Thursday, May 6, 2010

Writing, Research, and Documentation

Writing, Research, and Documentation: A Simplified Guide

©2010 Gerald Siegel, Ph.D.
Professor of English, York College of Pennsylvania
Visiting Professor, FON University, Skopje, Macedonia

This guide was developed to provide a quick reference to American and Western European academic research practices for students, especially those currently studying American Literature, at FON University. It is not intended to be either a complete or exhaustive treatment of the topic of research writing, and it reflects only the opinions of the author, not necessarily those of FON University or York College of Pennsylvania.

Before you do research

Here are a few “dos and don’ts” to guide you as you confront tasks in literary analysis, whether they are brief course projects or extended seminar or research papers.

DO READ AND DECIDE: first decide whether research is even necessary. Research is done to get information you need, but don’t have on your own and can’t get through careful reading and analysis of a text alone. Research is one way of learning what you don’t already know, but you may be able to produce a work of literary analysis or criticism through what you have learned through your own reading and abilities.

If you’re working on a project for a class or a university requirement, read over the directions for the project carefully. Can it be answered from careful reading of primary texts or from what you already know and have learned? Does it require secondary research to get information you don’t already possess? Will secondary research (reading an article that explains how Faulkner’s fictional town of Jefferson resembles the real Oxford, Mississippi) be more efficient than primary research (taking a trip to Mississippi to compare the real town with the fictional descriptions)?

DO THINK: that first decision often means just thinking about the assignment or project and spending some time just preparing to write. If you’re unclear about a project, this is a good time to consult with your professor.

DO HAVE A RESEARCH GOAL: If you think you’ll need to use research, make sure your research, if you do it, has a clear and limited purpose. Be sure you’re answering a restricted and focused research question, one that’s worth answering. When you look for specific information that is relevant, you’re more efficient and can save time. You can just ignore the irrelevant: if you’re doing research on Faulkner’s Mississippi locations, information about the business success of one of his childhood acquaintances isn’t anything you need, even if a resource happens to mention it.

DON’T JUST SURF: do not, above all, just pick a word or two in the assignment and start surfing the web to see what you find. For print materials, don’t just skim a book or study guide you happened to find in hopes that you can create a book report that will look like a research paper. If you develop a focus early, you’ll be able to work more efficiently later. Purposeful research beginning with reputable sources and specific goals can proceed more efficiently and produce a stronger piece of criticism.

If you need to do research

Keep your sense of purpose in mind. Decide whether you are doing research to familiarize yourself with a topic about which you know absolutely nothing, to get more information than you already have on a topic, or to test and possibly confirm or reject analysis you have done about a topic.

While much writing you do will proceed from your own knowledge, sometimes you will have to locate information elsewhere: to do research. Some of that research will be primary, or research that is original with you, such as analysis of an actual text or using class information that you have learned from a course, but have since assimilated and made your own. Other research may be as simple as a trip to the files or an interview.

But often you may need to rely on library and online resource. Even if you could conduct the necessary research yourself, using articles, books, and other secondary sources could save you from having to "reinvent the wheel." Perhaps the information you need has already been discovered by someone else and published in a book or article. Reading that book or article very often will be more efficient than repeating the same research yourself.

Finding Information Sources

Your first step will be to find the materials you need by using your library's research and bibliographic sources. If you don’t have access to a compete library at your own institution, you may be able to find resources through other area libraries, both university ones and those sponsored by various agencies, such as the U.S. embassy’s American Corner libraries. If you are very fortunate, you may be able to locate exactly what you need through a library's computer catalog. You may also have access to any of a number of computerized databases and online resources through which you can access extensive bibliographies, articles, and primary texts. While some of these may not be available in your location or may charge, many others are available free to various groups. A brief listing of online materials is available for FON students and faculty at under the heading “Research Sources.”

But very often your research will involve speaking with a reference librarian, if one is available, and using print information sources. Either in or out of libraries, you can also access information through a number of computerized information search services; using specific search tools can be more helpful than simply surfing the internet to see what’s out there about, say, William Faulkner. (Without narrowing your topic or using specialized search tools, you may find millions of possible hits including a number from term paper mills and other unethical or even illegal information hucksters.)

