Doing College-level Research,

with advice on avoiding the Plagiarism Question

by Margaret Maurer, with Constance Harsh


This essay is written for the student who has never written a paper at the college or university level. Its purpose is to discuss what professors expect of you when they assign papers and other kinds of presentations. It will not give you footnote models nor describe how to use the library or the internet because its purpose is really more fundamental than that. Some students come to college without ever having done research and have no idea what the process involves. Many students arrive with bad habits about doing research that can get them into trouble, plagiarism-trouble, at this level.

The problem begins because a great deal of the work assigned in many secondary schools is focused on how to teach students to gather information. Most of the emphasis is often on what a student finds; rarely are young students able to appreciate the importance of keeping track of the source of the information and opinions they gather, let alone judge the quality of the information and ideas that their research produces. Making such judgments, however, is what good research requires. Sheridan Baker, in a chapter on research in a book called The Practical Stylist, puts the problem this way:

The research paper is very likely not what you think it is. Research is searching again. You are looking, usually, where others have looked before; but you hope to see something they have not. Research is not combining a paragraph from the Encyclopedia Britannica and a paragraph from The Book of Knowledge with a slick pinch from Time. That's robbery. Nor is it research even if you carefully change each phrase and acknowledge the source. That's drudgery. Even in some high circles, I am afraid, such scavenging is called research. It is not. It is simply a cloudier condensation of what you have done in school as a “report”-- sanctioned plagiarism to teach something about ants or Ankara, a tedious compiling of what is already known. That such material is new to you is not the issue; it is already in the public stock. (Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist, 7th ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1990, p. 152.)

This essay will discuss research from the more sophisticated perspective that recognizes the researcher's obligation to contribute something original to the process.

The most important single concept about doing research and presenting the results of that research in some way, as in a paper or a presentation, is really a very simple one: your finished product must have an idea, and the idea has to be your own. This does not mean that every piece of information and argument in your work has to be original. Far from it. In a research assignment, you will devote considerable time and energy to locating the work of others that is relevant to what you are investigating. When the time comes, however, for you to pull it all together and organize it into the form through which you will present it, you need an idea, a thesis (a proposition, an argument put forward for consideration), and that thesis involves your judgment of something you have learned from the work of others.

Once you have formulated a thesis about what you have learned through your research, you will realize that presenting it involves explaining how the ideas and information generated by others led you to that thesis. Your thesis could, for example, be a statement like this: “The specialists who have written about this problem generally resort to one of three explanations, but no one of these explanations seems wholly satisfactory.” Such a thesis reveals that you have made a judgment based on the research you have done. In organizing your paper or presentation, you then find the clearest way to present the material that led you to that judgment.

Most problems about writing and other forms of presentation (and most of the difficulties that students get into that lead to an accusation or even a finding of plagiarism) come up because students find it very difficult to take seriously the authority they must assume in presenting the results of their research. They do research in incomplete and haphazard ways; they lose track of where they have found their information and from whom they have collected opinions; they are not capable of judging how good or how reliable their sources are; they do not understand what they have collected well enough to see how it relates to other things they have collected. College-level work is designed to improve your ability to do research and get beyond such problems. When such difficulties start to arise in a research project, the important thing to do is to face them squarely. It is when you try to dodge them that you get into trouble. You may ramble; you may fear “too many quotes” so you change the tense of the verb and call it a paraphrase; you may assert something as a fact without bothering to note where you found it and that other sources contradict it. This is not college-level work. It's a sort of academic game of hide-and-seek.

At this level you stop doing that. You take your work more seriously. You do the most thorough research you can, taking care to find out, either as you go or through the assistance provided by your professors or the library staff, what sources of information and analysis are most critical to your research project. You work hard to understand the argument that is implicit in even the most apparently factual collection of information. As you prepare to assemble what you have collected into a paper or presentation of your own, you formulate a thesis about it. That thesis is your own, even if it is based entirely on opinions and facts assembled by others. You organize the presentation of your work to explain your judgment. Then you are as clear as you can be about what led you to the idea that is your thesis.

