Your research could be original, but if you fail to cite sources or provide references, it may be misinterpreted as plagiarised work, and will have serious consequences.

For the nth time I find myself making a note in bright red ink: “cite source”, and this comes soon after another one that asks, “where does this information come from?” Many students tell me that they’ve never learned about how to cite sources, or how to put references into a paper (or even to put them in at all). They have gone through 12 or more years of schooling, plus a three-or-four-year degree, before they come into a Master’s programme, and all through, this critical aspect of research and writing has not been discussed in ways that stays with them.

Referencing is an important way of acknowledging people who have generated or expanded ideas and information, and contributed to our knowledge and thinking in some way. It also allows us to support our own ideas and arguments, and build credibility for ourselves, as it shows that we have done our homework right and have read and understood the important material in the field of interest. In other words, providing references strengthens our position — it’s a way of saying that you are not making casual or unsupported claims. Providing references also allows readers to explore the topic further if they want, by going to the sources you have cited.

Secondary research

When you are writing an academic paper, whether a research article, or a discussion paper, or a summary of research/thinking in a given area, generally, you would need to refer to a number of scholarly or even popular articles on the topic. Even the most basic essay at the senior graduate or postgraduate level would require some amount of secondary (library) research. While your own ideas of course form the basis of anything you write, this secondary research helps you deepen your thinking and add to it.

So let’s say you have spent hours reading through materials on various databases, or even, at the most basic level, done a Google search and come up with several (and knowing Google, probably several hundred thousand) items that give you some information. You quickly read through, jot down ideas from here, there and everywhere, and before you know it, you have enough ‘meat’ for the five pages your professor has asked you to submit. You spend some time rifling through these various bits of information, and weave them together with your own ideas (hopefully you still remember those) to create that paper. Now, unless you have meticulously kept track of where you got each bit of information, you will find it extremely difficult to separate (for one) your own ideas from those that came from the reference material, and (for another) to identify the different sources you drew from. And this is where things become difficult.

Marginal notes

Many students think it is enough to put a list of references at the end — after all, doesn’t it suffice to indicate in some way, what we have read? I hate to disappoint you, but that is not enough. You need to be able state in as clear a way as possible where ideas came from. Even if you have not quoted a scholar’s exact words, but have only paraphrased something, you need to provide the source. And of course, if you are using exact words, they had better be in quotes, with the person given due credit. If you are using an argument that is based on something else you’ve read, or using a term coined by someone else, you need to say so clearly. What this implies is that you need to be conscious of this as you are writing your paper — make marginal notes to yourself about where you got specific pieces of information.

The next step is to follow a standard method of citation — the manner in which you insert references into the text and/or list them at the end. There are several accepted guidelines for referencing, and these differ across disciplines. In the social sciences, for instance, the APA (www.apastyle.org ) and the Chicago Manual of Style (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org) are among the most popular conventions. The Council of Science Editors (www.councilscienceeditors.org) provides a comprehensive guide to referencing style in the sciences.

The failure to provide references when you have actually drawn from other people’s ideas can have serious consequences. At the least, it can be seen as sloppy work, and sometimes, may be seen as plagiarism. It’s important to make referencing a part of your study and writing routine. Think about it as one of those “best practices” in academics that you need to adopt.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus. www.teacherplus.org. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com.

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