Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

Integrating Source Material into The Essay

Using Sources Responsibly

Both the clarity and the credibility of any research essay depend upon the responsible use of sources. And using sources responsibly entails accurately representing them and clearly discriminating between your own words and ideas and those that come from sources. Since ideas, words, information, and concepts not directly and clearly attributed to a source will be taken as your own, any lack of clarity on this score amounts to plagiarism. Representing anyone else’s ideas or data as your own, even if you state them in your own words, is plagiarism—whether you do so intentionally or unintentionally; whether ideas are taken from a published book or article, another student’s paper, the Internet, or any other source. Plagiarism is the most serious of offenses within academe because it amounts to stealing ideas, the resource most precious to this community and its members. As a result, the punishments for plagiarism are severe—including failure, suspension, and expulsion.

To avoid both the offense and its consequences, you must always:

  1. put quotation marks around any quotation from a source (a quotation being any two or more consecutive words or any one especially distinctive word, label, or concept);

  2. credit a source whenever you take from it any of the following:
  • —a quotation (as described above);

  • —a nonfactual or debatable claim (an idea, opinion, interpretation, evaluation, or conclusion) stated in your own words;

  • —a fact or piece of data that isn’t common knowledge; or

  • —a distinctive way of organizing factual information.

To clarify, a fact counts as common knowledge—and therefore doesn’t need to be credited to a source—whenever you can find it in multiple, readily available sources, none of which seriously question its validity. For example, it is common knowledge that Sherman Alexie is Native American, that he was born in 1966, and that he published a collection of short stories entitled Ten Little Indians. No source can "own" or get credit for these facts. However, a source can still "own" a particular way of arranging or presenting such facts. If, for example, you begin your essay by stating—in your own words—a series of facts about Alexie’s life in exactly the same order they appear in, say, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, then you would need to acknowledge that by citing the Dictionary. When in doubt, cite. (For guidance about how to do so, see CITATION AND DOCUMENTATION.)

Next >>