with your librarian about the government documents available and how to search them.  Most of the materials published by the U.S. government can be researched using the same databases you use to search for periodicals and books.

Interlibrary Loan.Most college and university libraries provide their patrons ways to borrow materials from other libraries.  The nature of this service, usually called interlibrary loan, varies considerably.  Many community college, college, and university libraries in the U.S. have formed partnerships with other libraries in their geographic areas to make interlibrary loan of books and even periodicals quite easy and convenient.  On the other hand, many other libraries treat each interlibrary request as a special case, which means it frequently isn’t as easy or as quick.

Theses and dissertations.  If your college or university has graduate programs, your library probably has a collection of the theses or dissertations written by these graduate students.  These documents are usually shelved in a special place in the library,  though at most libraries, you would use the same database you used to find books to find a thesis or a dissertation.

Rare books and other special collections.Many college and university libraries have collections of unusual and often valuable materials that they hold as part of a special collection.  Most of these special collections consist of materials that can be loosely classified as rare books: books, manuscripts, and other publications that are valuable because of their age, their uniqueness, the fame of the author, and so forth.  Your research project probably won’t require you to use these unusual collections, but rare book and other special collection portions of the library can be fun to visit.

Researching on the Internet

The great advantage of the Internet is it is a fast and convenient way to get information on almost anything. It has revolutionized how all academics conduct research and practice writing.  However, while the Internet is a tremendous research resource, you are still more likely to find detailed, accurate, and more credible information in the library than on the Web.  Books and journals are increasingly becoming available online, but most are still only available in libraries.  This is particularly true of academic publications.  You also have a much better chance of finding credible and accurate information in the library than on the Internet.

It is easy to imagine a time when most academic journals and even academic books will be available only electronically.  But for the time-being, you should view the library and the Internet as tools that work together and that play off of each other in the process of research.  Library research will give you ideas for searches to conduct on the Internet, and Internet research will often lead you back to the more traditional print materials housed in your library.


Electronic mail (“email”) is the basic tool that allows you to send messages to other people who have access to the Internet, regardless of where they physically might be.  Email is extremely popular because it’s easy, quick, and cheap—free, as long as you aren’t paying for Internet access.  Most email programs allow you to attach other documents like word processed documents, photos, or clips of music to your messages as well.

For the purposes of research writing, email can be a useful tool in several different ways.  

You can use email to communicate with your teacher and classmates about your research projects—asking questions, exchanging drafts of essays, and so forth.  Many teachers use email to provide comments and feedback on student work, to facilitate peer review and collaboration, or to make announcements.

Depending on the subject of your research project, you can use email to conduct interviews or surveys.  Of course, the credibility of an email interview (like more traditional phone or “face to face” interviews) is based entirely on the credibility of whom you interview and the extent to which you can trust that the person you think you are communicating with via email really is that person.  But since email is a format that has international reach and is convenient to use, you may find experts who would be unlikely to commit to a phone or “face to face” interview who might be willing to answer a few questions via email.

You can join an electronic mailing list, or listserv, to learn more about your topic and to post questions and observations. With the use of various email software, an emailing list works by sending email messages to a group of people known as “subscribers.”  Email lists are usually organized around a certain topic or issue of interest: movies, writing, biology, politics, or current events. Before posting a question or quoting messages from the mailing list, be sure to review that lists’ guidelines for posting.

Many different sorts of groups and organizations maintain mailing lists that you will be able to find most easily by finding Web-based information about that group through a Web search.

A Word about Netiquette

Netiquette is simply the concept of courtesy and politeness when working on the Internet.  The common sense “golden rule” of every day life—“do onto others as you would want them to do to you”—is the main rule to keep in mind online as well.  

But there are two reasons why practicing good netiquette in discussion forums like email, newsgroups, and chat rooms is more difficult than practicing good etiquette in real life.  First, many people new to the Internet and its discussion forums aren’t aware that there are differences between how one behaves online versus how to behave in real life.  Folks new to the Internet in general or to a specific online community in particular (sometimes referred to as newbies) often are inadvertently rude or inconsiderate to others.  It is a bit like traveling to a different country:  if you are unfamiliar with the language and customs, it is easy to unintentionally do or not do something that is considered wrong or rude in that culture.  

Second, the Internet is a volatile and potentially combative discussion space where people can find themselves offending or being offended by others quickly.  The main reason for this is the Internet lacks the visual cues of “face to face” communication or the oral cues of a phone conversation.  We convey a lot of information with the tone of our voice, our facial expression, or hand gestures.  A simple question like “Are you serious?” can take on many different meanings depending on how you emphasize the words, whether or not you are smiling or frowning, whether or not you say it in a laughing tone or a loud and angry tone, or whether or not you are raising your hand or pointing a finger at the speaker.  

The lack of visual or oral cues is also a problem with writing, of course, but online writing tends to be much more like speaking than more traditional forms of writing because it is usually briefer and much quicker in transmission.  It’s difficult to imagine a heated argument that turns into name calling happening between two people writing letters back and forth, but it is not at all difficult to imagine (or experience!) an argument that arose out of some sort of miscommunication with the use of email messages that travel from writers to readers in mere seconds.

This phenomenon of the Internet making it possible for tempers to rise quickly and for innocent conversations to lead to angry arguments even has a name:  flaming. An ongoing and particularly angry argument that takes place in a newsgroup or emailing list forum is called a “flame war.”  Flames (like conventional “fighting words”) often are the result of intentional rudeness, but they are also the result of simple miscommunications.

Here are some basic guidelines for practicing good netiquette:

Use “common sense courtesy.”    Always remember that real people are on the other side of the email or newsgroup message you are responding to or asking about.  As such, remember to try and treat people as you would want them to treat you.

Don’t type in all capital letters.  “All caps” is considered shouting on the Internet.  Unless you mean to shout something, don’t do this.

Look for, ask for, and read discussion group FAQs.  Many discussion groups have a “Frequently Asked Questions” document for their members.  Before posting to an Internet group, try to read this document to get an idea about what is or isn’t discussed in the forum.

Read some of the messages before posting to your electronic group. Make sure you have a sense of the tone and type of conversation that takes place in the forum  before posting a message of your own.

Do not send advertisements, chain letters, or personal messages to a discussion group.

Ask permission to quote from others on the list.  If someone writes something in a newsgroup or an emailing list discussion forum you think might be useful to quote in your research project, send a private email to the author of the post and ask for permission.  Along these lines, do not post copyrighted material to the Internet without getting permission from the holder of the copyright to do so.

•    Make sure your email messages and other discussion forum posts have subjects.  Keep the subject line brief and to the point, but be sure to include it.  If your message is part of an ongoing conversation, make sure your subject is the same as the other subject lines in the conversation.

Sidebar:  Be on the look out for new technologies!

One of the challenges I face in offering advice on how to use the Internet for your research is that the tools available on the Internet keep changing at an extremely rapid rate.  New and exciting technologies are emerging all the time, and many of them become popular in an amazingly short period of time.  Conversely, older Internet tools (Telnet, Gopher, newsgroups, etc.) are more fitting in a history of the Internet textbook than this one.

Here's just a partial list of emerging technologies you might be using for Internet research in the near future (if you're not using them already):

•    Blogs.  A blog (or "web log") is a web-based publication of articles, usually dated and published with the most current entries first.  Many blogs are very similar to a personal journal or diary, though other blogs are maintained collaboratively and by academic or professional writers.  Two of the most popular services are Blogger and Xanga .

•    Podcasting.  A "podcast" is a way of publishing sound files and making them available for others to listen to over the Internet.  Despite its name, you don't actually have to have an iPod to listen to a podcast, just a computer that can play MP3 sound files.  Similar to blogs, podcasts range from individual broadcasts about virtually anything on their minds to news organizations producing professional shows.  See to get started.

•    Instant Messaging.  My experience has been that most of my students are more familiar with IM than most of my fellow faculty members.  Instant messaging allows users to chat with each other in real time.  Most cell phones support IM-ing, too, called text messaging (?).  Two of the most popular IM software tools are America Online's Instant Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger

•    Peer-to-Peer file sharing.  "Peer-to-peer" sharing is a technology that allows users on a network to share files with each other.  Usually, this is associated with music sharing, and it has been controversial because of the possibility of illegally copying music files.  

•    Scholarly Publishing online.  There are currently significant differences between the materials available on the Internet and in an academic library.  Obviously, libraries have books and the Internet doesn’t.  But that might be changing sooner than you might think.  For example, Google is working with several academic libraries around the world to scan their books into their database.  (See ).   More and more periodicals are making their articles available electronically, both via “full text” databases like WilsonSelect.

The World Wide Web

Chances are, the World Wide Web will be your most valuable Internet research tool.  While you can go to literally billions of different “pages” or sites on the Web that might be useful for your research, finding them can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  This is one of the major drawbacks of the World Wide Web.  Unlike the library, where the materials are strictly organized, cataloged, and cared for, the Web is  more of a jumble of files that can be difficult to find or that are missing altogether.  

Fortunately, you can turn to several resources to aid in your World Wide Web research:  search engines, meta-search engines, and Web directories.

Search engines are software-driven Web sites that allow users to search by entering in a word, a phrase, or even another Web site address. Search engines are “for profit” enterprises which come and go in the fast-paced world of the Internet.

By far, the most popular search engine currently is Google . There are other search engines of course, notably AltaVista , and Teoma .  

But Google is so popular it has become synonymous for most users for “search engine” and is even used as a verb, as in “Where was George Washington born?  I guess I’d better google that.”

Most search engines look deceivingly simple:  enter in a few words into the window, hit return, and you’re provided thousands of hits.  However, it is somewhat more complicated than that.  For one thing, search engines make money by advertising and listing those sponsors first-- Google and other search engines note that these are “Sponsored Links.”  For another, search engine searches are conducted by machines.  Unlike a library catalog, which is created by people, search engine databases are created and searched through by powerful software that constantly scans the ever-growing World Wide Web for sites to include in its database.  Software can catalog materials faster than people, but it cannot prioritize or sort the material as precisely as people.  As a result, a search engine search will frequently return tens of thousands of matches, most of which have little relevance to you.

But to get the most out of a search engine search, you have to “search smart.”  Typing in a word or a phrase into any search engine will return results, but you have a much better chance of getting better results if you take the time conduct a good search engine search.

