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Using Sources & Avoiding Plagiarism: Using Sources Effectively

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diderot's tree of knowledge

Why Use Sources?

Rarely—if ever—do ideas develop in a single mind. Humans are by nature responsive creatures who react to environments. Our thoughts are catalyzed by what we observe, hear, read, or otherwise experience. Even our opinions are typically not ours alone. Instead, we inherit them from those around us, or reject others’ beliefs. In either case, some variety of social encounter (conversation, reading, listening, etc.) stimulated us to accept or disavow something. A significant part of our lives is spent sorting through what others say and do, and our intellectual lives are not exception. 

It is not surprising, then, that the majority of the academic enterprise—running experiments, commenting on worldly phenomena, interpreting texts, calculating data—is, in one way or another, a social affair. Researchers often operate in teams, or are members of cohorts, or join think tanks, and participate in schools of thought. But the social dimension of academic work is even more fundamental than these interpersonal groupings suggest. Nearly all academic writing adheres to a single seminal feature: it makes use of and responds to the work of others. An academic writer situates her present work (data collection, interpretation, analysis, or reporting) within (or against) work previously carried out by others. Linguists call this combination of the writer’s work with references to the work of others intertextuality—the interleaving of two discourses. 

Why Sources Matter

Every academic writer faces an interesting challenge: how to make use of the work of others while not crowding out her own findings or argument. Typically, academic writers want to welcome others’ positions into their essays and reports. They want to honor what’s been thought and said.  But more than this, they know that their own arguments will thrive if they indicate their genealogy: What previous thinking am I responding to? What’s the general nature of my response? Who do I align with, and who do I disassociate from?  Academic writing is conversational in nature.  As a researcher, you effectively enter a conversation that may have been unfolding over many centuries, or it may be a recent debate. When you begin your reading or research to prepare for creating your own analysis or making your own argument, you first locate the conversations in order to listen in to them: What have others said about my subject? How do I differentiate their various remarks? What parts of the conversation do I find most interesting or important?

As a researcher, much of your time is spent listening and lurking, always with your antennae up, ready to hone in on particular findings, special ways of defining key terms, and prior conclusions to be newly tested. This close observation allows you to synthesize and summarize well, but it also is crucial to both getting your bearings and finding your own direction. Sometimes that means charting a course through the thicket of others’ data and discourse in order to discover a pathway to your own claims. At other times, you may be guided on your pathway by one or more previous writers, whose findings you adapt to suit your own purposes.

As an academic writer in training, you will learn to tell the story of the sources you refer to.  Various disciplines tell this story in various ways. Some will ask you to compose a literature review, others will require an annotated bibliography, while still others will prefer that you condense the conversational history into a single paragraph or set of sentences.  Among other things, this shows that you have “done the homework,” are aware of a history of research into your subject, and provides a launching point for your own take on the matter. Perhaps the most important question to ask while you are assembling this material and planning your own argument is this: Am I using the sources, or are they using me? It’s easy for a collection of sources to “flood out” your own pathway of thinking. Sources can drown out your own voice, or crowd out the space needed to build your case. Even without our explicitly knowing it, we can grow attached to a source, or become beholden to another’s approach. Certainly, other writers influence us and help us—in sometimes circuitous ways—find our own way. They can guide and support us, and we credit them for their formative influence. But we should not put them in the position to speak on our behalf. If you are like most students, you will grow more and more confident in taking what might best be called an “informed position,” making a claim that is both indebted to prior research and adds to this history in a refreshing way. 

Transplanting Source Material

Effectively using sources is much like gardening.

It’s best to think of making use of source material (textual, visual, sonic, or data-assembled) as an act of transplanting. This involves excising a term, phrase, passage, or data from a source document and planting that material in its new environment where it enhances a new meaning, takes on a new significance, or otherwise adds to a writer’s work. Such transplanting repurposes material, helps the writer build her own argument or analysis with text, data, or other matter originally created by others.

Transplanting involves skill and care. Imagine that you have a rose bush that, after years of neglect, deserves to be moved to a premier spot in the garden, where it will thrive and show off its bright yellow blooms. First, you pick out its new home, close to the driveway, where everyone will see it. Then, the delicate act of extraction begins as you gently dig around the root ball of the plant, careful not to disturb its neighboring daffodils, and keeping the soil on the roots intact, move it to its new spot, where you have dug a deep hole, have spread lime around its base, and set the plant into the hole. Finally, you water the rose, cross your fingers, and hope that it will take root.

Think of all the concepts that come into play here: adaptation, appropriation, perhaps even resettlement. Like making use of sources in writing, all of these are acts of contextual shift, as something is moved from one place to another. When writers make use of sources in their own work, they keep two contexts in mind: the original context1 in which the source material appeared, context2, the writer’s own document.

two circles with the same square in each

Key Points

  • Transplanting a text is like transplanting a plant to new soil
  • You need to take care when using text in a new setting otherwise it will not take root
  • When writing, keep in mind the original context and the new context


Acknowledging the Original Context

citation manuals

There are various citation style manuals

No one would expect the gardener to place a small sign next to the newly-positioned plant that reads: “Originally found in the north side of the garden.” In fact, the gardener hopes that the immigrant rose will blend seamlessly into its new environment. But transplanted texts, data, and other matter care very much that they’ve been appropriated to new use. So, writers acknowledge their source by scrupulously indicating where the cited material originally appeared. Citation is the term given to the act of acknowledging the source. Rules for citation vary by guidelines created by academic organizations. The Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) place the source’s information in parentheses following the sentence in which the borrowed material appears. The University of Chicago Style Manual (Chicago) uses either parenthetical references or footnotes that appear at the bottom of a page. You are responsible for citing the source for any material you transplant from its original context to its new home in your paper.

