References for College PapersSteven Dutch, Natural and Applied
Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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General Principles for References
- Use the most original source possible.
- Use the most up-to-date and reliable source available.
- Your paper is only as good as its weakest source.
How to let Professors know you are not Familiar with College Writing
- Use unacceptable sources (see below). Cite your class notes, your textbook, and the morning paper.
- Use out-of-date sources.
- Ask where to find references the week before the paper is due. Bonus points for cutting it even closer.
- Use unconventional or inconsistent referencing styles.
Be creative. Make it up as you go along.
How to let your Professors Know you are Familiar with College Writing
- Start early to locate sources. That way, if you have trouble, you have lots of time to work out problems. Also, you will have time to think about what you have found.
- Cite scholarly references only.
- Cite recent materials.
- Use accepted referencing styles.
The Following are Usually NOT Acceptable References
- Class Lecture Notes
- Popular Books
- Popular Magazines
- Radio and TV Broadcasts
- The Internet
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
- Reputable News Media (Time, Newsweek, New York Times)
- Serious Popular Magazines (New Yorker, National Geographic)
- Government Publications
- Internet versions of these sources
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
- Scholarly Periodicals
- Scholarly Books
- Reputable Translations of Foreign Works
- Student Theses
- Research Forums or Hotlines on the Internet
- Internet Periodicals by Reputable Organizations
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:
- They collect related articles on a subject from scattered sources.
- They contain specially-written articles contributed by various authorities to summarize the state of research on a subject.
- They summarize the results of research over a long period of time that would be too lengthy to publish as a periodical article. They can also include details that would be too obscure to merit inclusion in a journal article.
I like to use what I term the "snowball" approach
- First, locate a good recent source on the topic
- What does your source use for references? Check them out for applicability.
- What do those sources use for references?
- After you have a good list of articles, you will notice certain key authors turning up repeatedly. Check bibliography sources (print or on-line) to find out what else these people have written.
- You will probably notice certain references turning up repeatedly. These are references considered crucial by active researchers in the field. You should cite these sources if they apply to your paper.
About the Internet
In its present state of development, the Internet is dominated by these sorts of materials:
- Electronic equivalents of popular media
- Informal interest groups
None of these are acceptable references for college writing.
Academic uses of the Internet include:
- Course notes, outlines and syllabi. These are not acceptable for references. They are the electronic equivalent of course notes and textbooks.
- Archives of data, either recent or previously-printed data. These are generally acceptable.
- Research hotlines. Generally acceptable.
You will not find certain classes of works on the Internet:
- Previously printed books and journal articles. Some materials in the public domain are being archived, but copyrighted materials (almost anything in the 20th Century) are generally not available (legally). Even government documents in the public domain are generally not available; there are no funds to transfer them to electronic form. This will change because most published works are now prepared in electronic form and converting them to Internet format is easy.
- Tutorials on many subjects. This will change with time but right now detailed tutorials are hard to find. More and more university faculty are putting detailed course notes on-line, however. My experience with my own course materials is that if you build it, they will come, because hard information is still sparse 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.
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page
Created 1 May 1997; Last Update
31 January 2005
Not an official UW-Green Bay site