Read through the “advanced search” tips or “help” documents.  All of the major search engines provide information about conducting advanced searches,  which you should read for at least two reasons.  First, the advanced search tips or help documents explain the specific rules for conducting more detailed searches with that particular search engine.  Different search engines are similar, but not identical.  Some search engines will allow a search for a word root or truncation—in other words, if you type in a word with an asterisk in some search engines (“bank*” for example), you will do a search for other forms of the word (banks, banker, banking, etc.).  Some search engines don’t allow for this feature.    

Second, many search engines have features that you wouldn’t know about unless you examined the advanced search or help documents.

If you click on the "Advanced Search" option on the Google homepage, you are taken to this page that offers a variety of ways to refine your search.  For example you can search for an exact phrase, for "at least one word" in a phrase, and for pages that do not contain a particular phrase.

Use different search engines.Each search engine compiles its data a bit differently, which means that you won’t get identical results from all search engines.  Just as you should use different indexing tools when doing library periodical research, using different search engines is a good idea.

Try using as many different synonyms and related terms for your search as possible.For example, instead of using only the term “Drug advertising” in your search, try using “pharmaceutical advertising,” “prescription drug promotions,” “television and prescription drugs,” and so forth.  

This is extremely important because there is no systematic way to categorize and catalog information similar to the way it is done in libraries.  As a result, there is no such thing as a “subject” search on a search engine, certainly not in the way  you can search subjects with the Library of Congress system.  Some Web sites might refer to drunk driving as “drunk driving,” while other Web sites might refer to drunk driving as “driving while intoxicated.”

Take your time and look past the first page of your search results.  If you do a search for “drug advertising” with a search engine, you will get thousands of matches.  Most search engines organize the results so that the pages that are most likely to be useful in your search will appear first.  However, it is definitely worthwhile to page through several pages of results.  Search engines like Google support basic Boolean search commands (and, and/or, not, etc.), and a lot of other even more sophisticated commands.  For example, Google allows you to search for synonyms for a term by typing “~” in front of it.  For example, the search “~corporal punishment” also returns information about web sites that use the synonym “spanking.”

Metasearch Engines are similar to search engines, except they are software-driven Web sites that search other search engines.  The difference is that when you do a search with a search engine like Google, you are searching only through Google’s database; when you use a metasearch engine, you are searching through Google’s database along with other search engine databases.  Simply put, metasearch engines allow you to search through many different databases at the same time.

Like search engines, metasearch engines are commercial services and they come and go depending on their business successes and failures.  Currently, two of the more popular of these services are and Dogpile .

Metasearch engines might seem to have an obvious advantage over regular search engines, but in practice, this is not necessarily the case.  For one thing, metasearch engines don’t account for the different rules of different search engines very well—in other words, they will apply the same “rules” for a search to all of the search engines they are searching, regardless of how those rules might apply.  For another thing, different search engines have different rules as to what results they rank as most important.  Again, this is something that most metasearch engines don’t account for very well in their results.

In other words, right now, metasearch engines don’t usually work as well as using several different search engines independently.  When I conduct search engine research on the World Wide Web, I prefer to visit several different search engines than one metasearch engine.

If you do decide to use metasearches, keep in mind that the “tips” provided for search engines apply to these devices as well.  To do a “smart search” with a metasearch engine, be sure to read the “advanced search,” “search tips,” or “help” document, be sure to use different synonyms for the key words you are using to search, and be sure to look past the first page of results.

Web Directories

Web Directorieslook like search engines, and many of them include a search engine component.  But Web directories are different from search engines because they are collections of data about Web sites that are categorized by people and not computer programs.  

The most famous web directory is Yahoo! , which was started in 1994 by two graduate students at Stanford, David Filo and Jerry Yang.  But there are many other Web directory sites, including the following:

    • About

    • The WWW Virtual Library

    • Librarian’s Index to the Internet

In a sense, Web directories are more like library databases:  they are organized by people into logical categories, and the organizers of Web directories make some choices as to what they will and won’t include in their directories and about how they will categorize different items.  However, each search engine makes up its own system for categorizing data; there is no “standardized” system of subjects like there is with the Library of Congress system.  This means that while Web directories are “more organized” than what you might find with a search engine, they are probably “less organized” than what you might find in the library with a book or periodical database.

Web directory searches will often return higher quality Web sites because what is and isn’t included in these directories is decided by people and not computer software.  Further, some of these Web directories, like the “Librarian’s Index to the Internet,” are quite a bit more selective and specialized.  Conversely, Web directories don’t usually give you the “quantity” of information that you are likely to receive from search engines or metasearch engines.

In general, the best advice for working with Web directories is very similar to the best advice for working with search engines:  be sure to read the instructions on conducting advance searches, use more than one Web directory, and use synonyms for your key terms.  Use search engines, metasearch engines, and Web directories in conjunction with each other:  the “computer software” based searches you do with search and metasearch engines can help you refine the searches you conduct with the help of Web directories.

“Dos” and “Don’ts” of Research on the Web

•  Do  use synonyms in your         •  Don’t  stop at just search engines;

keyword searches (for example,        use directory searches, too

“drugs” and “pharmaceuticals”).

•  Don’t forget there is no organized

•  Do use multiple search             subject search on the Web that is like

engines and directories.            the subject search in a library.

•  Do read the “advanced             • Don’t stop at the first page of search

search” documents.                results; look through more than the

                        first few hits.

•  Do your searches over    

a period of time.

•  Do remember that because

anyone can create a Web site,

you need to evaluate the credibility

of web sources very carefully.


Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Understanding types of sources helps guide your search.

Once you have your research question, you’ll need information sources to answer it and meet the other information needs of your research project.

This section about categorizing sources will increase your sophistication about them and save you time in the long run because you’ll understand the big picture. That big picture will be useful as you plan your own sources for a specific research project, which we’ll help you with in the next section Sources and Information Needs.

You’ll usually have a lot of sources available to meet the information needs of your projects. In today’s complex information landscape, just about anything that contains information can be considered a source.

Here are a few examples:

  • books and encyclopedias
  • websites, web pages, and blogs
  • magazine, journal, and newspaper articles
  • research reports and conference papers
  • field notes and diaries
  • photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other art works
  • TV and radio programs, podcasts, movies, and videos
  • illuminated manuscripts and artifacts
  • bones, minerals, and fossils
  • preserved tissues and organs
  • architectural plans and maps
  • pamphlets and government documents
  • music scores and recorded performances
  • dance notation and theater set models

With so many sources available, the question usually is not whether sources exist for your project but which ones will best meet your information needs.

Being able to categorize a source helps you understand the kind of information it contains, which is a big clue to (1) whether might meet one or more of your information needs and (2) where to look for it and similar sources.

A source can be categorized by:

  • Whether it contains quantitative or qualitative information or both
  • Whether the source is objective (factual) or persuasive (opinion) and may be biased
  • Whether the source is a scholarly, professional or popular publication
  • Whether the material is a primary, secondary or tertiary source
  • What format the source is in

As you may already be able to tell, sources can be in more than one category at the same time because the categories are not mutually exclusive.

Information can be quantitative or qualitative.

One of the most obvious ways to categorize information is by whether it is quantitative or qualitative. Some sources contain either quantitative information or qualitative information, but sources often contain both.

Many people first think of information as something like what’s in a table or spreadsheet of numbers and words. But information can be conveyed in more ways than textually or numerically.

Quantitative Information  – Involves a measurable quantity—numbers are used. Some examples are length, mass, temperature, and time. Quantitative information is often called data.

Qualitative Information  – Involves a descriptive judgment using concepts (words instead of numbers). Gender, country name, animal species, and emotional state are examples of qualitative information.

Take a quick look at the Example table below. Another way we could display the table’s numerical information is in a graphic format —listing the students’ ages or GPAs on a bar chart, for example, rather than in a list of numbers. Or, all the information in the table could be displayed instead as a video of each student giving those details about themselves.

Increasingly, other formats (such as images, sound, and video) may be is used as information or used to convey information. Some examples:

  • A video of someone watching scenes from horror movies, with information about their heart rate and blood pressure embedded in the video. Instead of a description of the person’s reactions to the scenes, you can see their reactions.
  • A database of information about birds, which includes a sound file for each bird singing. Would you prefer a description of a bird’s song or an audio clip?
  • A list of colors, which include an image of the actual color. Extremely helpful, especially when there are A LOT of color names.
  • A friend orally tells you that a new pizza place is 3 blocks away, charges $2 a slice, and that the pizza is delicious. This may never be recorded, but this may be very valuable information if you’re hungry!
  • A map of Ohio with counties shaded different intensities of red according to median household income of inhabitants.

An author’s purpose can influence the kind of information he or she choses to include.

Thinking about the reason an author produced a source can be helpful to you because that reason was what dictated the kind of information he/she chose to include. Depending on that purpose, the author may have chosen to include factual, analytical, and objective information. Or, instead, it may have suited his/her purpose to include information that was subjective and therefore less factual and analytical. The author’s reason for producing the source also determined whether he or she included more than one perspective or just his/her own.

Authors typically want to:

  • Inform and educate
  • Persuade
  • Sell services or products or
  • Entertain

Thinking Critically About Sources

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Evaluating sources often involves piecing together clues.

Source evaluation usually takes place in two stages:

  • First you try to determine which sources are credible and relevant to your assignment.
  • Later, you try to decide which of those relevant and credible sources contain information that you actually want to quote, paraphrase, or summarize. This requires a closer reading, a finer examination of the source.

This lesson teaches the first kind of evaluation—how to weed out sources that are irrelevant and not credible and how to “weed in” those that are relevant enough and credible enough.

Because there often aren’t clear-cut answers when you evaluate sources, most of the time you have to make inferences–educated guesses from available clues– about whether to use information from the website or other source.

The clues are factors you should consider when trying to decide whether a source is:

  • A relevant source of information – Is it truly about your topic and from the right time period?
  • A credible source of information – Is there sufficient reason to believe it’s accurate?

Good Enough for Your Purpose?

Not every resource you turn up in your searches will be credible and relevant enough to meet your information needs. So, how will you ferret out the very best to use?

Sources should always be evaluated relative to your purpose–why you’re looking for information.

Your information needs will dictate:

  • What kind of information will help.
  • How serious you consider the consequences of making a mistake by using information that turns out to be inaccurate. When the consequences aren’t very serious, it’s easier to decide a site and its information are good enough for your purpose. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for always having accurate information, regardless.
  • How hard you’re willing to work to get the credible, timely information that suits your purpose. (What you’re learning here will make it easier.)

