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Academic papers writing

Academic papers writing: what is an average number of sources to be used

Apr 12, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Often times when we think of academic writing, the terms scholarly, formal, or peer-reviewed may come to mind (all rightfully connected to published academic articles). Also trailing along this title are the everyday assignments submitted by students. Though they may not be worthy of being published in some circles, if what is being written in them is of interest to the academic world, then its safe to say that they are considered academic writings.
One issue that comes up often when dealing with a variety of academic papers (for several different disciplines, professors, or departments), is how to settle on a set number of sources to satisfy all of them.

The big number question?

In some cases the number of sources needed for a paper will be directly provided to you by an instructor, but in others you may just have to go with your instinct in deciding on a suitable amount. And when doing so you should consider a few things; (a) the many types of sources you intend to collect (based on the type of paper you are writing) (b) your page count, and (c) your discipline.
So for example, a humanities course may require a wide range of sources if it is a heavy literature course, but a paper in the sciences on the other hand, may do quite well with only a handful of sources. Likewise if you'd like to incorporate a variety of materials, such as books, journals, newspapers, media etc. (as long as they pertain to your topic), this will also influence your source count. And lastly the most important factor of all-your page or word requirement-will significantly affect the amount of sources you utilize.

Page counts

Almost all assignments assigned to you will have a requested page or word count. And considering that professors like to see sources "put to work" rather than simply listed on a reference page, it's important to consider how many in-text citations you will include in your document as you weigh-in the need for sources. For instance, you may work towards a goal of one-three citations per page, and therefore maybe one or two sources per page (though this is just a rough estimate, as you may cite one source several times).

Source number suggestions

  • Option 1: One source per page; i.e., if you have a 5 page paper then you should have at least 5 sources.
  • Option 2: The 6-8 rule; regardless of the amount, as long as the page count is less than 15 or so, then aim for about 7 sources.
  • Option 3: Divide between 'solid' sources and supplemental ones; for instance, you may aim to have 5 solid, scholarly sources (that your professor will not be able to argue with), and then add other supplemental or additional sources as needed. *Even though they should still be credible, they may come from less scholarly sources such as a feature magazine article for example.
And if none of these options seem to work for you then don't be shy to just ask your professor. You may feel that you'll be making more work for yourself (if they through a big number at you), but the reality is that most professors will choose quality over quantity anytime. So generally if you turn out a decent paper, by utilizing the sources you have properly (not just cutting and pasting), then hopefully you'll receive a good grade with or without a long list of sources.

Making good use of each and every source

One major blunder that students tend to fall into when it comes to sourcing is creating a 'filler' reference list. Meaning that the sources listed are there to either meet a source requirement or to make the paper appear as if it consulted more sources than it actually did. This may be overlooked at times, but professors have been known to deduct points for this fault.

To avoid 'filler' sources, try to keep these tips in mind

  • properly evaluate each source to make sure its a good one; if you've scanned it and don't think you can get much use out of it, toss it right away
  • know when to cite a source; in-text citations and footnotes are not just for direct quotations. If you paraphrase, summarize, or take an idea that is not yours, then you should be citing the source
  • provide a full argument by citing sources that not only support your claim but also those that go against it (that is, contradictory evidence)

Types of sources for your academic paper

As mentioned earlier, you should aim to bring 'solid' scholarly sources to your academic writing (whether it be a term paper, essay or thesis). Though the meaning of 'solid' may differ from person to person, the term scholarly here simply means material that comes from authoritative sources or is written by knowledgeable people in a particular field or discipline. These types of sources, above all, should fill up the majority of your reference page. This is primarily because the credibility of your sources is also the credibility of your paper; so its always better to play it safe by using sources that you know are reputable.
Also its good to mention that at times you will have other sources that may not be considered as authenticate as the ones just mentioned. They may still be credible but just not referred to as 'peer-reviewed' or scholarly. This is ok, because in the end if the information is necessary for the development of your argument or thesis, then it needs to be referenced; whether it fits the ideal description or not.
*Some examples of these types of sources may include web articles, book reviews, essays or media, such as radio news broadcasts.

Evaluating sources

Finally, when you're in a situation where you need to utilize sources that may seem questionable or that you are a little uneasy about, ask a few questions. These are general questions to ask and can be applied to almost any source.
  • Who is the author or publishing organization? What are their credentials (if applicable)?
  • What is the publication date? Is the information current and up-to-date?
  • Who is the intended audience? Is it written for a general audience or with a specific group of people in mind?
  • Is there a bias in the writing? And if so how significant is it? Can you still benefit from the writing?
Its important to note here that most authors write with some sort of bias. So unless its an extreme one (that makes it difficult to obtain credible information) you should still consider utilizing it. And similarly information that is up-to-date and current is not a requirement for all writings; history papers for example would not rely on this criteria.
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