If you are confident of the worth of your thesis, accurate and complete documentation becomes a matter of integrity of the highest kind. That is, you are not simply anxious to avoid doing something wrong; you have a big stake in documenting your paper fully because you will want to argue as forcefully as you can the validity of your thesis. You will assume that people will check your references, not to see if you are honest about your obligations, but to judge the worth of your idea. When you can be confident about what you are saying, there is no reason to shrink from acknowledging fully the sources of the arguments and information that led you to say it.

If you do not have an idea and try to sound as if you do, you may get into trouble for misrepresenting someone else's work as yours (plagiarism). At the very least, you will write a careless or inadequate paper; and, at this level, that is not sufficient, even if you are earnest and spend a lot of time on it.

Here, now, are some very practical pieces of advice about the various stages of a research project. They illustrate how this way of thinking about research should be part of your thinking at every stage of the work.

  1. Choosing a topic
    1. Focus it. If the topic is not assigned to you, and sometimes even if it is, you should do some preliminary reading and then, on the basis of that, focus your topic. Do this very early on in the process of your research. Doing unfocused research on the tobacco lobby in Congress will likely lead either to a very hard-to-organize report on a complex phenomenon or a simple-minded thesis that lobbyists are all bad people (or not so bad after all). If, however, from the start, you can formulate a real question about your topic (a real question is something that genuinely puzzles you, like whether the tobacco lobby operates in any way outside the law), you will be involved in exercising your own judgment about all the material you gather. Your thesis will be an answer to that question, an answer you will formulate based on what you learn through your research.
    2. If at all possible, discuss your topic (and the particular focus you would like to give your research) with the professor who teaches the course in which the research paper is assigned. It is important that your topic be appropriate for the assignment; and your professor may give you suggestions about references to use at this stage of your research. Your professor is also in a position to alert you to problems that can arise if the focus of your topic is too specialized or to give you other kinds of advice on how to proceed.
  2. The process of gathering material
    1. Identify the most important and respected authorities on the topic, and become familiar with them. This may be a stage in your research when the input of your professor or the bibliography of a textbook can make a crucial difference. When you cannot draw on such authorities to get you started, ask a reference librarian for assistance. A reference librarian can show you how to use the most highly respected indices and bibliographies related to your topic. Keep in mind that encyclopedias (such as the Britannica or the online Encarta) offer solid general information and, in some of the best, beginning bibliography; but they are not generally considered respectable scholarly resources. Do not base college research on an encyclopedia article.
  3. B. Require yourself, when you read, to try to state the thesis that is implicit in each of your sources. Ask, in each case, what point each of your sources is making and observe how the information and arguments in that source are marshaled to support that point. (Making yourself do this is, by the way, good practice for the moment when you will formulate your own thesis.) Attach names to arguments and data. Get into the habit of doing that in your own thinking and your note-taking. Do not, in other words write down “the products of Brazil” without noting that it is X's list of the products of Brazil presented in a textbook published in 1950. If, as you continue to do research, you discover that every single person who lists the products of Brazil in all sorts of places over the last century is presenting the same list, you may begin to feel confident that it is a fact that these are indeed the products of Brazil. But chances are, you will soon realize that there is little in the world of what we now call information that is a pure fact. Most assertions of fact are tied to an argument.
    1. Ask a reference librarian to help you find published analyses of your references so you can check your evaluations of them against those of experts who have commented on the work you are using. These reviewers themselves are not without their own axes to grind, so do not surrender completely to what they say. But comparing your responses to what others say about the material can be a good way to sharpen your own ability to analyze your sources. Do not, of course, use the summaries you may find about a reference in place of the reference itself; see for yourself. NOTE: If you are working with limited library facilities (unlikely in these days of excellent interlibrary loan privileges), you may honestly not have access to something and so have only a summary of it. In that case, you will use a footnote to tell your reader what you did and why: “I was unable to locate Professor Smith's major essay on this question, so I am depending on the account of his argument in ________.”
    2. Be guided and encouraged by this truth: the more confident you can be of the quality and thoroughness of your research, the more effectively you can present an idea that is your own.
  4. The mechanics of gathering material

NOTE: These days, photocopying machines, computer printers, and the capacity to cut and paste online material into your own document can make taking notes the process of duplicating the work of others before you have really digested it. On the one hand, this is an enormous convenience. On the other hand, though, it makes it very easy to avoid altogether really understanding what is at issue in the sources you are using and all too easy to blur the distinction between the work of others and your own work.

