How to Source Your Academic Paper


Wikipedia is great for a lot of things: settling bets over simple trivia, looking up information about movies, and even discovering whole new areas of study you didn’t even know existed. What it’s not good for, however, is acting as a source for your academic papers. In fact, few things are liable to irritate your professors more than Wikipedia showing up in your works cited list.

While there are a lot of poorly constructed, suspect, and unreliable resources on the web, there are also a lot of really great ones that can add serious structure and substance to your paper. You may still need to make the occasional trip to your college library, but the expansion of digital repositories of information has made it possible to access countless academic papers, experts, and resources without ever leaving your dorm room or apartment, which can be a serious boon to those who like waiting until the last minute to start on research.

However, the trick isn’t in knowing these kinds of resources are out there but understanding how to find them, how to separate the good from the bad, and how to appropriately cite them within your work. Learning these tips will not only make it easier to find the information you need, it can actually help you to build stronger, better researched papers.

Finding Quality Sources Online

It doesn’t matter if you’ve waited until the last minute or are researching weeks in advance; your biggest challenge in starting your research is going to be finding high quality sources. Luckily, the web is flush with ways to get access to these if you know where to look.

Your first move may be the most obvious. After all, there’s a reason the phrase “Google it” has entered the American vernacular. The search engine is arguably the best way to find just about anything you’re looking for on the web and academic research is no exception. There are a couple of ways that students can ensure they’re getting high quality sources from a Google search and not the ravings of a crackpot who knows how to create a website, however.

The most basic is to use Google’s academic search engine Google Scholar. Google Scholar will limit your search results to only online academic journals, technical reports, theses and scholarly books and websites. Similar search engines exist through other sources as well, including Scirus, CiteSeerX, and getCITED, which can be great alternatives or other resources to check if you’d prefer to get away from Google.

If you want to broaden your search, however, you can also limit search results on Google to only include sites that have .edu, .gov, or .org addresses. While this won’t ensure that every resource is appropriate for use in your paper, it will limit results enough to help you find a much larger number of credible and research-based sources for your paper.

If you’re writing on a more current topic, you may want to use other features of Google to help you find the most recent publications that address it. An easy way to do this is to set up a Google Alert. When you first find out about your paper, set up an alert or alerts for key terms related to the subject of your paper. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to go back and see what has been published related to these topics and pull out a few sources from reputable news sites and other academic publications.

Even social media — perhaps more commonly used to procrastinate on writing a paper –can play a role in finding high-quality information for an academic paper. There are countless experts and academics who maintain online profiles through sites like Twitter and LinkedIn. These social media avenues can be the perfect place to reach out and ask any questions you may have about a topic. You can score original quotes this way and get advice on what journal articles, authors, and books to look to for more information.

You can start this process by looking up experts related to your paper topic and seeing if they have social media accounts. If you find one, send a quick message telling them about your paper and asking any questions if you have them. If this method doesn’t work, you may be able to engage with experts through Twitter chats or other online forums. Either way will give you direct access to expert information that can be cited in your paper or used to further investigate your topic.

While Wikipedia and About.com are not credible enough to be included in an academic paper, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them at all. “Visiting Wikipedia to get an overall sense of the topic is a great idea, says Brian Gumz, a content strategist at Fahrenheit Marketing and graduate of the University of Texas’ English program. After that, however, he says it’s time to move on. “Once you’ve read the Wikipedia article, go find the legitimate sources that back up its claims.”

Online Resources for Students

Found the perfect resource for your paper but freaking out at the cost of access? That’s when it really pays to be a student.

Students shouldn’t turn away from a source because it’s behind a pay wall. “Once a student locates a useful article, they should copy the pertinent information — title, author, publication, date– and access the article through the college’s online library or a public library website, ” says Liz Martinez, a professor of English and Criminal Justice at the College of Southern Nevada . She adds that students should never have to pay for research materials because most college libraries already pay for licenses to research databases and academic journals students can use.

Students can also do some really great online research by directly signing in to these databases through their school library and conducting a search there. One of the best sources for most academic research is JSTOR, a digitized repository of academic journals, primary sources, and books, covering more than 50 different disciplines. With so much content, however, it may be hard to find just what you’re looking for.

Familiarizing yourself with search operators and best search practices can help wade through the information. “It can be useful to conduct a ‘cached’ search by putting specific phrases in quotations and searching for them in-text,” says Ashley Baker, a graduate of Duke’s English program and a former journalist. “Many titles are misnomers, and doing an in-text search can help find necessary information while simply skimming the article.” For example, if you’re looking for information on Nobel Prize winners in physics, it can be useful to put these terms in quotations, that way JSTOR won’t return results for “Nobel” “Prize” and “physics” separately; only where they occur together. This can save time and may be extra useful to those who’ve waited until the last minute to start researching.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in JSTOR, it’s likely that your school has subscriptions to other online databases. These may have a general focus, or be aimed at a particular topic, which can be helpful in finding articles in a specific discipline. Most library sites will have a list of the databases to which they subscribe so you can peruse at your leisure. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a librarian if you’re not sure how they work or how to log on.

It never hurts to actually search through the books located in your college library, too. These can often provide a more in-depth look at a subject than a single article alone. The web can be your friend in this situation, too, however. Many academic libraries will send books between institutions, you just have to put in an online request for the materials, so even if your school’s library is lacking you can still get access to what you need. And if you need it now? Consider using WorldCat. This search engine will tell you what libraries, public or academic, have the book you need on hand so you can seek it out on your own.

Evaluating Your Sources

Sometimes, it isn’t always immediately obvious whether or not a source is acceptable to use in an academic paper or not.

