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Writing 2 (Terhaar): Research Projects

Document Your Sources

Your instructor will expect you to show when you use the ideas and words of other people (your sources) in your own writing, Why? It’s a matter of respect: you give your sources credit for their work, and in the future you will get credit for your great work, too!

Here’s what happens when students fail to credit their sources accurately or precisely.

1) A student fails to document their sources, instead choosing to cut and paste, treating the sources’ words as if they were their own.

The student may be subject to disciplinary action (a note regarding the theft may be placed in their file, they may be placed on academic probation or even barred from campus, etc.). Claiming ignorance about the need to document your sources and/or correct citation style will not save you from disciplinary action. (Going over a 55mph speed limit and then claiming ignorance of the limit will not save you from a speeding ticket, either.)

2) A student reads something which contains several great ideas and wishes they had thought of those ideas. The student decides to “borrow” the ideas, placing the ideas in their own words and never crediting the original person. See #1 for penalty.

3) A student partially documents their sources, but it’s impossible for a reader to tell the difference between the student’s ideas/words and those of the sources. See #1 for penalty.

4) A student incorrectly documents their sources, making it nearly impossible for a reader to find the source. See #1 for penalty.

5) A student does a pretty good job of documenting their sources, but it’s not good enough. They misplace a comma or parenthesis. An instructor or TA may take off points or lower a grade on the assignment. (Yes, it really happens, even for a misplaced comma!)

6) A student accurately and precisely documents all of their sources, but the sources’ voices dominate the essay so much that it’s impossible to hear what the student has to say. See #5 for penalty.

How do you avoid these problems?

Tip #1: Plan ahead and give yourself time for doing the research, finding sources, and writing up your assignment. Most students say they resort to plagiarism because they are short on time. Avoid the problem by starting early on your assignment.

Tip #2: Keep an accurate list of your sources, including Web sources, and where you found them for a bibliography, reference, or works cited page.

Tip #3: Keep accurate notes when you read, listing where you obtain ideas/words and clearly identify all quotations, paraphrases, and summaries in your notes.

Tip #4: Give credit when it’s due! If you do not credit your sources, you are stealing their ideas and words. You are committing intellectual property theft. If you get caught stealing (even when it may be only ideas and words), you may be subject to disciplinary action.

Tip #5: Learn what needs to be given credit. Almost all words/ideas of people need to be credited, but there are several exceptions. Educate yourself so you know when it’s safe not to document.

Tip #6: Use your instructor’s preferred style of documentation. There are several major styles; click on the appropriate link below and review how to document your type of sources.


Tip #7: Learn the correct style and use it accurately and precisely. This step is fairly easy for detailed-oriented people. If you’re not a detail person, leave lots of time for checking your citation style!

Tip #8: Double check and make sure you clearly distinguish when a source starts/stops talking or when you are presenting their ideas. It’s got to be really clear, so be careful about how you start/stop using a source.

Tip #9: Review how to use quotations, paraphrases, and summaries correctly.

Tip #10: Don’t let your sources do all the talking! Take 2 colored pens. Using one pen, highlight every word and idea from your sources. Now take the second pen and highlight your own words and ideas. Now compare the two colors. Who talks the most in your draft? Your sources, or you? If your sources talk a lot, spend time revising your draft so it’s about your words and ideas, rather than those of other people!

We have mentioned the penalties for failing to document your sources accurately and precisely. We did so because it’s important you know there are penalties for both deliberate and unintentional plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious matter, precisely because it is a form of theft.

But acknowledging and documenting your sources is a matter of respect and politeness: When you use and document sources correctly, you show awareness of other peoples’ ideas (even when you disagree with them).

You also show you have tried to gain some expertise on your subject. And you show how your ideas can be seen within the context of other peoples’ ideas. When you document your sources, you seem more trustworthy and reliable, and your research seems more credible. You gain integrity, and your research gains integrity as well.

Give credit now and we’re sure you’ll be given credit for your ideas in the future!