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What Is The Role Of Sources In A Research Paper

The proper acknowledgement of sources might seem like a no-brainer, as indeed it should, to a scientist, and yet there are altogether too many instances where improper attribution goes unchecked.

Sir Isaac Newton’s famous words in a l675 letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” may serve as a pithy reminder that even the most famous scientists depended on their forebears.

But, in fact, it is even inadequate because Newton did not explicitly name those giants. (As a historical aside, Newton’s comment was not as benign in intent as the words might indicate. The two men had been embroiled in a bitter dispute over certain optical discoveries and the handsome upper-class Newton was likely taking a dig at his lower-class rival’s physical deformity. Regardless of intent, however, the statement has come to represent the importance of giving credit where credit is due).

There is a vast literature on the issues of proper citation, academic honesty, and the potential pitfalls of plagiarism, and the list of references for further reading at the end of this article offers a few suggestions. We will address these issues in future posts, so be sure to subscribe to our email list below!

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But aside from these self-evident reasons, there are other perhaps less-considered arguments for scientists to be meticulous about citing sources properly. Some of these reasons are for the good of the entire research community, whereas others are more personal. This article discusses some of those less obvious, yet compelling, arguments for reserving a block of time specifically for the purposes of attending to citations.


1. Attribution serves as a fact-checking tool.

Accuracy is all important in any writing, especially when we write about science. The very act of looking up a reference for verification serves as an accuracy check, e.g., to double check a direct quote, to ensure the fidelity of a passage that you paraphrased, or to cite another study that is related to your study.


2. Citation makes you a better researcher.

Some of the hallmarks of good research include attention to detail and the ability to discern patterns and make connections. Good citation practices can help with both. The proper attribution of sources entails many details, such as correct page numbers, the spelling of author names, and of course, the accuracy of facts that you are presenting in your own article or other work.

Becoming detail-oriented in one aspect automatically instills good habits across the board in your research. As for the ability to spot trends and patterns, preparing a good bibliography trains you for this task (which is crucial in scientific analysis) because of the vast amount of information it condenses into a short space.


3. Good citation practices make you a better writer.

All of us aspire towards that elegant paper in which the prose is as compelling as the content and good attribution habits build a strong foundation towards that goal. Citing specific sources for the various facts that we present removes the hallmarks of intellectual laziness, vague thinking, and sloppy writing as generalizations, clichés, and outright false claims, e.g., as when the phrases, “everyone knows” or “they say,” are replaced with specific sources.

When you cite sources properly, you leave no question in your readers’ minds regarding your point. Furthermore, by citing, you can easily use active language and avoid raising the dreaded red flag of passivity to journal editors and reviewers. Cite well, and you may forever expunge the phrase “It is said” from your academic paper.


4. A good bibliography shows off your scientific knowledge.

A bibliography is simply the compilation of the various sources that you have read and cited in your own manuscript, dissertation, book, etc. Thus, an extensive bibliography is naturally a hallmark of a widely read and well-informed scientist.

I can remember at least one occasion when my peers offered more compliments on my bibliography than on the content of the paper (though they liked that too). In blind reviews, the matters for which I’ve drawn the harshest critiques are for errors of omission, i.e., for not having read or cited certain references. The last thing you want is a reviewer that says that you do not know your field because you forgot to cite a critical and well-known piece of scientific literature!


5. Careful citation practices will build your credibility as a scientist or scholar.

This point is a simple corollary of the previous one. Indeed, showing off scholarship is simply the icing on the cake of what a well-cited article has to offer. A deeper, more meaningful role that a good bibliography plays for researchers is to establish a writer‘s credibility among peers in their field. The better documented your research and arguments, the more credible you are to your scientific colleagues.


6. Citation enables better verification of your work.

Any piece of academic writing gets vetted several times over before it finally makes it into print or onto a website. Whether one is a peer reviewer, editor, or editorial assistant whose job is simply to track down sources in the bibliography and make sure that the citations are accurate, life is simply easier when there is less busy work. So, your paper is much more likely to be passed through these multiple rounds of editing with minimal criticism and positive feedback if you have already taken the trouble to attribute your information correctly and cite all your sources.


In a future article, we will discuss strategies for integrating good citation practices when writing and revising your articles. You are also encouraged to view our related article on Important English Academic Style Guides. Until then, incite yourself to cite when you write!