Thus, your standards for relevance and credibility may vary, depending on whether you need, say:

  • Information about a personal health problem
  • An image you can use on a poster
  • Evidence to win a bet with a rival in the dorm
  • Dates and times a movie is showing locally
  • A game to have fun with
  • Evidence for your argument in a term paper

For your research assignments, the consequences may be great if you use information that is not relevant or not credible.

What Do You Already Know?

You must already be continually evaluating information sources in your personal life. Think for a minute about what information you have acted on today (where to go, what to do, what to eat, whether to read this page, etc.). What helped you decide whether the information was relevant and credible?

Which of the factors below do you consider to be criteria for evaluating sources of information?

  • My instructor recommended the source
  • Other sources I like are linked to it
  • I know who runs the site
  • Its information makes sense with what I already know
  • I recognize the truth when I see it
  • The site fits with how I was raised
  • All my friends accept its information / A friend recommended the website
  • I’ve used similar sources before / I’ve used the source before and nothing bad happened
  • The website is easy to use / It has all the information I need so I don’t have to go to a lot of sites
  • What kind of site it is / The website looks professional

You probably chose at least several factors that we would agree with. Take a look at what we recommend on the next page.

Degree of Bias

Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.

— A Process for Avoiding Deception, Annenberg Classroom

Probably all sources exhibit some bias, simply because it’s impossible for their authors to avoid letting their life experience and education have an effect on their decisions about what is relevant to put on the site and what to say about it.

But that kind of unavoidable bias is very different from a wholesale effort to shape the message so the site (or other source) amounts to a persuasive advertisement for something important to the author.

Look for evidence of bias in your sources.

Even if the effort is not as strong as a wholesale effort, authors can find many—sometimes subtle—ways to shape communication until it loses its integrity. Such communication is too persuasive, meaning the author has sacrificed its value as information in order to persuade.

While sifting through all the web messages for the ones that suit your purpose, you’ll have to pay attention to both what’s on the sites and in your own mind.

That’s because one of the things that gets in the way of identifying evidence of bias on websites is our own biases. Sometimes the things that look most correct to us are the ones that play to our own biases.  

Clues About Bias

Review the website or other source and look for evidence that the site exhibits more or less bias. The factors below provide some clues.

Unbiased: This source’s information is not drastically different from coverage of the topic elsewhere. Information and opinion about the topic don’t seem to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem as though information has been shaped to fit.Biased: Compared to what you’ve found in other sources covering the same topic, this content seems to omit a lot of information about the topic, emphasize vastly different aspects of it, and/or contain stereotypes or overly simplified information. Everything seems to fit the site’s theme, even though you know there are various ways to look at the issue(s).
Citing Sources
Unbiased: The source links to any earlier news or documents it refers to.Biased: The source refers to earlier news or documents, but does not link to the news report or document itself.
Unbiased: Statements are supported by evidence and documentation.Biased: There is little evidence and documentation presented, just assertions that seem intended to persuade by themselves.
Vested Interest
Unbiased: There is no overt evidence that the author will benefit from whichever way the topic is decided.Biased: The author seems to have a “vested interest” in the topic. For instance, if the site asks for contributions, the author probably will benefit if contributions are made. Or, perhaps the author may get to continue his or her job if the topic that the website promotes gets decided in a particular way.
Imperative Language
Unbiased: Statements are made without strong emphasis and without provocative twists. There aren’t many exclamation points.Biased: There are many strongly worded assertions. There are a lot of exclamation points.
Multiple Viewpoints
Unbiased: Both pro and con viewpoints are provided about controversial issues.Biased: Only one version of the truth is presented about controversial issues.

Examples: Bias

Making the Inference

Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the bias you detected on the source is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that this factor contributes to the site being suitable on a scale like this one:

  • A – Very Acceptable
  • B – Good, but could be better
  • C – OK in a pinch
  • D – Marginal
  • F – Unacceptable

You’ll want to make a note of the source’s grade for bias so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors.

Check dates and other indicators that a source is current.

If the topic of your research is time-sensitive, the currency of information in the source will be important to your decision about whether it fits your purpose. You’ll be asking yourself whether its information is from the right time period to suit your purpose.

For some topics, that may mean you want the most up-to-date information. But for other topics, you may need primary sources—those created at the same time as the event or condition you’re researching. (Secondary sources are those that cite, comment on, or build on primary sources.)

Clues About Currency

Click around a website to gather clues as to how recent the information is. Look for statements about when the information was created:

  • The dateline on a newspaper article represented there, for instance, and/or when it was posted on the site
  • Page creation or revision dates
  • A “What’s New” page that describes when content was updated
  • Press releases or any other dated materials

Also test links on a website to see whether they work or are broken. If several are broken, perhaps no one is looking after the site anymore, which could indicate there is newer information that is relevant to the site that has never been posted there.

In a book, look at the back of the title page to see when it was published. Also take a look at the publication dates for sources listed in the bibliography. That will help you determine how current the information cited in the book is.

Making the Inference

Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the source’s currency is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that this factor contributes to the source being suitable on a scale like this one:

  • A – Very Acceptable
  • B – Good, but could be better
  • C – OK in a pinch
  • D – Marginal
  • F – Unacceptable

You’ll want to make a note of the resource’s grade for currency so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors.

Combined Purposes

Sometimes authors have a combination of purposes, as when a marketer decides he can sell more smart phones with an informative sales video that also entertains us. The same is true when a singer writes and performs a song that entertains us but that she intends to make available for sale. Other examples of authors having multiple purposes occur in most scholarly writing.

In those cases, authors certainly want to inform and educate their audiences. But they also want to persuade their audiences that what they are reporting and/or postulating is a true description of a situation, event, or phenomenon or a valid argument that their audience must take a particular action. In this blend of scholarly author’s purposes, the intent to educate and inform is considered to trump the intent to persuade.

Why Intent Matters

Authors’ intent usually matters in how useful their information can be to your research project, depending on which information need you are trying to meet. For instance, when you’re looking for sources that will help you actually decide your answer to your research question or evidence for your answer that you will share with your audience, you will want the author’s main purpose to have been to inform or educate his/her audience. That’s because, with that intent, he/she is likely to have used:

  • Facts where possible
  • Multiple perspectives instead of just his/her own
  • Little subjective information
  • Seemingly unbiased, objective language that cites where he/she got the information

The reason you want that kind of resource when trying to answer your research question or explaining that answer is that all of those characteristics will lend credibility to the argument you are making with your project. Both you and your audience will simply find it easier to believe—will have more confidence in the argument being made—when you include those types of sources.

Sources whose authors intend only to persuade others won’t meet your information need for an answer to your research question or evidence with which to convince your audience. That’s because they don’t always confine themselves to facts. Instead, they tell us their opinions without backing them up with evidence.

Fact vs. Opinion vs. Objective vs. Subjective

Need to brush up on the differences between fact, objective information, subjective information, and opinion?

Fact  – Facts are useful to inform or make an argument.


  • The United States was established in 1776.
  • The pH levels in acids are lower than pH levels in alkalines.
  • Beethoven had a reputation as a virtuoso pianist.

Opinion  – Opinions are useful to persuade or to make an argument.


  • That was a good movie.
  • Strawberries taste better blueberries.
  • George Clooney is the sexiest actor alive.
  • The death penalty is wrong.
  • Beethoven’s reputation as a virtuoso pianist is overrated.

Objective  – Objective information reflects a research finding or multiple perspectives that are not biased.


  • “Several studies show that an active lifestyle reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
  • “Studies from the Brown University Medical School show that twenty-somethings eat 25 percent more fast-food meals at this age than they did as teenagers.”

Subjective  – Subjective information presents one person or organization’s perspective or interpretation. Subjective information can be meant to distort, or it can reflect educated and informed thinking. All opinions are subjective, but some are backed up with facts more than others.


  • “The simple truth is this: As human beings, we were meant to move.”
  • “In their thirties, women should stock up on calcium to ensure strong, dense bones and to ward off osteoporosis later in life.”*

*In this quote, it’s mostly the “should” that makes it subjective. The objective version of the last quote would read: “Studies have shown that women who begin taking calcium in their 30s show stronger bone density and fewer repercussions of osteoporosis than women who did not take calcium at all.” But perhaps there are other data showing complications from taking calcium. That’s why drawing the conclusion that requires a “should” makes the statement subjective.

Another way to categorize information is by whether information is in its original format or has been reinterpreted.

Another information category is publication mode, which has to do with whether the information is in its original form, a restatement or interpretation of original information, or something that summarizes original information.

Information may be a:

Primary Source  – Information in its original form, which is not translated by anyone else and has not been published elsewhere. Such as:

  • A play
  • A novel
  • Breaking news
  • An advertisement
  • An eyewitness account
  • A painting
  • A report about a scientific discovery

Secondary Source  – Repackaged, restatement, or interpretation of primary information. Such as:

  • A book about an historical event
  • An article that critiques a novel, play or painting
  • An article or web site that summarizes and synthesizes several eyewitness accounts for a new understanding of an event.

Tertiary Source  – An index or something that condenses or summarizes information. Such as:

  • Almanacs
  • Guide books
  • Survey articles
  • Timelines
  • User guides
  • Encyclopedias

Primary sources include those that can answer your research questions and convince your audience that your answer is the correct one or at least a reasonable one. However, in our discussion of mode, it’s important to recognize that academic disciplines vary in what kinds of sources they consider primary sources. In other words, different disciplines accept different sources as those that can speak with authority—as those that can meet the information needs of answering your research question and convincing your audience your answer is correct or at least reasonable.

For instance, in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles are considered the most authoritative. But in the arts, it is the art itself—for instance, the painting, the choral performance, the hip-hop dancing done on the street—that speaks most convincingly. That doesn’t mean you could never use a video of a hip-hop dancer in a project for sociology or other social science. But if you did, it would not be to answer your research question or to convince your audience you have the right answer. It would be to meet another information need—for instance, to describe the situation surrounding your research question for your audience or convince them it is important.

If you haven’t been able to tell what sort of sources your instructor considers able to answer your research questions and convince your audience, do ask him or her. It’s an important question, and he or she will probably be impressed that you know enough to ask it.

The intended audience for a source tells us something about how the source can be used.

We can also categorize information by the expertise of its intended audience. Considering the intended audience–how expert one has to be to understand the information—can indicate whether the source has sufficient credibility and thoroughness to meet your need.

There are varying degrees of expertise:

Popular  – Popular newspaper and magazine articles (such as The Washington Post , the New Yorker , and Rolling Stone ) are meant for a large general audience, generally affordable, easy to purchase or available for free. They are written by staff writers or reporters for the general public.