Going to visit Oxford, Mississippi, to compare what you find there with what’s described in a specific work of William Faulkner’s fiction as the town of Jefferson would be an example of primary research, as would reading several of his stories carefully and creating your own description of the town. Andrea Lunsford, in, The Everyday Writer, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2009), p. 169, describes this kind of research when she contrasts “primary sources [that] provide firsthand knowledge” with “secondary sources [that] report on or analyze the research of others.” Finding a book or study guide that provided a comparison of the real Oxford with the fictional Jefferson would be a good example of this kind of research.

Secondary sources can provide, among other things, explanatory or background information, differing views about your topic, and, perhaps most important, support for your own critical ideas and claims. Typically, even with carefully targeted research, you will initial find more possible works than you will actually use in writing your paper. Be wary of finding that every work you locate appears in your final version; this could be a sign that your paper may be an example of “cutting and pasting” rather than true research. It’s a good idea, nevertheless, to keep a list of full references to all of these possible works in your “working bibliography,” which is “a list of sources that you are considering using for your project” (Lunsford 182).

Taking Notes from Sources

Once you have located useful sources, either directly or with the aid of indices and reference guides like those described above, you are ready to gather the information you need. Most of the time, you'll take this information in the form of notes on your sources.

If the source you are using is extensive, consider doing a section at a time. Read the entire portion; then put the original away and write down your notes. You can always check those notes against the original for correctness and completeness before you go on to the next section. Some writers will try to use word processing and store notes as files. For those who prefer handwritten notes, note cards or small pieces of paper (either small sheets or half sheets) are handy for recording notes; the small size encourages putting only limited amounts of information on each card or slip. Unlike notes recorded sequentially on sheets of notebook paper, these small slips or cards can be arranged into various groupings as your document develops. If you feel you must take notes in sequence on notebook paper, try writing only on one side, and limit yourself to two, three, or four items per page. Record the source and page number on each note section. Then you can either use the notes in sequence or cut the sections apart and use them as note slips.

It's a good idea to note the source and page number on each note slip. If you quote from the source, be sure to place quotation marks around all quoted material in your notes. This practice will help you remember what is quoted and what is paraphrased when you begin writing a draft. As a rule, try to paraphrase or summarize rather than quote, so that your own style comes through. You will probably achieve a smoother style than if you had incorporated large amounts of undigested quotation into a piece of writing. Paraphrasing and summarizing help maintain a consistent style throughout a research-based work and are excellent ways to avoid inadvertent use another’s words as if they were your own.

Paraphrasing from Sources

Paraphrasing involves restating the ideas of a source in your own words and original syntax. Strictly speaking, a paraphrase should be about the same length as the original. In practice, however, paraphrases are often shorter than the source material, and in some cases, such as when you paraphrase technical or highly complex material, the paraphrase may actually be longer. If you do shorten the material as you paraphrase, be careful to avoid changing the meaning of the original. The paraphrase should mention all the main points of the original material in the same order. A special concern in paraphrasing is to guard against what Lunsford describes as “plagiarizing inadvertently” by instead being careful not to “simply substitute synonyms” and not to “imitate an author’s style” (195).

In most research situations, you will need to use appropriate documentation along with a paraphrase. Remember that footnotes and parenthetic or textual documentation are used to credit borrowed ideas. In addition, if you take the words and/or the syntax of the original, you'll need to include quotation marks around the borrowed words.

The following example illustrates proper and improper paraphrasing. The author of the samples is preparing informational notes to be sent to the supporters of a local public television station which will be presenting a series of programs about Southern writers. She begins by reading this passage from Michael Millgate's book William Faulkner (New York: Grove Press, 1961, p. 6).

Here is the original material, presented as a quotation:

"Just as it is impossible to identify Jefferson with Oxford completely, it is an exaggeration to say, as some critics have done, that the Sartorises of Faulkner's novels are the members of his own family. There can be no doubt, however, that Colonel Falkner is, in large degree, the original of Colonel John Sartoris of Sartoris, The Unvanquished, and, more briefly, of several other novels. Anyone who has read Sartoris and The Unvanquished will realize at once that many incidents in these books--the building of the railway, for example, the demotion of Sartoris from his first command, the shooting of Sartoris by Redmond--are based closely upon fact, or upon the legendary versions of original facts that Faulkner himself must have heard . . ." (Millgate 6).

