Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Documentation

Posted: Nov 10, 2006 20:11;
Last Modified: Jan 03, 2015 17:01

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What do I cite?

Documentation is often poorly understood by junior-level undergraduates. Many report that their high schools required them to document their sources only in the case of direct quotation or close paraphrase.

This is inadequate for University-level humanities research. At the University level, you must document the sources for all specific intellectual debts in your work. You must cite these sources whether you are quoting them, paraphrasing them, or using information you learned from them in arguments written entirely in your own words. Do not be afraid that this will make your essay seem unoriginal: most information in most essays and scholarly articles comes from secondary sources.

A very few exceptions to this rule can be made for information that represents trivial and normally uncontested common knowledge, especially if this is not crucial to the argument of your paper. If you note that James Joyce left Trieste long before the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, you do not need to provide a citation for your knowledge that World War II began in 1939. This category is much smaller than most students realise, however: most historical, sociological, and scientific facts and opinions need a source citation.

If you do not give a source citation for a fact or argument in your essay, then you are implying that the fact or argument in question is original to you and is the result of your own primary research. If you argue, for example, that all modern ideas of literary form can be traced back to Plato, you are suggesting that you have actually researched this question yourself: got out your Plato, made a list of all modern ideas of literary form (though it would nice to know the sources you used for that), and determined that they do indeed all go back to the work of the Greek philosopher. If you didn’t actually do all that research (and you should be able to give detailed examples if you did), then you are either making it up or you are using information you read elsewhere.

Here are some other examples of material that must be accompanied by a source citation:

Why do I cite?

Documenting all intellectual debts is important for two reasons. First of all, it protects you in the case of error. If you make undocumented claims about, for example, the origins of the French Revolution, you are claiming that you have researched this issue directly from the primary sources—and more importantly, that you are therefore also responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation ‘your’ research contains. You are also presumably willing to have your grade reduced as a result if any errors exist. By documenting your sources, you transfer this responsibility for accuracy to your source. If you have chosen your sources wisely and cited them accurately, then the responsibility for errors about the documented material lies with the source, not your paper.

Proper and complete documentation is also important for the intellectual discipline it involves. Humanities research often involves questioning the grounds upon which people believe they “know” things. By forcing yourself to document every idea that is not the direct result of your own research, you become more careful about the basis for your own thought. Facts that cannot be sourced or demonstrated from your own research may turn out to be simple prejudice. You have a duty to find out why you think you know what you know.

How do I cite?

Most university disciplines have their own documentation standards and styles. Physicists, Chemists, Linguistics, Psychologists, and Literary Scholars all cite sources using different methods. Sometimes the differences between these methods are relatively trivial and are maintained purely for reasons of tradition and professional jealousy. Other differences are more fundamental, however. Literary scholars, for example, always cite page numbers. This habit developed out of the nature of their research, which requires accurate transcription and an awareness of the specific context in which information is found. Experimental scientists, on the other hand, rarely cite information taken from secondary sources by page number. This is because their work often depends less on their sources’ precise wording than the methodology used or conclusions reached. As a student at a liberal arts university, you are responsible for learning the appropriate method of documentation in each discipline you study.

In English in North America, the standard for bibliographic style in undergraduate essays is the MLA Handbook although the professionally-oriented Chicago Manual of Style is also commonly used. You should look up one or the other of these books in the library or, in the case of the MLA Handbook, consult one of thousands of sites that reproduce it on the Internet. Between them, these books tell you how to cite anything you are likely to use in an English essay: plays, novels, diaries, letters to the editor, the cover of a CD-ROM, videos, etc.

What about the Wikipedia and other online sources?

In addition to citing sources correctly, you should also consider what kind of sources you are using. This is really a research methods question rather than a documentation question, though it often comes up in discussions of documentation.

In the first place, it is important to realise that you must cite sources you have used regardless of type. Many teachers, professors, and even whole departments issue blanket bans against citing specific types of sources (e.g. on-line sources, the Wikipedia, etc.). What they mean is that students are not supposed to use these sources in writing their essays (and hence have no need to cite them). Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that these bans are commonly understood by students as meaning simply that they are not to document their use of (i.e. plagiarise from) such sources. The result is that students still use them, but simply omit them from their documentation.

So should you use the Wikipedia or other on-line sources in your research? The short answer is “of course“—the Internet Revolution has greatly improved our access to bibliographic material, and sites like the Wikipedia and Dictionary.com make it extremely simple to acquire an initial knowledge of a subject in a matter of minutes. It would be foolish not to take advantage of these new resources.

This is not the same thing as saying that you should be relying on such sources as your main sources of information for your paper. Even before the Internet, students were taught to avoid limiting their research to tertiary sources like encyclopedias.

So what you need to do is find the highest quality sources for your final paper: after you’ve oriented yourself using an encyclopedia or on-line dictionary repackager, you should then start looking for material in sources specifically intended for use in scholarly research. In short, it is possible to divide the types of sources available to you into three or four main categories:

Level Example Comment
Primary Beowulf A primary source is the original historical document or a “transparent” mediation such as a print edition of the text
Secondary Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript A secondary source is a book or article by somebody who has conducted original research using with the primary sources
Tertiary “Beowulf” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica A tertiary source is a source that summarises what is known in a field from the secondary literature, but does not contribute any new primary research itself
Quadrary “Beowulf” in a school guide Technically guides such as Cliff’s notes are tertiary sources; I call them quadrary, however, because they often summarise tertiary sources like encyclopedia articles
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