For further reading:

The following is a list of suggested readings on the subject of citation. The citation style used in this bibliography is that adopted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 6th edition, which I chose because it is one commonly used in many scientific journals.

Bryson, D. (2012). Using research papers: citations, referencing and plagiarism. Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine, 35(2), 82–84.

Clarke, R. (2006). Plagiarism by academics: More complex than it seems. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 7(2), 5.

Culwin, F., & Lancaster, T. (2001). Plagiarism issues for higher education. Vine, 31(2), 36–41.

Karami, M., & Danaei, G. H. (2016). A brief review of plagiarism in medical scientific research papers. Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Research, 2(2), 1–8.

Klompien, K. (2001). The Writer and the Text: Basic Writers, Research Papers and Plagiarism. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, Colorado. (Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED452547).


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About the author:

Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Why & how to use sources

This section provides some reasons for using sources in your academic writing.

How are sources used in academic writing?

In the Western academic tradition we use sources and the evidence contained in them:

  • to gather ideas and information so that we can expand and enrich our own knowledge and understanding (and possibly that of the academic community generally) of particular disciplines, subject areas and topics.
  • to identify, build and support arguments or research which demonstrate the understandings we have acquired.

Why use sources?

Select each reason to see more information.

1.To satisfy the expectations of the academic community you are writing for:
When you write in an academic context, you are not writing for yourself. You become a member of an academic community which has particular expectations, including expectations about honesty and rigour in academic research and writing. Using and acknowledging sources is part of the 'currency' of this community; and, as with most communities, if you do not observe the rules and adopt the language of this community, your input and perspectives will be less valued.
2.To show evidence of wide, informed and relevant reading:
University assignments provide you with an opportunity to broaden your knowledge within your chosen discipline or subject by extensive reading on particular topics. It is essential to show that your reading has acquainted you with a range of perspectives relevant to the assignment topic.
3.To show that your writing does not rely mainly on personal opinion:
Although there are exceptions (see Module 2, Unit 2: Potentially questionable sources) personal opinion, personal experience and anecdotal evidence are not usually highly valued in academic writing.

Part of the reason you are encouraged to read widely is to acquaint yourself with the research and perspectives of others so that you can see and experience things differently.

Your own writing needs to acknowledge these other perspectives and the part they have played in taking you beyond your own experience and current level of understanding.

Note: It is your responsibility to find out whether personal opinion is expected, or allowed in your assignment topic or subject.
4. To show the process by which you have arrived at your own conclusions about the topic, and to enable the reader to understand and evaluate the ideas and information you are presenting:
When you write about a topic, you are usually not only presenting the perspectives of others. Your reading should help you to form and present your own conclusions. You need to acknowledge the contributions other writers and researchers have made in helping you develop strong, persuasive arguments to support your own perspectives and conclusions. You need to demonstrate that you have made this material your own. Furthermore, the reader needs to know whether your ideas and information come from reliable sources. If the sources are not identified (by correct referencing), readers may conclude that the idea or information you present is not reliable at all.
5. To show your ability to integrate material from a range of sources:
In academic writing you do not simply list what you have read - your bibliography or reference list does that. Your writing needs to show how you have grouped and categorised information from a wide range of sources and organised this information around central points, arguments or sections.
6. To show evidence of an analytical and critical approach to your source material:
To develop a considered argument and present your own perspectives on a topic you need to be selective in the way you use evidence from your sources. You will want to:
  • foreground some sources and relativise others.
  • align yourself strongly with some sources and distance yourself from others.
However you need to make your reader aware of the basis on which you are doing this. You cannot do this effectively without taking an analytical and critical approach to the differing perspectives you are drawing on in your source material (see Module 2, Unit 4: Reporting Evidence for ways to do this).
7. To enable readers to follow up references or perspectives of particular interest to them:

In an academic community, people learn from each other. Even though you may be writing for assessment purposes, your readers may want to improve their knowledge too, by following through on references they were unaware of, or new perspectives you have outlined in your writing. For them to do this, you must acknowledge your sources. Your references must also be complete, genuine and accurate.
8. To avoid plagiarism:
You should own what you have written. Although you have consulted other people's research and writing, you have used these sources mainly to clarify your own perspectives on the topic and to develop your own position.

You cannot show that you have done this if you plagiarise other people's work - that is, if you use someone else's ideas or words without acknowledging where they came from.

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