Presented as a paraphrase and slightly shortened, the ideas might look like this:

Many of the people and events depicted in Faulkner's works do have apparent connections with actual figures and events associated with the author's own life. Faulkner's own great-grandfather Falkner, for example, was probably "the original of Colonel John Sartoris," a character who appears, with varying degrees of importance, in "several . . . novels." In addition, scenes from his works provide fictional versions of accounts with which Faulkner himself was personally familiar. Nevertheless, the parallels between actuality and Faulkner's fiction are not complete. The fictional town of Jefferson and the real Oxford, Mississippi, are not exactly alike, and, despite claims by some commentators, "the members of his [Faulkner's] own family" are not identical to the fictional Sartoris family (Millgate 6).

This sample uses the MLA documentation system, which identifies most works by the author’s last name plus the page or pages where the material appeared (shown in parentheses). Some internet sources have no actual page numbers and are identified by the author’s name alone. It’s even possible to document within the text by an extended citation; journalistic articles and books sometimes do this, and you will see examples of this practice throughout these instructions. For a discussion of other kinds of citations and of other documentation systems, see the Purdue OWL site or other similar resources..

For the most consistent style, paraphrases should avoid unnecessary quotation of the source; in that way, the promotional materials for the television series would reflect the author's style rather than that of Millgate. In the example above, a few word groups do come directly from the source, but are clearly identified as someone else's words by quotation marks. Indented block form can be used if the quotation is an extended one. Where one or more words is deleted from a quotation, the omission is shown by the three spaced periods (four if a sentence or more is cut). In the final sentence of the paraphrase, the author inserted an explanatory word of her own into a quoted phrase; the added word is identified by being placed in square brackets. Finally, the parenthetic note at the end of the paraphrase identifies the source of the information. Handled in this manner, the paraphrase could appropriately appear in the station program guide.

Even if an original is summarized, the same principles of documentation apply. The note at the end of the following passage--a passage entirely in the author's own words rather than those of the source--identifies the source of the information.

The apparent identification of Faulkner's life and fiction sometimes claimed exists, but only to a degree. Faulkner based his characters (such as the Sartoris family) and events in his fiction on people and facts he knew. Still, the parallels between reality and that fiction are not total (Millgate 6).

The following paraphrase is handled incorrectly. The excerpt doesn't show quotation through quotation marks or block form, but the Italicized phrases are Millgate’s words and not those of the student writer, so even though the entire passage is credited to the source, it is an example of plagiarism.

In the same way that one cannot identify Jefferson with Oxford in all ways, it would not be correct to claim, as some critics have said, that the Sartorises are members of Faulkner's own family. This would be an exaggeration. One cannot doubt, however, that Colonel Falkner is the original of Colonel John Sartoris (Millgate 6).

Finally, the following summary is done incorrectly, even though it is entirely paraphrased, because it fails to credit the source of the information. Again, the passage is thus plagiarized. In this case, the problem could be corrected by simply adding documentation (Millgate 6) after the borrowed ideas.

Many of the people and events depicted in Faulkner's works do have a connection with figures and events in real life.

Paraphrasing, then, is simply a way of presenting ideas from a source in your own words. To be effective, paraphrases should either avoid or clearly identify the words of the original. Changing a word or two or shuffling them around does not produce effective paraphrase.

As mentioned above, the parenthetic documentation system shown in this section is the system recommended by the Modern Language Association (or MLA). It has largely replaced more traditional systems of using footnotes and endnotes, although these forms can still be used and still occur in MLA papers when needed for explanation or comments. Other professional organizations (such as the American Psychological Association, or APA) recommend their own styles of documentation and issue manuals or guides explaining these systems. Each system will also follow certain prescribed formats for bibliographies or lists of "works cited" (MLA) or “references” (APA). If you are not sure of the style to use, check with your instructor or with the person for whom you are preparing the research-based report.

The works actually cited within a paper because their words or information were used are typically named at the end of an academic paper in an alphabetical list most often called “Works Cited” (MLA format) or “References” (APA). Works in this list would really have been cited in the paper, and any works cited in the paper should appear in this listing. (In some cases of journalistic writing, there may not be a separate list at the end because complete information was given through textual citations.) Although this article does not do so to save space, this list is normally on a separate page.

Some samples of typical MLA "Works Cited" entries include the following. Although this essay is single spaced to save paper for those making hard copies, most academic research (including the Works Cited) would usually be double spaced. Samples 9-13 are reprinted from Andrea Lunsford, The Everyday Writer, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2009), pp. 446-75. This list shows only a few samples of some common types of resources.

1. a book by one person
Doe, John A. Writing Clear Messages for International Audiences. New York: Useful Press, 2003. Print.