  1. If you collect material for your research project by photocopying it or printing it, be sure each page of what you collect has the complete documentation you will need should you decide to cite the material.
  2. If you do take notes by writing things down from the sources you consult, be scrupulous about putting all directly quoted material, even if only a key word or phrase, in quotation marks and noting the page on which it appears. If someone else's words seem the best way to say something, be prepared to acknowledge that aptness by quotation marks.
  3. Keep careful track of exact bibliographical details, including page numbers, even of ideas and opinions that you are summarizing or paraphrasing. Remember, take yourself seriously enough to assume that at every point of your paper or presentation, your reader or audience is going to want to follow up on your research. Make sure you can provide the details that will make that follow-up possible.
  4. Cutting and pasting from an electronic database can cause problems. It is easy to omit the elements of a proper citation. (See IV.B. below.) Collecting a printout of what you wish to use allows you to keep track of the context of the material you will use, and retyping it into a paper or report is an opportunity to focus on it in a way that can often prove very helpful to your own efforts to integrate the material into your own argument.
  5. Writing the paper or presenting your work in some other way

A. Use your thesis to organize how you present your research. This means that you actually present the conclusion of your research at the beginning of your presentation. Remember that your thesis is the answer to the question you formulated when you began your research. It is that question that has determined the particular perspective you are bringing to bear on the material you are presenting. It is what makes the work yours.

  1. When you introduce the ideas of another into your work, whether in a direct quotation an indirect quotation, or a summary, when you use another's data or charts, every time you allude to a reference, mention the author or source by name. If this seems awkward at first, practice will make you graceful. The habit does three things:
  2. It alerts your reader to what references you are using and how they relate to one another: “Smith says . . . . Chandler agrees . . . . Gennet argues, however . . . .”
  3. It alerts you to how you are using your references. A string of “Paulson says
    1. . . . . Paulson continues . . . . Paulson concludes” means that this part of your argument is Paulson's, not yours. That may be what you need to do, but you and your audience should be clear that that is what is going on.
  4. It is a clear way of indicating where your debt to a reference begins. The author's name at the beginning of a reference and a citation at the end of it make the extent of your obligation clear.

NOTE: No habit you could form in learning to do research is as important as this one. Being scrupulous about mentioning your sources by name really brings home to you what research is all about. Do it all the time. As you acquire more experience, you will see ways that you can make your process clear without being quite so mechanical about it. It is, however, far worse to be unclear about the extent of your obligations than to be awkward or tiresome about acknowledging them.

  1. Documentation
    1. In presenting your research in written form, you may find that explanatory footnotes are useful to make your obligations clear. Assume that your reader will want to check you, not necessarily to see if you are accurate and honest, but to see if he agrees with the inferences you draw from your references. Tell the reader everything he needs to know to see what you saw. Consider a footnote like this: “I base my conclusion on the accounts of the trial in The New York Times (3 January 1957), p. 27; Newsweek (6 January 1957), p. 11; and The New Republic (27 January 1957), pp. 20-23.” Or “This idea was suggested to me in conversation with Professor Able, whose book on agricultural economics [give reference] first called attention to the problem.”
    2. Get at the root of things you are not sure about.
      1. Many students wonder what to do about ideas they got from class. The answer, if you think about it along the line this essay is insisting on, is obvious: ask your professor if the idea is in print or in some medium to which you should make a reference. If so, go consult the source to which you can refer. In some cases, your professor may tell you, of course, that the idea is common enough that it does not require a reference. In other cases, she may advise you to cite the conversation or the class.
      2. Sometimes you know you got it from somewhere, but you can't be sure where. That kind of carelessness, of course, is one of the things that distinguishes poor researchers from good ones. Good researchers are careful to keep track of where they have been. (See above, under II.) But if it happens, do not ignore the problem. Go back to your references and find out where it was. Your professor may be able to help you, or a reference librarian can alert you to the most likely places where it might be. If all else fails, use an explanatory footnote. Someone using your work will have more confidence in you if you acknowledge a lapse of care in compiling your work than if he finds you presenting something as your own that he knows to be someone else's work.
      3. What about the commonly accepted ideas about a subject that are repeated in all your references? Well, you've done the research, and if that research has been thorough, you should be in a position to say if an idea is in the public domain and doesn't need a footnote. But if you have any doubts, then consider a footnote like “This interpretation is Professor Paul's, though it is made in more or less the same terms by all critics of the play.”
      4. What about your original idea that you suddenly found somewhere else? Again, don't hide. A footnote like this will do: “I note that Professor Green also makes this point [give reference]. Or, "See also Professor Green's fine argument to this same effect [give reference].”