Citation Styles

See Citation Manuals & Guides for information about different citation styles


Helping the Source Material Take Root

To return for a moment to our gardening analogy, if a gardener carelessly moves the plant from its original site to its new place elsewhere in the garden, it is likely to wither and die. To ensure that it will thrive int its new home, a gardener must prepare the site, disturb the plants’ roots as little as possible, compact fresh, composted soil around the base, and give it its first watering. This act of “settling in” resembles what a writer must do as she places a term, phrase, passage, data, visual, or other material into her own discourse. If the quoted material is simply tossed into her writing, it will stand out as unincorporated into her writing. Readers will see it as a temporary disruption in the stream of their reading, something gratuitously added rather than folded in. 

Lead Ins and Follow Up Sentences

To incorporate quoted material into your own discourse, you can offer both a lead in and a follow up sentence. The lead-in prepares readers to reckon with the quoted material, treating it as an important part of your total discourse. The follow-up transitions a reader from the quoted material back into the stream of your own prose. Without these bookends, the quoted material will seem to readers an annoying bump in the road. They may even avoid it altogether, which often happens when block quotes (quoted material longer than four lines of typed text that appears as an indented section) go unframed.  Notice these two examples, the first without a frame, the second with the lead-in and follow-up in place:

Passage 1

Often, we think of ourselves as quite static creatures who, once we have reached a certain age, remain as relatively stable persons who may adapt to circumstances but remain day by day, unchanged. But it is more likely that each of us evolve in response to life’s challenges. Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist, finds that in “the course of our individual lives, moral and emotional experiences can change us so greatly that we are not the same people we were earlier; life, with its transformations, has restyled us at the core” (17).  Self-awareness escapes young Charles Collingwood, who sees himself as impenetrable in the face of his wife’s abandonment.  He cannot acknowledge that survival requires the soul’s evolution

Notice that Passage 1 brings Kleinman’s quotation into his discourse with the most minimal preparation. We know simply that a medical anthropologist named Arthur Kleinman has said something. It is up to readers to determine the quote’s exact significance to the writer’s developing point. Following the quote, the writer abruptly shifts back to his own analysis, which appears to be unaffected by the passage he took the time to quote.

Passage 2

Often, we think of ourselves as quite static creatures who, once we have reached a certain age, remain as relatively stable persons who may adapt to circumstances but remain day by day unchanged. But it is more likely that each of us evolve in response to life’s challenges. Scholars who study the life course, like medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, reject the very idea of a stolid self who “weathers the storms” of difficulty fully intact, and instead sees each of us as continuously transforming persons, so that “moral and emotional experiences can change us so greatly that we are not the same people we were earlier; life, with its transformation, has restyled us at the core” (17).  For Kleinman, even the “core” transforms. He urges us to consider how a rocky coast, buffeted by storms and battering waters, is under almost constant change—perhaps imperceptible, but altered nonetheless. Exactly such an awareness escapes young Charles Collingwood, who sees himself as impenetrable in the face of his wife’s abandonment.  He cannot acknowledge that survival requires the soul’s evolution.

In Passage 2, the writer “prepares the soil” to receive Kleinman’s quotation. She tells us a bit about the theory of change that Kleinman shares with other scholars, and briefly explains how it functions. Following the passage from Kleinman, the writer mentions Kleinman’s image of the rocky coast, which correlates with the assumed “impenetrability” of Charles Collingwood, the character from the novel the writer is analyzing.

Key Points

  • Think of bringing source material into the your own discourse as making use of that material
  • You have the responsibility to show readers why you are turning to others’ text, data, or creative materials
  • When you move quoted material from one place to another, you must recontextualize the quoted text


Verbs used for Introducing Quotations

When you introduce a term, phrase, or passage from a source into the context of your own paper, you want to do that in a way that accurately signals to readers not only what the source has said, but also how it has been said, with what force, hesitancy, surety, qualification, degree of certainty—essentially, the spirt in which the source wishes his/her remark to be taken by the reader. So, to simply say that source X says Y does nothing to indicate the tone, manner, or style in which Y made her remark. Does she assert, insist, speculate, wonder, note, or stress something? By adjusting the verb that you use to introduce the quoted material, you add important information about how another’s observation or assertion should be taken by the reader.

In other words, if you write that Y scholar clarifies X, you are both implicitly praising that writer’s ability to elucidate a meaning in a helpful way. If you write that Y scholar obscures or confuses something, it’s obvious that you are quoting from the source in order to make a point that the source is mistaken, unreliable, or wrong-headed. In this case, the careful choice of the verb frames the source’s work in an efficient and effective way. Of course, you should be ready to go on to say why this source obfuscates or distorts. Linguists call this interest in how someone says something a matter of illocution. Sometimes, tone and manner of speaking count tremendously in how we take another’s meaning. Think of the difference between the phrases “Please close the door.” and “Close the darned door!” The essential message is the same, but the meaning differs greatly. So, take your time to choose the right verb that will portray the source as you want that source to be understood or valued by your readers. To simply say that so and so states X is to say nothing about your attitude regarding the comment.

Here are some verbs to choose from:


acknowledges cites finds proposes shows
addresses claims identifies proves states
adds compares inquires questions stipulates
admits concludes insists rationalizes stresses
agrees concurs investigates refers to suggests
analyzes confirms lists rejects summarizes
argues contends measures remarks synthesizes
asks critiques notes replies traces
asserts declares observes reports views
assesses defines points out responds warns
believes delineates postulate reviews writes
categorizes demonstrates presents says  


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