Additionally, they are:

  • About news, opinions, background information, and entertainment.
  • More attractive than journals, with catchy titles, attractive artwork, and many advertisements but no footnotes or references.
  • Published by commercial publishers.
  • Published after approval from an editor.
  • For information on using news articles as sources (from newspapers in print and online, broadcast news outlets, news aggregators, news databases, news feeds, social media, blogs, and citizen journalism), see News as a Source.

Professional  – Professional magazine articles (such as Plastic Surgical Nursing and Music Teacher)  are meant for people in a particular profession, often accessible through a professional organization. Staff writers or other professionals in the targeted field write these articles at a level and with the language to be understood by everyone in the profession.

Additionally, they are:

  • About trends and news from the targeted field, book reviews, and case studies.
  • Often less than 10 pages, some of which may contain footnotes and references.
  • Usually published by professional associations and commercial publishers.
  • Published after approval from an editor.

Scholarly  – Scholarly journal articles (such as Plant Science  and Education and Child Psychology) are meant for scholars, students, or the general public who want a deep understanding of a problem or issue. Researchers and scholars write these articles to present new knowledge and further understanding of their field of study.

Additionally, they are:

  • Where findings of research projects, data and analytics, and case studies usually appear first.
  • Often long (usually over 10 pages) and always include footnotes and references.
  • Usually published by universities, professional associations, and commercial publishers.
  • Published after approval by peer review or from the journal’s editor.

Scholarly writers use sources to fill specific roles and make a persuasive argument.

Does this nightmare sound like how you feel every time you have to write a term paper?

Your team is playing in the big game and you’re the coach. (Maybe the real coach missed the plane. Who knows–it’s a nightmare!) The stakes are high. You know your players are good athletes—you have access to the best and plenty of them. But you don’t really know good strategies of the game, so you don’t quite know how to use your players. For instance, is it better to keep your quarterback fresh by substituting often? Your kicker is not as bulky as your tackles. Is that typical of good kickers or should you find somebody else? And what about your linemen—can they tackle as well as block?

What makes this a nightmare is not knowing  how to use your players in a high-pressure game. Unfortunately, that situation is similar to writing a term paper if all you know are directions like these:

Your paper must be in 12 pt. font, Times New Roman, double spaced with no more than 1″ margins, and include a minimum of 8 total articles comprised of:

  • At least 2 peer-review articles
  • 3 (no more than 6) popular articles (magazine or newspaper)
  • 2 (no more than 4) electronic sources (website or blog)

So you know you need sources. But directions like those aren’t much help with what to actually do  with the sources in your paper. Even with credible sources, it’s very difficult to write a persuasive paper until you learn the roles that sources play—how you can use them—within your paper.

But who said anything about a persuasive  paper? Perhaps one of the things you don’t know is that with most term papers and essays, the unstated expectation  is that you will use your sources to make an argument. That’s because most scholarly writing makes an argument. (You will be arguing that your thesis is correct.)

Obviously, it’s high time someone helped you learn all this!

For both professionals and student researchers, successful scholarly writing uses sources to fill various roles within the term paper, journal article, book, poster, essay, or other assignment.

Those roles all have to do with rhetoric—the art of making a convincing argument. Putting your sources to work for you in these roles can help you write in a more powerful, persuasive way—to, in fact, win your argument.

This table, created from the ideas developed by Joseph Bizup, describes the roles that sources can play (some of the ways they can be used) in your finished assignment, such as a term paper. Bizup called his model BEAM, an acronym that stands for background, exhibits (or evidence), argument, and method.

Role for SourcesHow toUse ThemKinds of Sources That Can Have That Role*
Background**Writers rely on these sources for general factual information. For instance, a writer could use background information to introduce a setting, situation, or problem in the term paper.Usually secondary sources and tertiary sources, but, basically, just anything other than journal articles that report original research. Some examples: literature review articles, non-fiction books, and biographies (secondary) and field guides and Wikipedia (tertiary).
Exhibits or EvidenceWriters interpret and analyze sources like these in the same way they are used as exhibits and evidence in a museum or a court.Usually primary sources. Some examples: newspaper articles from the time in question, works of literature or art, and research articles.
ArgumentWriters engage with these sources that they agree with or disagree with. The sources are usually written by scholars in their field. For instance, writers often include sources that describe earlier work that is specifically relevant to their own research question and their thesis (what they consider to be the answer to that question.)Usually primary and secondary sources. Some examples of primary sources: research articles in the sciences and humanities and recordings of performances in the arts. Some examples of secondary sources: commentaries and criticisms, such as those that appear in literature reviews, textbooks, and blogs that comment on research.
Method or TheoryWriters follow the key terms, concepts, or manner of working that are explained in these sources. That is, they pay attention to and use the relevant work of others before them to carry out their own work and then describe it in the term paper.Often secondary sources. Some examples: literature reviews, textbooks, and blogs that comment on research.

A Closer Look at Common Formats

Books  – Usually a substantial amount of information, published at one time, requiring great effort on the part of the author and a publisher.

Magazines/Journals  – Published frequently, contain lots of articles, related to some general or specific professional research interest, edited, and selected.

Newspapers  – Usually a daily publication of events of social, political and lifestyle interest.

Web sites  – Digital item, consisting of multiple pages produced by someone with technical skills or the ability to pay someone with technical skills.

Articles  – A distinct, short, written piece that might contain photos and is generally timely. Timeliness can mean that it’s because it’s something that is of interest to readers at the point of publication or that is something the writer is thinking about or researching at a given point of time.

Tip: Evaluating Articles

Evaluating whether articles are credible enough for your information need is similar to evaluating any other source. There’s more information on evaluating in Evaluating Sources.

Conference Papers  – Written form of a paper delivered at a professional or research-related conference. Authors are generally practicing professionals or scholars in the field.

Blogs  – A frequently updated website that does not necessarily require extensive technical skills and can be published by virtually anyone for no cost to themselves other than the time they devote to content creation. Usually marked by postings that indicate the date when they were written.

Documentaries  – A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration.

Online Videos  – A short video produced by anybody, with a lot of money or a little money, about anything for the world to see. Common sites for these are YouTube and Vimeo.

Podcasts  – A short audio or video produced by anybody, with a lot of money or a little money, about anything for the world to see. Common sites for these are YouTube and Vimeo.

Why are articles in scholarly journals such valuable sources? It’s because they present new research on specific research questions, which makes them primary sources. And, when they are secondary sources, they are valuable because they review existing research in a field.

Evaluating Websites

What are the clues for inferring a source’s relevancy and credibility? Let’s start with evaluating websites, since we all do so much of our research online. But we’ll also include where to find clues relevant to sources in other formats when they differ from what’s good to use with websites. Looking at specific places in the sources will mean you don’t have to read all of every resource to determine its worth to you.

Note: Since we all do so much of our research online, this lesson emphasizes how to evaluate websites as sources. But along the way, we’ll interject information about evaluating sources in other formats, too, when it differs from what’s used with websites.

What Used to Help

It used to be easier to draw conclusions about an information source’s credibility, depending on whether it was a print source or a web source. We knew we had to be more careful about information on the web–simply because all the filters that promoted accuracy involved in the print publishing process were absent from most web publishing. After all, it takes very little money, skill, and responsible intent to put content on the web, compared with what has to be done to convince print publishers your content is accurate and that they will make money by printing it.

However, many publishers who once provided only print materials have now turned to the web and have brought along their rigorous standards for accuracy. Among them are the publishers of government, university, and scholarly (peer-reviewed) journal websites. Sites for U.S. mainline news organizations also strive for accuracy rather than persuasion–because they know their readers have traditionally expected it. All in all, more websites now take appropriate care for accuracy than what used to be true on the web.

Nonetheless, it still remains very easy and inexpensive to publish on the web without any of the filters associated with print. So we all still need the critical thinking skills you’ll learn here to determine whether websites’ information is credible and relevant enough to suit your purpose.

6 Factors to Consider

Evaluating a website means considering the six factors below in relation to your purpose for the information. These factors are what you should gather clues about and use to decide whether a site is right for your purpose.

  • The source’s neighborhood on the web
  • Author and/or publisher’s background
  • The degree of bias
  • Recognition from others
  • Thoroughness of the content
  • Currency of the content

How many factors you consider at any one time depends on your purpose when seeking information. In other words, you’ll consider all six factors when you’re looking for information for a research project or other high-stakes situation where making mistakes have serious consequences. But you might consider only the first three factors for many of your other information needs.

The reputation of the author and publisher influences your confidence in a source.

You’ll always want to know who’s providing the information for a website or other source. Do they have the education, training, or other experience that make you think they are authorities on the subject covered? Or do they just have opinions?

The more you know about the author and/or publisher, the more confidence you can have in your decision for or against using content from that source.

Authors and publishers can be individuals or organizations, including companies. (Web masters usually put things on the site, but do not don’t decide what goes on all but the smallest websites. They often just carry out others’ decisions.)

Sites that do not identify an author or publisher are generally considered less credible for many purposes, including term papers and other high-stakes projects. The same is true for sources in other formats.

Clues About an Author’s and/or Publisher’s Background

If they’re available, take a look at pages called such things as About This Site, About Us, or Our Team first.  But you may need to browse around a site further to determine its author. Look for a link labeled with anything that seems like it would lead you to the author. Other sources, like books, usually have a few sentences about the author on the back cover or on the flap inside the back cover.

You may find the publisher’s name next to the copyright symbol, ©, at the bottom of at least some pages on a site. In books the identity of the publisher is traditionally on the back of the title page.

Sometimes it helps to look for whether a site belongs to a single person or to a reputable organization.  Because many colleges and universities offer blog space to their faculty, staff, and students that uses the university’s web domain, this evaluation can require deeper analysis than just looking at the address. Personal blogs may not reflect the official views of an organization or meet the standards of formal publication.

In a similar manner, a tilde symbol (~) preceding a directory name in the site address indicates that the page is in a “personal” directory on the server and is not an official publication of that organization. For example, you could tell that Jones’ web page was not an official publication of XYZ University if his site’s address was: The tilde indicates it’s just a personal web page—in the Residences, not Schools, neighborhood of the web.

Unless you find information about the author to the contrary, such blogs and sites should not automatically be considered to have as much authority as content that is officially part of the university’s site. Or you may find that the author has a good academic reputation and is using their blog or website to share resources he or she authored and even published elsewhere. That would nudge him or her toward the Schools neighborhood.

