References for College Papers

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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General Principles for References

How to let Professors know you are not Familiar with College Writing

How to let your Professors Know you are Familiar with College Writing

The Following are Usually NOT Acceptable References

Why? For the most part, they are not original sources. So why do we have encyclopedias and textbooks? To provide an overview or introduction to a topic for complete beginners. These are meant to get you started on a subject; they are not research documents. If you want to document a point in a textbook or encyclopedia article, locate the original source for the idea. Start with the sources cited by the textbook or encyclopedia.

But won't that take a lot of time? Yes. That's why you start work on research papers as soon as they are assigned.

I can't use the Internet? Not the way most people do. Most of what is on the Internet is the electronic equivalent of the other print sources listed and therefore not acceptable as a college reference. Also it's unregulated and there is no quality control. You can only use the Internet if it's the equivalent of other acceptable sources.


If the medium itself is the subject of your paper: for example, how textbooks have treated gender roles over time, or how dictionaries have defined controversial terms, or how popular magazines have treated AIDS. If your subject is children's literature, The Cat in the Hat might be an acceptable reference.

If the topic is a fast-moving one where most of the information has flowed through the news media, newspapers may be acceptable. However, for subjects like AIDS, Comet Hale-Bopp, or the Space Shuttle, where the quantity of published information is huge, newspapers are not acceptable.

The Following MAY be Acceptable References

News media are acceptable only if the story is so fast-moving or so recent that there are no scholarly publications on the subject, or if you are researching a news story that has not yet been reported in other forms. Bottom line: use the media only if there is no other source.

Serious popular magazines occasionally have articles by authorities, interviews (even Playboy can be an acceptable source at times; President Jimmy Carter got into political hot water over an interview there), or summaries of current topics of interest. Acceptability depends on how reputable the authors are and how thoroughly the publication checks its facts.

Government publications are acceptable if they are research or technical publications, but generally not if they are popular brochures or pamphlets.

The Following ARE Acceptable References

Most of the information in academia does not flow through books! The real information flow is through periodicals. Even here, acceptability varies. Scientific American is acceptable for most college research papers, but not for a graduate thesis.

Scholarly books serve several purposes:

Locating Sources

I like to use what I term the "snowball" approach

About the Internet

In its present state of development, the Internet is dominated by these sorts of materials:

None of these are acceptable references for college writing.

Academic uses of the Internet include:

You will not find certain classes of works on the Internet:

Bottom line: right now the Internet is dominated by the popular and trivial, or the advanced and specialized. If you want a good summary of plate tectonics or the Thirty Years War you can still find it faster in a good encyclopedia.

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Created 1 May 1997;  Last Update 31 January 2005

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