References, citation

Getting Your References Right

Citations have a lot of weight to carry in a research paper. When your references are well-done, they provide credibility to your work and demonstrate that your research is current and important. Badly done references, on the other hand, can drag down an otherwise good paper and give the reader the impression that your work is shoddy and not to be taken seriously.
So how can you make sure that your references are elevating your paper instead of dragging it down? The key is to make sure that all your references meet these three key requirements.

1. Value

The first issue you need to address when you're gathering resources for your bibliography is whether those sources add value to your paper. It might be tempting to just gather up a whole bunch of resources and throw them all into your paper-that's sure to make your paper look impressive, right? But anyone who is familiar with your topic (like a teacher or professor) or a reader who digs a little deeper into your bibliography will quickly see that you haven't put a lot of thought into your work. As you're going through your resources ask yourself these questions:

Is this resource unique and necessary?

While you may sometimes wish to cite several books or articles to reinforce an idea, in general you don't need to pile on the citations to prove a point. Instead, go through your resources and make sure that each one is adding an idea or piece of data that hasn't already been addressed by a different source. You should also be asking if this source is actually vital to your argument. If your paper would be just fine without it, then it doesn't need to be there.

Does the source of this information provide value?

You should also think about how much value your sources adds in terms of its credibility. An unverifiable website article isn't going to help out your argument, which means you're not adding much value by citing it. On the other hand, citing well-respected journals or authors will add more weight to your ideas. Sometimes citing information from a questionable source can help your paper; you just need to be sure to weight the value it's adding against the hit your credibility will take.

Can the reader access this resource?

Always keep in mind that lists of references are there to help the reader evaluate your paper and learn more about your topic. This means that if you include references that the reader doesn't have access to, such as personal communications or outdated materials, that resource isn't adding any value to your paper. If you really want to include sources like this, make sure to note their problems for the reader and to offer other sources where relevant information can be found.

2. Accuracy

More than anything else, your references need to be accurate. If you're not citing the right papers or you're citing papers incorrectly, then it's going to be hard for readers to take your work seriously. There are a few key issues you need to be on the lookout for when including references in your work:

Does the work you're citing say what you claim it says?

When you cite an article, book, or website, you're promising the reader that the claims you're making in your paper can be validated by that particular work. In order to keep this promise, you need to make sure that the works you cite actually say what your claim, both literally and in general spirit. That means if you include a direct quotation or statistic, the reader should be able to find those exact words or values in the original text. If the reader goes searching for them and can't find them, then your whole paper is in jeopardy.

Did you use the original author's words correctly?

This promise also means that you shouldn't use specific sentences or ideas that might support your argument but go against the original author's intentions. For example, let's say there's a study that found that students on high school soccer teams have lower grades than those who don't, but that those on other sports teams all had higher than average grades. If you choose to cite that paper to show that students who play sports have lower grades, you'll be technically correct (the soccer team did have lower grades), but you won't be accurately citing the work as a whole (which showed that other sports-playing students did well in school). If you want to use a citation this way, it's important that you explain any inconsistencies or problems in a footnote or in the main text of your work.

Is the work you're citing the original source of the information?

When citing ideas or data, it's always important to find the original source of that information because you never know how that information has been distorted along the way. Writers and researchers are constantly citing the work of others-it's how the academic world works-but unless you've looked at the original work you have no way of knowing if the way those writers are citing the work is accurate. If you cite a researcher who has misinterpreted somebody else' work, then their mistake has now become a mistake in your own work. (The only time this is acceptable is when the original resource is old or extremely difficult to locate, and even then you can include both a reference to the original source and a newer one).

Did you get the details right?

We all know that it can be a huge hassle to get all the details in a citation correct. Issues like the spelling of the author's last names, the page number in a book, or an up-to-date URL might seem small, but when you get them wrong they can make your paper look bad. Remember, that list of references at the end of your work is a way for readers to find more information about your topic. If you've done your job well, those readers will want to consult the books and websites you've cited, but they'll have trouble doing that if you've listed the wrong publication year or listed the wrong journal title.

3. Clarity

The last referencing issue you need to be sure to address is clarity. As the writer, it's your job to make sure that your readers can quickly and easily understand what you're references are referring to. If the reader has a question about your work and can't figure out which reference to consult, then you haven't done your job well.
Part of making sure your citations are correct is putting them in the right place. This is an issue addressed by most style guides, so you need to be sure to check the guide you're using to ensure that your in-text citations are placed correctly. But no matter which guide you consult, the general idea will be to get the citation as close as possible to the material being cited.
In most style, the in-text citation should immediately follow the cited material, either within the text or at the end of the clause. Where the citation goes can affect the meaning of your reference: in the examples below, the information attributed to the source changes depending on where the citation is placed in the sentence.
Example
Seedlings treated with PCD grew an average of 6 cm shorter than untreated seedlings, which is likely the result of the blocked nitrogen pathways (Waller, 2006). - Here, both the data (6 cm shorter) and its interpretation (that it's because of a particular pathway) are attributed to Waller.
Seedlings treated with PCD grew an average of 6 cm shorter than untreated seedlings (Waller, 2006), which is likely the result of the blocked nitrogen pathway. - Here, only the data and not the interpretation are attributed to Waller.
Some citation styles require you to put all the references at the end of a sentence. If that's the case, you may need to rewrite sentences to ensure clarity.
Example
Studies have shown mice treated with the antibiotics before surgery were significantly less likely to suffer localized infections during recovery but were less resistant to aggressive, systemic infections (Smith, 2005; West, 2007). - Here the reader will likely assume that the Smith citation goes with the first half of the sentence and West with the second, but for he or she can't be sure. For clarity's sake it should be rewritten.
Smith (2005) showed that mice treated with the antibiotic before surgery were significantly less likely to suffer localized infection during recovery. However, these mice were less resistant to aggressive, systemic infections (West, 2007). - Now it's clear which piece of information goes with which citation.
Working on references can seem like a chore, but remember they're there to enhance your paper, not just to make your life more difficult. If you take the time to get them right, the quality of your work will definitely improve.
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Martha Buckly

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