NOTE: All these suggestions presume that you are familiar with what has been done in the area of your research. Of course, as a beginning student, you cannot ever be absolutely confident that you have done everything you might do to write an authoritative paper; but the point is that you should be trying to come as close to that as you can, and you should be straightforward about the limits of what you have done. Being confident about your research--knowing that you have worked hard--allows you to acknowledge its limits. An added bonus is that such confidence usually makes you able to express yourself--in speech and writing--better, as well.

VI. Some additional points about using the internet for research

The internet is a computer-based network that connects resources around the world. The breadth of what it encompasses and the speed with which it delivers what it finds to a computer screen that does not even have to be in a library can have enormous advantages. It is important, however, to consider its limitations. This section describes some of things a new researcher should beware of in using the internet.

A. Ask your professor if the internet is an acceptable resource for you to consult for your research project. Do not be surprised if he or she sometimes says no. If you pursue the point and ask why, some of the issues discussed in the remainder of this section may arise.

B. If you begin your research on the internet with a search engine such as AltaVista or WebCrawler, doubtless typing in a few keywords will give you hundreds or even

thousands of supposedly relevant sites. Ease of use makes this kind of research

superficially attractive, but it has many dangers:

  1. It will likely generate an enormous amount of material, most of which will be irrelevant and difficult to get to in haphazardly organized sites. What seems at first to promise plenitude and speed will usually end up being a time-consuming and distracting activity.
  2. Many sites are not just eccentrically organized; they are of very poor quality. Unlike more carefully published sources, they are not generally refereed. The opinions you find in them can be cranky, even wildly uninformed. You will often get the perspective of an enthusiast rather than of someone who has thought rigorously about an issue. The information in them can be simply inaccurate. Remember, website builders are responsible to no one but themselves, and so there is no incentive for them to be careful, balanced, or measured. Do not be misled by graphic design. It is easy to master that kind of expertise in a website and allow it to hide the speciousness of a site's contents.
  3. As you surf around, you can easily lose sight of what has influenced you, and it can be a nightmare trying to retrace your steps. The web is an informal medium, and that informality makes it easy to forget that you are embarked on serious work that you want to present so others can use it.

NOTE: For all of these reasons, it is conceivable that you might make a conscious decision not to use the internet at all, even if your professor has not prohibited it or warned you against it.

  1. Do not use the internet to the exclusion of the sources recommended by your professors and your textbooks. Do not be surprised if your professors are unimpressed if not annoyed by website references you have used when it is clear you have not consulted the resources they have recommended (and put on reserve for you).
  2. Assess the credibility of every site you visit. (This is the same point made in II.B. above, adapted to apply to websites.) Who is the author of the site? Is he or she an expert in the field? Does he or she have any academic credentials? Has the author provided documentation of facts and arguments? (If so, you may wish to pursue those references and use them instead.) Is the site published under the aegis of an academic institution? Suffixes such as .edu, .gov, and .org can give useful initial information about sites, but do not assume that these suffixes provide a stamp of approval. For instance, a page may be located on an academic institution's server [.edu] without being connected to the teaching and research elements of that institution. Most undergraduates, for example, have home pages on their college server. Start by being skeptical, and be particularly skeptical of sites that are not carefully documented. FAIR WARNING: By following this advice, you will likely eliminate the majority of the sites you find through your search engine.
  3. You must document an internet site just as carefully as you would a published source. (See III.D. and IV.B. above.) It is important to keep complete records of your visits. Consider printing out any page you might even think will be part of your argument. Be sure that the printout has the site address and date of printing on it.

In all things, remember that you have a responsibility to acknowledge another's intellectual property and to provide anyone who might use your research with the means of following your intellectual footsteps. Your ability to assume that responsibility, to take your work seriously, is the sign that you are doing college-level research.


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