2. a book edited by one person
Moe, Mary. Essays in International Communication. London: Picadilly Books, 2008. Print.

3. a book by more than one person
Doe, John A., and Susan B. Roe. Persuasive Proposals. New York: Useful Press, 1998. Print.

4. an essay or chapter in a collection
Phelps, Phyllis. “Gender and Culture.” Writing Clear Messages for International Audiences. Ed. John Doe. New York: Useful Press, 2003. 245-76. Print.

5. an article in a journal which paginates each volume continuously
Doe, John A. "Clarity in Writing Styles." Journal of Professional Communication 12(2002): 16-23. Print.

6. an article in a journal which paginates each issue separately
Moe, Larry C. "Managing Conflict Today." Managerial Communicating Quarterly 34.2 (2008): 88-102. Print.

7. an article from a monthly or bimonthly magazine
Roe, Susan B. "Get Your Documentation Right." This Month's Business May 1993: 18-22. Print.

8. an article from a newspaper
Monroe, M. B. "Businesses Are Hiring Psychologists." Gotham City News 22 May 2009: 37B. Print. [Newspaper citations vary with the pagination and arrangement of the particular paper.]

9. a work from an online database
Goldman, William. “The Princess Bride Shooting Draft.” 1987. Internet Movie Script Database. Web. 12 June 2008.

10. an entry in an online reference work
“Tour de France.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006. Web. 21 May 2006.

11. a work from a web site
“Hand Off Public Broadcasting.” Media Matters for America. Media Matters for America. 24 May 2005. Web. 31 May 2005.

12. an entry in a wiki
“Federation Internationale de Football Association.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 June 2006. Web. 27 June 2006.

13. an article reprinted on a web site
Lee, Jennifer B. “I Think, Therefore IM.” New York Times. New York Times, 19 Sept. 2002. Web. 14 Nov. 2003.

14. a complete online website
The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2008. Web. 16 April 2010.

15. a scholarly article reprinted online
Mansfield, Richard. "In the World of Victorian Drama." Events in Drama 12.3 (2008): 483- 505. Web. 6 April. 2010.

16. a work from an online study guide
Washington, Durthy A. CliffsNotes on Invisible Man. Web. 15 Apr 2010.

17. interviews
Zimmerman, Zoe. Personal interview. 6 June 2007.

Abercrombie, Albert. Telephone interview. 8 May 2007.

The form of specific citations will vary with the type of information you have borrowed; many other forms exist, especially for electronic sources. Resources such as the Purdue University Online Writing Laboratory or the MLA home page can provide details on how to handle secondary materials. The exact extent of documentation, of course, will depend upon the context in which you are writing. Formal papers, including much academic writing, will require meticulous documentation; an in-house study for only you and your assistants may need none; a memo-length training bulletin for internal use may call for a simple list of sources. Finally, remember that even a report relying upon research should be well written. The same writing and editing techniques that you would use to make any other document smooth and effective apply here, too.

Sources actually used and cited in a paper, article, or research study will, in MLA format, also appear on a separate page at the end of the work in an alphabetical list called a Works Cited list. Again, such tools as the Purdue University OWL or MLA sites can help with specifics.

Plagiarism and academic integrity (honesty and dishonesty)

This section is intended to clarify the notions of academic integrity and the concept of plagiarism. Academic honesty, which includes giving credit through documentation and indicating quotation for information and words taken from other sources, clearly differentiating between your own words and those of someone else, and presenting as original research work only that which you have done yourself, is taken seriously in American academic practices. For that reason among others, it is essential to reflect these practices when preparing and submitting research and criticism in courses in American Literature and American studies.

Although sometimes plagiarism is the result of lack of knowledge and incompetence rather than deliberate cheating, it’s still plagiarism and unethical. But sometimes, often when a student is under pressure of time or grades, it is conscious and deliberate. Plagiarism and academic dishonesty are serious infractions. Be sure that any work you submit for a course or publication is original and uses correct documentation practices. If you’re under pressures that seem impossible to handle, you should think first about talking with the professor concerned. A penalty for late submission is a small price to pay for retaining one’s honor.

Above all, one should never insult one’s professor and embarrass himself or herself by turning in a paper that was purchased from a print shop, another student, or an internet source. Similarly, don’t turn in as original work and your own words blocks of material entirely or mainly cut and pasted from internet resources or term paper mills and printed out under your name. Professors usually check for this and get pretty good at spotting it. At best, professors won’t accept such papers, and more severe penalties can follow. As Lunsford observes, “deliberate plagiarism . . . is particularly troubling because it represents dishonesty and deception: those who intentionally plagiarize present the hard thinking and hard work of someone else as their own, and they claim knowledge they really don’t have, thus deceiving their readers” (206). The damage to a reputation can last for a lifetime.

