When it comes to writing academic papers, many students and faculty focus their attention largely upon a documentation style, such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines. In doing so, however, a key place students often get off track with the writing process is missed: the retrieval and integration of source information. In fact, in over two decades of teaching composition at the postsecondary level, I would say that this is a make it or break it point for college level writers.
Before information can be cited, appropriate information from secondary sources must be discovered. Especially in the current Information Age (IA) when sources are so readily available via the Internet, students have a tendency to download or print any and every source they see that mentions the topic. As evidence of how widespread this practice is, many libraries are even starting to charge for print-outs.
However, students also have a tendency to follow a “dine and dash” information retrieval strategy even with print sources. For eight years, my office was directly across the hall from the library’s main doors. I used to see my students proudly waddle out of the library with a stack of print-outs and books that we both knew they wouldn’t have time to read within the few weeks they had to complete a paper. Some of these students would even proudly boast to me, “Look at all the sources I found! And I got them before anyone else did.” Off they would dash as if they would be pursued by those other students trying to grab their sources or perhaps in desperation that they now had to find a way to read, analyze, and synthesize the information more quickly than humanly possible.
Sadly, some of these students would fail the project or even disappear from class. Ask any composition professor when students tend to drop, and they will most likely agree with me that it is here, when the research begins, not when the documentation starts. Therefore, students must take these three steps in order to avoid sinking into the Information Age abyss.
A Better Approach
The path to a more successful research experience lies in three steps you can take while making progress on your academic paper, and no one of them is too time consuming. Rather they will save you a lot of energy and frustration.
Step 1: Learn How to Use the Library
My experience has been that students often groan when I say this. They will tell me that they’ve been using their hometown public library and/or using a particular search engine for years. The reality check here is that with the rapid advance of technology and electronic documents, expert guidance is needed. I have also worked closely with librarians and taken several classes for orientation sessions in a semester; yet, each time with each librarian, I learn something new.
Furthermore, an academic library associated with a college or university and the expectations of your professors are in a different context than what your hometown public library or a search engine serves. No matter how well prepared you may be, you still could learn something new from a library orientation and by asking questions. A good place to start is on your university’s library web page. You should see something similar to this example from the Azusa Pacific University Libraries.
Online students should also take note of how they can find support from these information experts, and all students should pay close attention to the sample questions that could be asked as well as all of the helpful resources available.
Step #2: Learn How to Use Technology
Closely connected to finding the information to retrieve is what to do with credible sources you want to use when you find them. If you are physically in the library, printing page after page is a waste of time and resources. I’ve also watched library printers work themselves into a breakdown while students gathered around them trying to sort out an endless stream of pages flowing randomly out of the print trays. If you are an online student, printing hundreds of pages on a home printer isn’t practical either.
The flip side of this is that some students will copy and paste information when they find a source. Maybe they think they can use a paragraph from a journal article, so they copy and paste it right into their paper. This leads to all sorts of potential problems: losing control of the content, plagiarism, formatting problems, and other such time and energy wasters, at least one of which could earn you a zero on the assignment or dismissal from the university.
A better approach is to realize that the Information Age requires an IA-type solution. Skip the printer and use technology to help you capture, organize, and utilize source information in a more efficient and effective way. For instance, last week I suggested Zotero to create your own electronic library, organized to your own needs and other specifications. There are other free programs you can use as a student that will help you organize information electronically. For example, see Vangie Beal’s “30 Free Web Tools and Open Source Software for Students,” (10 April 2012) for some additional options.
Step 3: Learn How to Incorporate
The third and final step is to learn to incorporate information from others into your writing. Keep these points in mind:
• Source information supports you as an academic writer. Get your ideas down first; then back them up with information from other experts. Sources should not dictate the direction of your content.
• Each new source used brings a new writer into your paper; make sure that all source information integrated into the document reads smoothly, as if written by you for your audience.
• Introduce the main sources to readers using attributive tags so that readers know who the sources are, why they have credibility, and why you’re using their ideas.
• Quote only when 1) there is no possible way to express an idea better in your own words; 2) you feel some added strength is needed in a part of your paper (e.g., a particularly controversial point). There is no rule about the percentage of direct quotation that should occur, but less than 10% is typically recommended. More than that, and your audience would be better off to read the original source.
• Summarize source information accurately. Place the source’s idea into your own words and style of expression to help readers. Take advantage of this option to condense a lot of material on an idea into an easier to understand statement. There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” So is a summation.
• Paraphrase carefully or not at all. I understand paraphrasing is acceptable and often taught, but more often than not, it leads to potential problems, such as plagiarism. It’s tough to switch wording and not copy someone’s writing too closely.
Do keep in mind that these ideas must be cited. For some quick assistance see my posts, “A Simple Guide to Correct Documentation,” (10 December 2013) and ”How to Use Citation Generators Effectively,” (14 March 2013).
With the above three steps in mind, you should be well on your way to avoiding the pitfall of information overload when writing papers and working on similar projects in your classes. Please share any additional questions or tips below in the “Comments” area.
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