There are few things you need to look out for when choosing sources, so ask yourself these questions when you find something you think can work for your paper.

  • Is it written by a professional? While big name papers and magazines will have well-written and researched articles, they’re often not written by experts in the field. However, they can be a great starting point in directing you towards people who are, as these experts often show up as sources in a piece.
  • Is it academic? When writing a paper for your college courses, 99% of the time you’ll need to use sources that are academic in nature. If you’ve found something that is interesting but isn’t academic or scholarly, you should keep looking for the information elsewhere.
  • Is it trying to sell you on something? Sometimes, websites and resources will have an agenda, even if written by a reputable source. These will try to sell you on an idea or product and don’t offer a balanced, unbiased overview of an issue.
  • Is it real? The internet is a hotbed of hoaxes, spoofs, and pranks, some of which will look incredibly professional, valid, and legitimate. One key tip-off? If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

If you’re really on the fence about a source, send an email to your professor asking whether or not you should include it or if you need to seek out the information from somewhere else. He or she will be able to tell you what will work and may even be able to point out other, more acceptable sources that contain the same information. Just don’t wait until the night before your paper is due to ask, otherwise you’re likely to get a less than cordial response to your inquiry.

This all seems like a lot of trouble, right? Well it’s for a good reason. You want to use scholarly sources because these are the most well-researched, authoritative materials available on a topic. This doesn’t mean that they don’t speak from a particular viewpoint or hypothesis, but that they use research and in-depth study to back up those assertions, just like you’re trying to do with your own paper by citing them. You can use non-scholarly sources in a paper, but make sure they are just for reference. For example, you may need to include examples of pop culture, websites, and other non-scholarly things to make your point depending on the class’ topic.

Staying Organized

While you might think it’s a blessing to be able to find loads of information on your topic, too much information can be just as challenging as too little. That’s why it’s critical to stay organized throughout the process of researching and writing.

One way to do this is to take advantage of one of the free research tools available to students and academics. Monika Wahi of DethWench Professional Services recommends <ahref=”www.zotero.org”>Zotero, which is a free downloadable source tracking tool. For Wahi, it’s much easier for her to keep track of sources, create citations, and take notes, keeping everything organized and on hand when she needs it.

But why? Forgetting where sources came from can be a huge setback to your research. “If you don’t document your sources as you go,” says Gumz, “it can be hard to find them again when you’re ready to start writing.”

In addition to keeping track of sources as use them, you may also want to highlight key terms, phrases or even whole quotes that will make it easy to find the parts you need for your paper later on. This can save you a lot of time and ensure you don’t have to skim through articles again and again to try and find key passages and information you want to cite.

Citing Your Sources

Unless you want to be accused of plagiarism (not to mention get a pretty poor grade on your paper), you need to not only find great sources but learn how to cite them appropriately both at the end of your paper and throughout.

One thing that can help is using an online citation tool. Baker recommends EasyBib as it can easily be tailored to use MLA, APA, or Chicago style and will help ensure that your bibliography is constructed in the correct way. Other citation tools exist as well, all of which can make it incredibly easy to build a bibliography. If you are unsure which style is required for your paper, check the syllabus or ask your professor to ensure that you’re not doing a lot of work the wrong way, as the number of citations can add up as you add them throughout your paper and in your bibliography at the end.

While the exact formats of APA, MLA, and Chicago style will differ, there are some general things you need to keep in mind when citing sources. Here are a few that will ensure you’re on the right track.

  • Know when to cite. Do you know when you need to use a citation within your paper? It’s actually pretty simple. Cite your source anytime you include a: direct quote, paraphrased text, facts or figures, theories, methods, and ideas, or images, graphs, and illustrations.
  • Know when not to cite. Just as important as knowing when to cite is understanding when not to cite. Never cite information in your paper that is common knowledge, a historical date, a well-known argument or theory, or a universal proverb or saying.
  • Alphabetize your list of sources. No matter what you’re including in your sources, you need to make sure the list is alphabetized. This makes it easy for whoever is reading your paper to find more information about a source you cited within your paper.
  • Never copy word-for-word unless you’re quoting. When crafting a paper for your college courses, you should be including information from your sources in your own words. The only time it’s appropriate to copy information directly, even if you cite it, is in a direct quotation, which should be used sparingly in academic writing.
  • Know what style makes sense to use. If you can’t get in touch with your professor and want to craft your citations, be smart about which style to use. MLA and Chicago Manual of Style are widely used in the humanities and APA in the social sciences. Those in the sciences may need to use CBE to reference materials in the natural sciences, applied sciences, and mathematics.
  • Appropriately cite social media. If you decide to take advantage of social media as a source for your paper, then you’ll need to know how to cite information you’ve gleaned from it. As stodgy as you might think citation styles are, there’s actually already an acceptable format for citing a tweet or posts from Facebook in the three major styles. Learn about MLA here, Chicago Manual of Style here, and APA here to ensure you give your social media sources the appropriate citation.

Remember, when it comes to putting together an academic paper, citing your sources correctly shouldn’t be an afterthought. These sources form the basis of support for your arguments, so you want to make sure you give them the credit that they’re due.

Whether you’ve waited until just a few days before a paper is due to tackle it or are working weeks in advance, being able to find, analyze, organize, and use high-quality sources in your paper will be key to constructing a solid argument, supporting your assertions, and ultimately scoring a high grade from your professor. In many ways, students today are lucky to live in a digitally connected world, as this puts countless high-quality resources right at their fingertips. It’s not luck but skill, however, that will enable those students to make use of these resources, something it’s never too soon or too late to learn.

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