Proper research practices and careful self-reviews and peer reviews can help avoid plagiarism problems. In some cases, awareness itself may be in part a cultural response to borrowed material. Lunsford provides a useful caution on this topic

Plagiarism as a Cultural Concept

Many cultures do not recognize Western notions of plagiarism, which rest on a belief that language and ideas can be owned by writers. Indeed, in many countries other than the United States, and even within some communities in the United States, using the words and ideas of others without attribution is considered a sign of deep respect as well as an indication of knowledge. In academic writing in the United States, however, you should credit all materials except those that are common knowledge, that are available in a wide variety of sources, or that are your own creations (photographs, drawings, and so on) or your own findings from field research (206).

Work in the field of American Literature or American Studies should adhere to those principles of acknowledging and crediting the words or ideas of others. Documentation and correct use of quotation marks or block form for extended quotations provides a way of giving this credit.

The Purdue OWL website also provides some specific insights into dealing with research and avoiding plagiarism:

Research-based writing in American institutions, both educational and corporate, is filled with rules that writers, particularly beginners, aren't aware of or don't know how to follow. Many of these rules have to do with research and proper citation. Gaining a familiarity of these rules, however, is critically important, as inadvertent mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism, which is the uncredited [sic] use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else's words or ideas.

While some cultures may not insist so heavily on documenting sources of words, ideas, images, sounds, etc., American culture does. A charge of plagiarism can have severe consequences, including expulsion from a university or loss of a job, not to mention a writer's loss of credibility and professional standing. This resource [the Purdue site], which does not reflect any official university policy, is designed to help you develop strategies for knowing how to avoid accidental plagiarism.

The site goes on to provide in-depth information about determining whether a particular situation is or is not plagiarism and practices to help you avoid it.

An error that has surfaced in some seminar papers and in-class projects is simply reprinting word-for-word blocks of material with no quotation marks or documentation, but combining these blocks. For example, notice this version of the two quotations on plagiarism, above.

Research-based writing in American institutions, both educational and corporate, is filled with rules that writers, particularly beginners, aren't aware of or don't know how to follow. Many of these rules have to do with research and proper citation. Many cultures do not recognize Western notions of plagiarism, which rest on a belief that language and ideas can be owned by writers. While some cultures may not insist so heavily on documenting sources of words, ideas, images, sounds, etc., American culture does.

All this version does is cut and paste blocks of type exactly from the sources, rather like an artist making a collage, but without any artistic purpose. But the author has not even taken notes on the material, let alone done anything with it, and has not even used quotes and documentation to show that it’s not his/her own writing. For a professor trying to evaluate the student’s writing, after the plagiarized material has been eliminated, there’s simply nothing to evaluate.

Lunsford (208) provides a useful set of guidelines to help students avoid plagiarism and its consequences. They are reprinted (with minor deletions) here:

• Maintain an accurate and thorough working bibliography.
• Establish a consistent note-taking system, listing sources and page numbers and clearly identifying all quotations, paraphrases, summaries, statistics, and visuals.
• Identify all quotations with quotation marks—both in your notes and in your essay. Be sure your summaries and paraphrases use your own words and sentence structures.
• Give a citation or note for each quotation, paraphrase, summary, arguable assertion or opinion, statistic, and visual that is from a source.
• Prepare an accurate and complete list of sources cited according to the required documentation style.

Finding help

The Purdue Online Writing Lab is an excellent resource for both writing advice and information and samples related to documentation including MLA and APA guidelines); It’s located at

Good places to look for help in writing and documentation can be found in the Research Sources list at

A useful site with documentation links of different kind is the following: Dr. Charles Phillips Links to English Courses and Resources. at

EasyBib: The Automatic Bibliography & Citation Maker. This offers help with citations.

The Paradigm Online Writing Assistant offers help with basic writing skills. It’s located at

For a starting point in locating reference sources available online, try FrontPage: University of Florida Free Online Reference Sources:

Works Cited

Lunsford, Andrea. The Everyday Writer, 4th ed. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2008. Web. 16 April 2010.

Siegel, Gerald. Business and Professional Writing: A Guide to the Process, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1994. Print.

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