Monday, December 10, 2007

Research, Sources, and Documentation

A student wrote with questions about a couple of bullets dealing with research, the use of sources, and documentation. Here's my very quick response:

On the bullet: "Understand a writing assignment as a series of tasks, including finding, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing appropriate primary and secondary sources."

A primary source is the text being discussed. On a literature paper, the primary source would be the literature you're to analyze. A secondary source would be criticism about the literature. What this bullet is referring to is that:

1) Readers are interested in hearing your take on the primary source, not just a mishmash of what others have had to say.
2) The last statement implies that you're learning how to use secondary sources to support what you have to say and not substitute for your own opinion.
3) The bullet is also getting at how the views of others can help you see aspects of your primary text you otherwise wouldn't have considered or not considered in the same light.
4) Finally, the bullet gets at how you go about bringing together in your own thought and writing the set of your own opinions about a primary text and the secondary criticism from which you've learned. This is the synthesis angle.
5) The bullet's focus is on how research fits into the writing process. It's something one usually focuses on in the second semester of freshman writing, but you should know that research is almost always a part of writing.

No one can know everything, even in their areas of professional specialization; so, part of being an authority (an author) on a subject is educating yourself, that is, doing research, on the gaps in your knowledge. Usually such research is quick. You might check and verify a fact you include in your writing. Sometimes, research involves getting a handle on a complex problem, process. or technique. Here you have to figure out which sources are worth your attention and realize that in most subjects worth talking about there will be varying opinions on the subject; so, part of what you're researching, analyzing, and synthesizing is the *current* conversation and players discussing your subject.

On the bullet: "Practice appropriate means of documenting their work."

This bullet is simpler. Use the form of documentation expected by the audience/discourse community for whom you write. Realize that different disciplines have different forms of documentation. Using the forms of documentation expected by a discourse community is an ethos move. It proves you know how the discourse community handles the interrelated problems of the ownership of ideas and who an author relies on in developing their thinking.

Most audiences could care less about the sources for your thinking. This isn't true in the academy, where plagiarism is a major issue; and, more importantly, ideas have histories which move into and out of acceptance. What you, as a writer, need to remember is to do your research on what form of documentation is expected. In the academy, you do this by visiting the websites of the professional organizations governing a disciplines discourse. They'll usually have guidelines as to how to document. Visit for an example. Most libraries have style sheets or citation guides, and short versions of both appear in many writing guides. Last but not least, sites like bibme can help, as can programs like Endnotes or the new version of Word.

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