Learning what they have published before can also help you decide whether that organization or individual should be considered credible on the topic. Listed below are sources to use to look for what the organization or individual may have published and what has been published about them.

Tip: Find Out What the Author (Person or Organization) Has Published

Library Catalogs  – Search in a large library catalog to find books written by the author.

For example:

Web Article Database  – Use a free web article database to search for articles by this author. Note: While you can search for free, you may not be able to retrieve articles unless searching through a library.

For example:

Specialized Database  – Locate articles written by the author by using a specialized database that covers the same topical area as information on the website. Check your library’s website to find databases that you can use for this purpose. (Such databases are also called periodical indexes.)

For example:

  • Use ERIC (OSU users only) to locate any articles published by the author of an education website.

Tip: Find Out What Has Been Written About The Author

Web Search Engine  – Use a search engine to find web pages where the author’s name is mentioned. (Be sure to search for the name as a phrase, as in “Jane Doe”)

For example:

Full-Text Article Database  – Use a database that searches the full-text of articles (not just descriptive information about the article) to find those that mention people and organizations.

For example:

Specialized Biographical Sources  – Use directories and indexes provided by your library to find backgrounds of people.

For example:

Activity: Identifying Authors

Open activity in a web browser.

Making the Inference

Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the source’s author and/or publisher is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that this factor contributes to the site being suitable on a scale like this one:

  • A – Very Acceptable
  • B – Good, but could be better
  • C – OK in a pinch
  • D – Marginal
  • F – Unacceptable

You’ll want to make a note of the source’s grade for author and/or publisher so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors

Peer-Reviewed Sources

The most-respected scholarly journals are peer-reviewed, which means that other experts in their field check out each article before it can be published. It’s their responsibility to help guarantee that new material is presented in the context of what is already known, that the methods the researcher used are the right ones, and that the articles contribute to the field.

Peer-reviewed articles are more likely to be credible. Peer-reviewed journal articles are the official scholarly record, which means that if it’s an important development in research, it will probably turn up in a journal article eventually.

Parts of a Scholarly Article

But, of course, the articles you use for your assignments must also be relevant  to your research question—not just credible. Reading specific parts of an article can help save you time as you decide whether an article is relevant.

Most scholarly articles are housed in specialized databases. Libraries (public, school, or company) often provide access to scholarly databases by paying a subscription fee for patrons. For instance, OSU Libraries provide access to several hundred databases via its Research Databases List that are made available free to people affiliated with the University. You can search for a journal title or view a list of databases by subject in these databases. For more information, see Specialized Databases.

Databases that aren’t subject-specific are called general databases.  Google Scholar is a free general scholarly database available to all who have access to the Internet. 

Researchers find data (quantitative or qualitative information) to describe people, places, events, or situations, back up their claims, prove a hypothesis, or show that one is not correct. In other words, they often use data to help answer their research questions.

Here are some hypotheses that would require data to prove:

  • More women than men voted in the last presidential election in a majority of states.
  • A certain drug shows promising results in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
  • Listening to certain genres of music lowers blood pressure.
  • People of certain religious denominations are more likely to find a specific television program objectionable.
  • The average weight of house cats in the United States has increased over the past 30 years.
  • The average square footage of supermarkets in the United States has increased in the past 20 years.
  • More tomatoes were consumed per person in the United Kingdom in 2015 than in 1962.

Researchers may find data on easily accessed webpages or buried in a database, book, or article that may or may not be on the open web.

Finding Data in Articles, Books, Web Pages, and More

A lot of data can be found as part of another source – including web pages, books, and journals. In other words, the data do not stand alone as a distinct element, but rather are part of a larger work.

You could, of course, contact an author to request additional data. Researchers will discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some (or occasionally, all) of it. Some may link to a larger data set. A lot of data can be found as part of other a source – including web pages, books, and journals.  In other words, the data do not stand alone as a distinct element, but rather are part of a larger work.  Researchers will discuss their data and its analysis – and sometimes provide some (or occasionally, all) of it.  Some may link to a larger data set.  You could, of course, contact an author to request additional data.

Terms like statistics or data may or may not be useful search terms to use. Use these with caution, especially when searching library catalogs. 

Once you search for your topic, you may want to try skimming the items for tables, graphs, or charts. These items are summaries or illustrations of data gathered by researchers. However, sometimes data and interpretations are solely in the body of the text.

Depending on your research question, you may need to gather data from multiple resources to get everything you need. You may also find data gathered on the same topic give conflicting results. This is the reality of research. When this happens, you can’t just ignore the differences—you’ll have to do your best to explain why the differences occurred.

Proper Use of Data

Once you have your data, you can examine them and make an interpretation. Sometimes, you can do so easily. But not always.

What if…

…you had a lot of information?  Sometimes data can be very complicated and may include thousands (or millions…or billions…or more!) of data points. Suppose you only have a date and the high temperature for Columbus – but you have this for 20 years’ worth of days. Do you want to calculate the average highs for each month based upon 20 years’ worth of data by hand or even with a calculator?

…you want to be able to prove a relationship?  Perhaps your theory is that social sciences students do better in a certain class than arts/humanities or science students. You may have a huge spreadsheet of data from 20 years’ worth of this course’s sections and would need to use statistical methods to see if a relationship between major and course grade exist.

You may find yourself using special software, such as Excel, SAS, and SPSS, in such situations.

Many people may have a tendency to look for data to prove their hypothesis or idea. However, you may find that the opposite happens: the data may actually disprove your hypothesis. You should never try to manipulate data so that it gives credence to your desired outcome. While it may not be the answer you wanted to find, it is the answer that exists. You may, of course, look for other sources of data – perhaps there are multiple sources of data for the same topic with differing results. Inconclusive or conflicting findings do happen and can be the answer (even if it’s not the one you wanted!).

And, like with any other information resource, you should cite any data you use from a resource. If you found the data in a book, on a web page, or in an article, cite the data like you would those formats. If you used a database or downloaded a file, the citation style’s guide/manual should have directions for how to properly cite the data. 

Examples: Citing Data

Data from a research database:

  • APA: Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2008). “Crops Harvested”, Crop Production [data file]. Data Planet, (09/15/2009).
  • MLA: “Crops Harvested”, Department of Agriculture (USDA) [data file] (2008). Data Planet, (09/15/2009).

Data from a file found on the open Web:

  • APA: Center for Health Statistics, Washington State Department of Health. (2012, November). Mortality Table D1. Age-Adjusted Rates for Leading Causes of Cancer for Residents, 2002-2011. [Microsoft Excel file]. Washington State Department of Health. Retrieved from
  • MLA: Center for Health Statistics, Washington State Department of Health. Mortality Table D1. Age-Adjusted Rates for Leading Causes of Cancer for Residents, 2002-2011. Washington State Department of Health, Nov. 2012. Microsoft Excel file. Retrieved from

Precise searches turn up more appropriate sources.

Effective searching takes precision. This section shows you how to perform several steps to make your searching more precise—you’ll turn up more sources that are useful to you and, more likely, sources that may be even crucial to your topic.

You’ve probably been searching in a more casual way for years and may wonder: Is going to the trouble of precision searching actually worth it?

Yes, definitely, for searches that are important to you! You’re in competition with many people who are working to be as skilled as they can be. So you should use as many of these steps as possible for course assignments and for information tasks you do on the job.  With other tasks and searches, precision searching may be less important.

Search Strategy

This information on precision searching is based on how search tools such as Google and specialized databases operate. If you’ve been more casual in your searching practices, some of these steps may be new to you.

Starting with a research question helps you figure out precisely what you’re looking for. Next, you’ll need the most effective set of search terms – starting from main concepts and then identifying related terms. Those search terms need to be organized in the most effective way as search statements, which you actually type into a search box.

An important thing to remember is that searching is an iterative process: we try search statements, take a look at what we found and, if the results weren’t good enough, edit our search statements and search again—often multiple times. Most of the time, the first statements we try are not the best, even though Google or another search tool we’re using may give us many results.

It pays to search further for the sources that will help you the most. Be picky.

Here are the steps for an effective search.

For each main concept, list alternative terms, including synonyms, singular and plural forms of the words, and words that have other associations with the main concept.

Sometimes synonyms, plurals, and singulars aren’t enough. So also consider associations with other words and concepts. For instance, it might help, when looking for information on the common cold, to include the term virus—because a type of virus causes the common cold.

Check to make sure that your terms are not too broad or too narrow for what you want. Figuring out what’s too broad or too narrow takes practice and may differ a bit with each search.

Have you considered using a thesaurus, such as Or adding a thesaurus to your browser search bar?

Subject Headings Instead of Keywords

All the searches we have talked about so far have been keyword searches, usually used in search engines. But sometimes it pays to use tools—such as library catalogs and journal article databases—that have subject headings. Subject headings are standardized terms that are assigned by trained experts. (Some such tools also allow keyword searching.) See the section on Specialized Databases for more detail.

Search Statements

At this point in your search process, you are moving from merely identifying main concepts and similar search terms to developing more complicated search statements that can do more precise searching.

Use Quotation Marks for Phrases

Put quotation marks around any phrases among your terms so that the phrase is what’s searched for, rather than the separate words. “Common cold” instead of common cold is a good example. Without those quotation marks, just think how many sources Google or other search tools would waste their/your time on things that have nothing to do with our sniffles.

Use Wildcard and Truncation Symbols to Broaden

Consider whether using wild card or truncating symbols would help find variations of a word(s). For instance, the wildcard symbol in wom?n finds both woman and women, and the truncating symbol in mathematic* finds mathematics, mathematically, mathematician, etc.

Consider AND, OR, NOT

You can often do more precise searching by combining search terms by using the words AND, OR and NOT. These are known as Boolean Operators. Generally, using these operators narrows your search, making it more precise.

The Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT exclude or include subsets of sources.

AND  – If the main idea contains 2 or more ideas, you’ll want to use AND to combine them. To look for information about spiders as signs of climate change you’ll want to have both terms in the search and are performing an AND search. That’s what automatically happens in search engines such as Google and Bing unless you tell them to do something different by using OR or NOT.

OR  – If the main idea has several synonyms, use OR to combine them. Most search tools search for all terms (AND) by default, so you need to use the term OR between terms to let it know you want to find any of the terms. In the previous example of Latino small business growth, we would want to also use the term Hispanic.

NOT  – If the main idea has a common use you want to exclude, use NOT to exclude that word. For example if we were looking for information about illegal drug use we would want to exclude prescription drugs from the search results. This is commonly done with NOT or the use of the Minus (-) sign. (When using some search tools, use AND NOT before the term.)

