What underlies the “correct” use of sources, and why is it considered important in academia?
The conventions for incorporating sources into academic products that are commonly accepted here at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa (as well as at most universities in the U.S., and in many other countries) require two important skills. First, good scholarly work typically involves being aware of what others have learned related to the same topic. These “others” are, of course, your sources. The second part of doing good scholarly work is to integrate your sources’ ideas into your own academic work (and when doing this, it’s important to always cite your sources).
Why do scholars care so much about using and citing sources? Initially many students may feel like this is just a silly requirement, perhaps thinking that the only reason they have to do this is because their professors had to do the same thing when they were students. Actually, there are some core values that underlie these conventions. Scholarly use of sources:
- shows the reader whose work the writer has read and learned from (in some cases, this helps a reader [such as a professor] to introduce additional sources that the writer may not have been aware of).
- helps the writer (and the reader) to see and discuss the history and evolution of ideas on a specific topic within a field.
- shows where different authors fit into this history and helps to identify groups of scholars whose opinions or perspectives are similar.
- allows the writer to show where their own ideas fit.
In other words, incorporating sources is much more than asking, “What is this source author’s point? And how can I rewrite it in ‘my own words’?”. To incorporate sources in a scholarly way, the questions to pursue are, “What are this source author’s points? How do they connect with the ideas of others in the field? How do they connect with my ideas and support (or refute) the things I want to say?”
There are basically three ways you can incorporate the ideas of sources:
- Quote: take an idea from a source and use exactly the same words as the author, in quotation marks (“xxxx”). (The use of quotation marks shows the reader that these are the source’s exact words.) Cite the source according to an accepted style guide, and make sure you include your source in your list of references.
- Paraphrase: take an idea from a source and write about it in your own words. (Note that, although you have changed the words, the source’s original meaning must not be changed.) Cite the source according to an accepted style guide, and make sure you include your source in your list of references.
- Summarize: take an idea from a source (usually a larger idea) and condense it into a shorter text, using your own words. (Note that, although you have changed the words and condensed the length, the source’s original meaning must not be changed.) Cite the source according to an accepted style guide, and make sure you include your source in your list of references.
These three ways of incorporating sources’ ideas are fairly easy to understand, but are not easy to do. It takes time to develop expertise at quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing (including knowing when a quote might be best, or a paraphrase, or a summarized statement). Further, it takes time for novice writers to develop the ability to connect the ideas of their sources with their own ideas. Again, it’s important to remember that university students are apprentices in academic discourse, and may need help as they develop these skills.