Using Parentheses with Multiple Operators

When a search requires the use of more than one Boolean operator, use parentheses to group the terms with each Boolean. Doing that usually involves putting parentheses, quotation marks, and Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT or their symbols) in specific places in the search statement. (The operators or symbols used can vary from search tool to search tool, but the concepts are the same.)

The resulting arrangements connect terms, remove terms, and organize search terms in complex ways, much like you might write mathematical statements.

Parenthesis are used with Boolean operators to combine terms for complex searches.

Being skillful at this task of envisioning the effects Boolean operators have on a search can help you troubleshoot your own arrangements when they aren’t turning up what you expected.

Example: “United States” AND (immigration or emigration) Can you tell that the searcher wants to find information about the United States’ immigration or emigration?

The searcher will find more with this arrangement than would turn up if the arrangement had been “United States” immigration emigration. That’s because the latter arrangement without parentheses would find only information that was about both United States immigration and emigration, instead of either.

Example: (cats OR dogs) AND (treatment OR therapy)

Can you tell that the searcher wants to find information about either treatment or therapy for either cats or dogs?

That’s a different search from what the searcher would have gotten if this arrangement had been used: cats dogs treatment therapy. Anything found with the later arrangement without parentheses would have had to be about both— not just either—therapy and treatment for both—not just either—cats and dogs. So the latter arrangement would have turned up fewer pieces of information.

Ethical Use of and Citing Sources

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

It’s helpful to understand why to cite your sources.

You likely know that research projects always need a reference or a works cited page (also called a bibliography). But have you ever wondered why?

There are some big picture reasons that don’t often get articulated that might help you get better at meeting the citation needs of research projects. It’s helpful to understand both the theory behind citing, as well as the mechanics of it, to really become a pro.

Tip: How to Cite Sources

This section introduces the concept of citing source, so you can begin your search for sources with it in mind. See How to Cite Sources for examples and the steps for citing appropriately.

In everyday life, we often have conversations where we share new insights with each other. Sometimes these are insights we’ve developed on our own through the course of our own everyday experiences, thinking, and reflection. Sometimes these insights come after talking to other people and learning from additional perspectives. When we relate the new things we have learned to our family, friends, or co-workers, we may or may not fill them in on how these thoughts came to us.

In everyday conversation and political speeches, evidence for arguments is often not provided. (Image source: XKDC)

Academic research leads us to the latter type of insight—the insight that comes from gaining perspectives and understandings from other people through what we read or watch. In academic work we must tell our readers who and what led us to our conclusions. Documenting our research is important because people rely on academic research to be authoritative, so it is essential for academic conversation to be as clear as possible. Documentation for clarity is a shared and respected practice, and it represents a core value of the academy called “academic integrity.” It is a way to distinguish academic conversations (or discourse) from everyday conversations (or discourse).

It is hard to talk about citation practices without considering some related concepts. Here are some definitions of those concepts that are often mentioned in assignments when citation is required.

What Is Academic Integrity?

Different colleges and universities have different definitions. 

There is a general theme, though, of taking full responsibility for your work, acknowledging your own efforts, and acknowledging the contributions of others’ efforts. Working/Writing with integrity requires accurately representing what you contributed as well as acknowledging how others have influenced your work. When you are a student, an accurate representation of your knowledge is important because it will allow both you and your professors to know the extent to which you have developed as a scholar.

What Is Academic Misconduct?

As you might imagine, academic misconduct is when you do not use integrity in your academic work. Academic misconduct includes many different unacceptable behaviors, but the one most relevant to what we are discussing here is submitting plagiarized work:

Submitting plagiarized work for an academic requirement. Plagiarism is the representation of another’s work or ideas as one’s own; it includes the unacknowledged word-for-word use and/or paraphrasing of another person’s work, and/or the inappropriate unacknowledged use of another person’s ideas.

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is defined by the OSU First Year Experience Office in this way:

At any stage of the writing process, all academic work submitted to the teacher must be a result of a student’s own thought, research or self-expression. When a student submits work purporting to be his or her own, but which in any way borrows organization, ideas, wording or anything else from a source without appropriate acknowledgment of the fact, he/she is engaging in plagiarism.

Take time to look at the full definition, which also describes another form of academic misconduct called “collusion.”

Plagiarism can be intentional (knowingly using someone else’s work and presenting it as your own) or unintentional (inaccurately or inadequately citing ideas and words from a source). It may be impossible for your professor to determine whether plagiarized work was intentional or unintentional. But in either case, plagiarism puts both you and your professor in a compromising position.

While academic integrity calls for work resulting from your own effort, scholarship requires that you learn from others. So in the world of “academic scholarship” you are actually expected to learn new things from others AND come to new insights on your own. There is an implicit understanding that as a student you will be both using other’s knowledge as well as your own insights to create new scholarship. To do this in a way that meets academic integrity standards you must acknowledge the part of your work that develops from others’ efforts. You do this by citing the work of others. You plagiarize when you fail to acknowledge the work of others and do not follow appropriate citation guidelines.

What Is Citing?

Citing, or citation, is a practice of documenting specific influences on your academic work. See How to Cite Sources for details.

As a student citing is important because it shows your reader (or professor) that you have invested time in learning what has already been learned and thought about the topic before offering your own perspective. It is the practice of giving credit to the sources that inform your work.

In other words, you must cite all the sources you quote directly, paraphrase, or summarize as you:

  • Answer your research question
  • Convince your audience
  • Describe the situation around your research question and why the question is important
  • Report what others have said about your question

Why Cite Sources?

Our definitions of academic integrity, academic misconduct and plagiarism, give us an important reason for citing the sources we use to accomplish academic research. Here are all the good reasons for citing.

To Avoid Plagiarism & Maintain Academic Integrity

Misrepresenting your academic achievements by not giving credit to others indicates a lack of academic integrity. This is not only looked down upon by the scholarly community, but it is also punished. When you are a student this could mean a failing grade or even expulsion from the university.

To Acknowledge the Work of Others

One major purpose of citations is to simply provide credit where it is due. When you provide accurate citations, you are acknowledging both the hard work that has gone into producing research and the person(s) who performed that research.

Think about the effort you put into your work (whether essays, reports, or even non-academic jobs): if someone else took credit for your ideas or words, would that seem fair, or would you expect to have your efforts recognized?

To Provide Credibility to Your Work & to Place Your Work in Context

Providing accurate citations puts your work and ideas into an academic context. They tell your reader that you’ve done your research and know what others have said about your topic. Not only do citations provide context for your work but they also lend credibility and authority to your claims.

For example, if you’re researching and writing about sustainability and construction, you should cite experts in sustainability, construction, and sustainable construction in order to demonstrate that you are well-versed in the most common ideas in the fields. Although you can make a claim about sustainable construction after doing research only in that particular field, your claim will carry more weight if you can demonstrate that your claim can be supported by the research of experts in closely related fields as well.

Citing sources about sustainability and construction as well as sustainable construction demonstrates the diversity of views and approaches to the topic. Further, proper citation also demonstrates the ways in which research is social: no one researches in a vacuum—we all rely on the work of others to help us during the research process.

To Help Your Future Researching Self & Other Researchers Easily Locate Sources

Having accurate citations will help you as a researcher and writer keep track of the sources and information you find so that you can easily find the source again. Accurate citations may take some effort to produce, but they will save you time in the long run. So think of proper citation as a gift to your future researching self!

Sources that influenced your thinking and research are to be cited in academic writing.

Citing sources is an academic convention for keeping track of which sources influenced your own thinking and research. (See Ethical Use of Sources for many good reasons why you should cite others’ work.)

Most citations require two parts:

  • the full bibliographic citation on the Bibliography page or References page of your final product, and
  • an indication within your text (usually author and publication date) that tells your reader where you have used something that needs a citation.

With your in-text citation, your reader will be able to tell which full bibliographic citation you are referring to by paying attention to the author’s name and publication date.

Let’s look at an example.

Example: Citations in Academic Writing

Here’s a citation in the text of an academic paper:

Studies have shown that compared to passive learning, which occurs when students observing a lecture, students will learn more and will retain that learning longer if more active methods of teaching and learning are used (Bonwell and Eison 1991; Fink 2003).

The information in parentheses above is a citation that coordinates with a list of full citations at the end of the paper.

At the end of the paper, these bibliographic entries appear in a reference list:

Bonwell, C. G., and Eison, J. A.1991. “Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom.” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1, George Washington Univ., Washington, D.C.

Fink, L. D. 2003. Creating significant learning experiences, Wiley, New York.

You can see the full article [OSU login required] from which this example was taken online.

Citation Styles

There are dozens of citation styles (called style guides). While each style requires much of the same publication information to be included in a citation, the styles differ from each other in formatting details such as capitalization, punctuation, and order of publication information.

Style guides set the specific rules for how to create both in-text citations and their full bibliographic citations.

Example: Differences in Citation Styles

The image below shows bibliographic citations in four common styles. Notice that they contain author name, article title, journal title, publication year, and information about volume, issue, and pages. Notice also the small differences in punctuation, order of the elements, and formatting that do make a difference .

Differences between citation practices occur mainly in formatting.

Different citation styles reflect the values of the discipline for which they were written. For example:

  • APA: Social sciences value timeliness, and so the in text citation in APA style includes the year of publication.
  • MLA: The liberal arts and humanities are focused on language, and so MLA uses footnotes to make reading and following the text easier.

To write a proper citation we recommend following these steps, which will help you maintain accuracy and clarity in acknowledging sources.

Step 1: Choose Your Citation Style

Find out the name of the citation style you must use from your instructor, the directions for an assignment, or what you know your audience or publisher expects. OSU Libraries maintain a citation list that includes several styles. You can also search for your style at the Purdue Online Writing Lab or use Google or Bing to find your style’s stylebook/handbook.

As there are over a dozen different citation styles and different disciplines prefer different styles, always check to see if your instructor requires a particular style. Also because the rules for citation styles can change and can be extensive, it is best to refer to the official handbooks/style guides when you can.

Step 2: Create In-Text Citations

Examine how the style guide that you’ve chosen recommends you handle in-text citations and then apply those recommendations to create your in-text citation.

Step 3: Determine the Kind of Source

After creating your in-text citation, now begin creating the full bibliographic citation that will appear on the References or Bibliography page by deciding what kind of source you have to cite (book, film, journal article, webpage, etc.).

Step 4: Find an Example

Find an example for that kind of source citation in the latest stylebook or handbook for your style in print or online.

Because technology changes faster than the style guides, not every single type of electronic source you might use will be detailed in the style guides. In these cases, simply refer to the guidelines for similar sources and use your best judgment.

Step 5: Identify Citation Elements

Identify in your source the publication information (title, author, date of publication, etc.) that the example says you should include in your citation.

Step 6: Create a Bibliographic Citation

Create your bibliographic citation by arranging publication information to match the example you chose in Step 4. Pay particular attention to what is and is not capitalized and to what punctuation and spaces separate each part that the example illustrates.

Tip: Citation Software

If you like, you can use citation generator software to arrange the information needed for your citation according to the style guide you chose. Learn more later in this section.

When to Cite

Citing sources is often articulated as a straightforward, rule-based practice. In fact, there are many gray areas around citation, and learning how to apply citation guidelines takes practice and education. If you are confused by it, you are not alone – in fact you might be doing some good thinking. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate citation practices.

Cite when you are directly quoting.  This is the easiest rule to understand. If you are stating word for word what someone else has already written, you must put quotes around those words and you must give credit to the original author. Not doing so would mean that you are letting your reader believe these words are your own and represent your own effort.

Cite when you are summarizing and paraphrasing. This is a trickier area to understand. First of all, summarizing and paraphrasing are two related practices but they are not the same. Summarizing is when you read a text, consider the main points, and provide a shorter version of what you learned. Paraphrasing is when you restate what the original author said in your own words and in your own tone. Both summarizing and paraphrasing require good writing skills and an accurate understanding of the material you are trying to convey. Summarizing and paraphrasing are not easy to do when you are a beginning academic researcher, but these skills become easier to perform over time with practice.

Cite when you are citing something that is highly debatable. For example, if you want to claim that the Patriot Act has been an important tool for national security, you should be prepared to give examples of how it has helped and how experts have claimed that it has helped. Many U.S. citizens concerned that it violates privacy rights won’t agree with you, and they will be able to find commentary that the Patriot Act has been more harmful to the nation than helpful. You need to be prepared to show such skeptics that you have experts on your side.

When Don’t You Cite?

Don’t cite when what you are saying is your own insight. As you learned in Academic Argument, research involves forming opinions and insights around what you learn. You may be citing several sources that have helped you learn, but at some point you are integrating your own opinion, conclusion, or insight into the work. The fact that you are NOT citing it helps the reader understand that this portion of the work is your unique contribution developed through your own research efforts.

Don’t cite when you are stating common knowledge.  What is common knowledge is sometimes difficult to discern. Generally quick facts like historical dates or events are not cited because they are common knowledge.

Examples of information that would not need to be cited include:

  • The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
  • Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States in January, 2009.

Some quick facts, such as statistics, are trickier. For example, the number of gun-related deaths per year probably should be cited, because there are a lot of ways this number could be determined (does the number include murder only, or suicides and accidents, as well?) and there might be different numbers provided by different organizations, each with an agenda around gun laws.

A guideline that can help with determining whether or not to cite facts is to determine whether the same data is repeated in multiple sources. If it is not, it is best to cite.

The other thing that makes this determination difficult might be that what seems new and insightful to you might be common knowledge to an expert in the field. You have to use your best judgment, and probably err on the side of over-citing, as you are learning to do academic research. You can seek the advice of your instructor, a writing tutor, or a librarian. Knowing what is and is not common knowledge is a practiced skill that gets easier with time and with your own increased knowledge.

Wikipedia, while good for early research and background information, shouldn’t be cited as a source because it’s already a summary.

Tip: Why You Can’t Cite Wikipedia

You’ve likely been told at some point that you can’t cite Wikipedia, or any encyclopedia for that matter, in your scholarly work.

The reason is that such entries are meant to prepare you to do research. Wikipedia entries, which are tertiary sources, are already a summary of what is known about the topic. Someone else has already done the labor of synthesizing lots of information into a concise and quick way of learning about the topic.

So while Wikipedia is a great shortcut for getting context, background, and a quick lesson on topics that might not be familiar to you, don’t quote, paraphrase, or summarize from it. Use it to educate yourself. It is a starting point meant to prepare you to do research.


Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Scholarly conversation makes an argument for a given point of view.

Nearly all scholarly writing makes an argument. That’s because its purpose is to create new knowledge so it can be debated in order to confirm, dis-confirm, or improve it. That arguing takes place mostly in journals and scholarly books and at conferences. It’s called the scholarly conversation, and it’s that conversation that moves forward what we humans know.

Your scholarly writing for classes should do the same—make an argument—just like your professors’ journal article, scholarly book, and conference presentation writing does. (You may not have realized that the writing you’re required to do mirrors what scholars all over the university, country, and world must do to create new knowledge and debate it. Of course, you may be a beginner at constructing arguments in writing, while most professors have been at it for some time. And your audience (for now) also may be more limited than your professor’s. But the process is much the same. As you complete your research assignments, you, too, are entering the scholarly conversation.)

Making an argument means trying to convince others that you are correct as you describe a thing, situation, or phenomenon and/or persuade them to take a particular action. Important not just in college, that skill will be necessary for nearly every professional job you hold after college. So learning how to make an argument is good job preparation, even if you do not choose a scholarly career.

Realizing that your term paper, essay, blog post, or poster is to make an argument gives you a big head start because right off you know the sources you’re going to need are those that will let you write the components of an argument for your reader.

Happily (and not coincidentally), most of those components coincide with the information needs we’ve been talking about. Filling an information need by using sources will enable you to write the corresponding argument component in your final product.

Making an argument in an essay, term paper, or other college writing task is like laying out a case in court. Just as there are conventions that attorneys must adhere to as they make their arguments in court, there are conventions in arguments made in college assignments. Among those conventions is to use the components of an argument.

Note: This section on making an argument was developed with the help of “Making Good Arguments” in The Craft of Research , by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

The arguments you’re used to hearing or participating in with friends about something that is uncertain or needs to be decided contain the same components as the ones you’ll need to use in essays and term papers. Arguments contain those components because those are the ones that work—used together, they stand the best chance of persuading others that you are correct.

For instance, the question gets things started off. The claim, or thesis, tells people what you consider a true way of describing a thing, situation, or phenomenon or what action you think should be taken. The reservations, alternatives, and objections that someone else brings up in your sources or that you imagine your readers logically might have allow you to demonstrate how your reasons and evidence (maybe) overcome that kind of thinking—and (you hope) your claim/thesis comes out stronger for having withstood that test.

Example: Argument as a Dialog

Here’s a dialog of an argument, with the most important components labeled.

Jerald:  Where should we have my parents take us for dinner when they’re here on Sunday? [He asks the question about something that’s unsettled.]

Cathy:  We should go to The Cascades! [She makes her main claim to answer the question.]  It’s the nicest place around. [Another claim, which functions as a reason for the main claim.]

Jerald:  How so? [He asks for a reason to believe her claims.]

Cathy:  White table cloths. [She gives a reason.]

Jerald:  What’s that have to do with how good the food is? [He doesn’t see how her reason is relevant to the claim.]

Cathy:  Table cloths make restaurants seem upscale. [She relates her reason for the claims.]  And I’ve read a survey in Columbus Metro that says the Cascades is one of the most popular restaurants in town. [She offers evidence.]

Jerald:  I never read the Metro. And Dino’s has table cloths. [He offers a point that contradicts her reason.]

Cathy:  I know, but those are checkered! I’m talking about heavy white ones. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it.]

Jerald:  My dad loves Italian food. I guess he’s kind of a checkered-table-cloth kind of guy? [He raises another reservation or objection.]

Cathy:  Yeah, but? Well, I know The Cascades has some Italian things on the menu. I mean, it’s not known for its Italian food but you can order it there. Given how nice the place is, it will probably be gourmet Italian food. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it. There’s another claim in there.]

Jerald:  Ha! My dad, the gourmet? Hey, maybe this place is too expensive. [He raises another reservation.]

Cathy:  More than someplace like Dino’s. [She concedes his point.]

Jerald:  Yeah. [He agrees.]

Cathy:  But everybody eats at The Cascades with their parents while they’re students here, so it can’t be outlandishly expensive. [She now puts limits on how much she’s conceding.]

Argument and Information Needs

Each component of an argument relates back to your information needs.

NeedComponent of Your Argument
To get background information and develop a research question (if your professor hasn’t given you a specific question)Your research question, which probably will not appear in your term paper or essay but which drives the entire research process
To answer your research questionYour thesis (may also be called your claim)
To convince your audience your answer is correct or at least reasonable
  • Reasons for your thesis and evidence for your reasons
  • Acknowledgement that others may have reservations or objections to your argument or alternative solutions
  • Reasons why others’ opinions are incorrect or not important
To describe the situation around your research question and why it’s importantThis is not an argument component but is usually an important part of term papers and essays. It is usually done in the introduction in order to help readers understand and to encourage them to continue reading.
To report what others have said that’s relevant
  • Reasons for your thesis and evidence for your reasons
  • Acknowledgement that others may have reservations or objections to your argument or alternative solutions
  • Reasons why others’ opinions are incorrect or not important

The order in which the components should appear in your argument essays, papers, and posters may depend on which discipline your course is in. So always adhere to the advice provided by your professor and what you learn in class.

One common arrangement for argument essays and term papers is to begin with an introduction that explains why the situation is important—why the reader should care about it. Your research question will probably not appear, but your answer to it (your thesis, or claim) usually appears as the last sentence or two of the introduction.

The body of your essay or paper follows and consists of:

  • Your reasons the thesis is correct or at least reasonable.
  • The evidence that supports each reason, often occurring right after the reason it supports.
  • An acknowledgement that some people have/could have objections, reservations, counterarguments, or alternative solutions to your argument and a statement of each. (Posters often don’t have room for this component.)
  • A response to each acknowledgement that explains why that criticism is incorrect or not very important. Sometimes you might have to concede a point you think is unimportant if you can’t really refute it.

(Again, posters often don’t have much room for this component.)

After the body, the paper or essay ends with a conclusion, which states your thesis in a slightly different way than occurred in the introduction. (Posters often don’t have much room for this component.)

A Blueprint for Argument

It’s no accident that people are said to make  arguments—they’re all constructed, and these components are the building blocks. The components are important because of what they contribute. The components generally, though not always, appear in a certain order because they build on or respond to one another.

For example, the thesis or claim is derived from the initial question. The reasons are bolstered by evidence to support the claim. Objections are raised, acknowledged and subsequently responded to.

Where You Get the Components

This section will help you figure that out which components may come from your professor, which you just have to think about, which you have to write, and which you have to find in your sources.

Here, again, are the components we’ll cover:

  • The question you (or your professor) want answered
  • Your claim or thesis
  • One or more reasons for your thesis
  • Evidence for each reason
  • Others’ objections, counterarguments, or alternative solutions
  • Your acknowledgment of others’ objections, counterarguments, or alternative solutions
  • Response to others’ objections, counterarguments, or alternative solutions

The Question You Want Answered

Sometimes your professor will give you the research question, but probably more often he or she will expect you to develop your own from an assigned topic. You learned how to develop research questions in another section. Though vitally important, they are often not stated in essays or term papers but are usually stated in reports of original studies, such as theses, dissertations, and journal articles.

Examples: Research Questions for Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers

  • Is the recent occurrence of stronger hurricanes related to global warming?
  • Did the death of his beloved daughter have any effect on the writings of Mark Twain?

Your Claim or Thesis

You write the claim or thesis–it doesn’t come directly from a resource. Instead, it is the conclusion you come to in answer to your question after you’ve read/listened to/looked at some sources. So it is a statement, not a question or hypothesis, that you plan to prove or disprove with your research.

After you’ve done more research, you may need to change your thesis. That happens all the time–not because you did anything wrong but because you learned more.

Examples: Claims (or Theses) for Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers

  • The strength of hurricanes has not been affected appreciably by global warming.
  • Mark Twain wrote more urgently and with less humor during the four years immediately after the death of his daughter.

One or More Reasons

Write what you believe makes your thesis (the answer to your research question) true. That’s your reason or reasons. Each reason is a summary statement of evidence you found in your research. The kinds of evidence considered convincing varies by discipline, so you will be looking at different sources, depending on your discipline. How many reasons you need depends on how complex your thesis and subject matter are, what you found in your sources, and how long your essay or term paper must be. It’s always a good idea to write your reasons in a way that is easy for your audience to understand and be persuaded by.

Examples: Reasons in Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers

  • Current computer modeling and the analysis of historical data about previous hurricane strength do not indicate that global warming is increasing the strength of hurricanes.
  • My content analysis and a comparison of publication rates four years before and after Mark Twain’s daughter died indicate that his writing was more urgent and less humorous for four years after. It is reasonable to conclude that her death caused that change.

Evidence for Each Reason

This is the evidence you summarized earlier as each reason your thesis is true. You will be directly quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing your sources to make the case that your audience should agree with you.

Examples: Evidence for Reasons in Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers

  • Report the results of the computer modeling and the analysis of historical data on temperatures and hurricane strength.
  • Report the results of your comparison of writing content and publication rate before and after Twain’s daughter’s death.

Others’ Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions

Do any of your sources not agree with your thesis? You’ll have to bring those up in your term paper. In addition, put yourself in your readers’ shoes. What might they not find logical in your argument? In other words, which reason(s) and corresponding evidence might they find lacking? Did you find clues to what these could be in your sources? Or maybe you can imagine them thinking some aspect of what you think is evidence is illogical.

Examples: Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions in Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers

  • Imagine that the reader might think: Computer modeling done in 2007-08 did show an effect for ocean temperature on hurricane strength.
  • Imagine that the reader might think: Computerized content analysis tools are sort of blunt instruments and shouldn’t be used to do precise work.

Your Acknowledgement of Others’ Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions

What will you write to bring up each of those objections, counterarguments, and alternative solutions? Some examples:

  • I can imagine skeptics wanting to point out…
  • Perhaps some readers would say…
  • I think those who come from XYZ would differ with me…

It all depends on what objections, counterarguments, and alternative solutions you come up with.

Examples: Acknowledgement of Others’ Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions in Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers:

  • Some researchers may point out that computer modeling done in 2007-08 did show an effect for ocean temperature on hurricane strength.
  • Readers may think that a computerized content analysis tool cannot do justice to the subtleties of text.

Response to Others’ Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions

You must write your response to each objection, counterargument, or alternative solution brought up or that you’ve thought of. (You’re likely to have found clues for what to say in your sources.) The reason you have to include this is that you can’t very easily convince your audience until you show them how your claim stacks up against the opinions and reasoning of other people who don’t at the moment agree with you.

Examples: Response to Others’ Objections, Counterarguments, or Alternative Solutions in Hypothetical Essays or Term Papers:

  • But the more current modeling equipment used here is able to take the XYZ into effect, which negates any difference in readings for different temperatures.
  • Unlike other content tools, the XYZ Content Analysis Measure is able to take into account an author’s tone.

Example: Where to Use Your Sources in a Term Paper

Information need:  To answer your research question(s) (and present your thesis statement)

Use Sources:  Last couple of sentences of introduction

Information Need:  To convince your audience that your answer is correct or, at least, the most reasonable answer.

Use Sources:  Evidence / Body

Information Need:  To report what others have said about your question, including any different answers to your research question.

Use Sources:  Evidence / Body

Information Need:  To describe the situation surrounding your research question for your audience and explain why it’s important.

Use Sources:  Introduction / Conclusion


Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

This section features advice for using sources well in your writing projects.

Professors want to see evidence of your own thinking in your essays and papers. Even so, it will be your thoughts in reaction to your sources.

  • What parts of them do you agree with?
  • What parts of them do you disagree with?
  • Did they leave anything out?

It’s wise to not only analyze—take apart for study—the sources, but also to try to combine your own ideas with ideas you found in class and in the sources.

Professors frequently expect you to interpret, make inferences, and otherwise synthesize—bring ideas together to make something new or to find a new way of looking at something old. (It might help to think of synthesis as the opposite of analysis.)

Getting Better at Synthesis

To get an A on essays and papers in many courses, such as literature and history, what you write in reaction to others’ work should use synthesis to create new meaning or show a deeper understanding of what you learned.

To do so, it helps to look for connections and patterns. One way to synthesize when writing an argument essay, paper, or other project is to look for themes among your sources. So try categorizing ideas by topic rather than by resource—making associations across sources.

Synthesis can seem difficult, particularly if you are used to analyzing others’ points but not used to making your own. Like most things, however, it gets easier as you get more experienced at it. So don’t be hard on yourself if it seems difficult at first.

Imagine that you have to write an argument essay about Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris . Your topic is “nostalgia,” and the movie is the only resource you can use.

In the movie, a successful young screenwriter named Gil is visiting Paris with his girlfriend and her parents, who are more politically conservative than he is. Inexplicably, every midnight he time-travels back to the 1920’s Paris, a time period he’s always found fascinating, especially because of the writers and painters—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso—that he’s now on a first-name basis with. Gil is enchanted and always wants to stay, but every morning, he’s back in real time—feeling out of sync with his girlfriend and her parents.

You’ve tried to come up with a narrower topic, but so far nothing seems right. Suddenly, you start paying more attention to the girlfriend’s parents’ dialogue about politics, which amount to such phrases as “we have to go back to…,” “it was a better time,” “Americans used to be able to…” and “the way it used to be.”

And then it clicks with you that the girlfriend’s parents are like Gil—longing for a different time, whether real or imagined. That kind of idea generation is synthesis.

You decide to write your essay to answer the research question: How is the motivation of Gil’s girlfriend’s parents similar to Gil’s? Your thesis becomes “Despite seeming to be not very much alike, Gil and the parents are similarly motivated, and Woody Allen meant Midnight in Paris ‘s message about nostalgia to be applied to all of them.”

Of course, you’ll have to try to convince your readers that your thesis is valid and you may or not be successful—but that’s true with all theses. And your professor will be glad to see the synthesis.

o build everything but the research question, you will need to summarize, paraphrase, and/or directly quote your sources. But how should you choose what technique to use when?

Remember to cite your sources when quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. See How to Cite Sources for details.

Choose a direct quote  when it is more likely to be accurate than would summarizing or paraphrasing; when what you’re quoting is the text you’re analyzing; when a direct quote is more concise that a summary or paraphrase would be and conciseness matters; when the author is a particular authority whose exact words would lend credence to your argument; and when the author has used particularly effective language that is just too good to pass up.

Choose to paraphrase or summarize  rather than to quote directly when the meaning is more important than the particular language the author used and you don’t need to use the author’s preeminent authority to bolster your argument at the moment.

Choose to paraphrase instead of summarizing  when you need details and specificity. Paraphrasing lets you emphasize the ideas in resource materials that are most related to your term paper or essay instead of the exact language the author used. It also lets you simplify complex material, sometimes rewording to use language that is more understandable to your reader.

Choose to summarize instead of paraphrasing  when you need to provide a brief overview of a larger text. Summaries let you condense the resource material to draw out particular points, omit unrelated or unimportant points, and simplify how the author conveyed his or her message.

Helping Others Follow

As you switch from component to component in your paper, you’ll be making what are called rhetorical moves—taking subsequent steps to move your argument along and be persuasive. Your readers will probably know what you’re doing because the components in everyday oral argument are the same as in written argument. But why you’re switching between components of your argument, and with these particular sources, might be less clear.


The ideas and examples in this section are informed by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst, They Say/I Say with Readings (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2012).

You can help readers follow your argument by inserting phrases that signal why you’re doing what you’re doing. Here are some examples:

  • “Many people have believed …, but I have a different opinion.”
  • To state that what you’re saying in your thesis is in opposition to what others have said.
  • “Now let’s take a look at the supporting research.”
  • To move from a reason to a summary of a research study that supports it (evidence).
  • “The point they make is…”
  • To introduce a summary of a resource you’ve just mentioned.
  • “At this point I should turn to an objection some are likely to be raising…”
  • To acknowledge an objection you believe a reader could have.
  • “But am I being realistic?”
  • If the objection is that you’re not being realistic.
  • “So in conclusion…”
  • To move from the body of an essay to the conclusion.

Phrases like these can grease the skids of your argument in your readers’ minds, making it a lot easier for them to quickly get it instead of getting stuck on figuring out why you’re bringing something up at a particular point. You will have pulled them into an argument conversation.

Examples: The Language of Arguments

The blog that accompanies the book They Say/I Say with Readings, by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst, contains short, elegantly constructed contemporary arguments from a variety of publications. Take a look at the They Say/I Say blog for a moment and read part of at least one of the readings to see how it can be helpful to you the next time you have to make a written argument.

The book They Say/I Say  with Readings provides templates of actual language to be used in written arguments. This can be extremely helpful to beginning writers because it takes some of the mystery out of what to say and when to say it. For these templates, check the book out from your library.

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