The importance of good essay writing
- Good essay writing is a skill which must be continually practiced, developed and honed throughout your time at university
- It is difficult to emphasise just how important it is to learn to write a good essay
- The overall mark you receive for a piece of coursework will reflect a number of different facets of your essay, including:
- Your overall knowledge of the subject area;
- Your ability to demonstrate good evidence of having read relevant literatures;
- Your ability to show that you grasp the key themes and debates around the subject you are writing about;
- Your ability to clearly structure and select the information you provide;
- Your ability to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives within the literature;
- Your ability to offer your own thoughts, arguments or comments on the themes you are writing about;
- Finally, your ability to write clearly and in an engaging way about the topic you are addressing.
- From this, you will gather that, having a good knowledge of a particular subject area, although hugely important, is not enough in itself to gain a good mark for your essay
- Rather, your mark will largely reflect your ability to assimilate key information and communicate this effectively in a structured and critical manner
- This means that your mark can be affected quite significantly by your essay writing style
- Which means, in turn, that sometimes your average marks can be improved greatly just by making a few simple adjustments to your overall essay writing technique
- If you feel that you have been keeping up with all of your relevant reading and understanding key themes and debates covered on your courses, but failing to achieve good marks for your coursework, there is a good chance that it is your essay writing style, rather than your understanding of key issues which is letting your marks down.
Interpreting the Question
- The starting point for writing a good essay is to correctly identify, from the question, the key themes that you're being asked to address
- This means that you must learn to be able to break a question down into different themes
- Let's take a popular essay theme from Pols 101: ‘Does Pluralism offer an accurate analysis of the contemporary British State'?
- Immediately, it is obvious that the key theme the question is asking you to address is pluralism
- This means it is crucial for you to demonstrate a good understanding of the key themes and issues surrounding pluralist theory
- So, if we begin to break the question down, the starting point for this essay must be the prior question, ‘what is pluralism?'
- This means that a significant part of your answer must include a relatively detailed summary of pluralist theory
- As all of you know, pluralism is not a unified body of theory; it includes different strands of pluralist theory, including classical pluralism, reformed pluralism and neo-pluralism
- So, your answer must be able to demonstrate that you know what the key differences and similarities are between each of these different strands of pluralist thought
- However, this is only one part of what you are being asked to do by the question!
- As you can see, the question is asking you to comment on the ‘accuracy' or validity of pluralism as a theory of power
- This means that the question is urging you to provide a critical comment on pluralism in order to show it's strengths and weaknesses
- As such, the question is subtly (rather than overtly) asking you to assess pluralism against rival theories of power
- In the context of Pols 101, the most obvious ones here (though there are others) are elitism and Marxism
- As such, a good answer would, perhaps, want to contrast and assess the claims about power that pluralists make against those of other theories – for eg, whereas pluralists would want to stress a diffusion of power, elitist and Marxists would emphasise that power is concentrated within certain groups
- So, although the question does not directly ask you to compare pluralism with other theories of power, it is nevertheless implicitly asking you to weigh up the effectiveness of pluralism against other theories
- Finally, the question is asking you to relate your knowledge of pluralism to your knowledge of contemporary Britain
- Very often, the last part of the question gets overlooked by many students!
- Obviously, the British state is a very broad topic area and it is clearly impossible, within a short essay, to relate pluralism to a comprehensive analysis of the British state
- Nevertheless, the key point here is that the question is asking you to apply the theoretical themes of the essay to a more concrete example; it is asking you to make links between theory and empirical evidence
- As such, an important element to the question is your ability to use an example or examples taken from British politics in order to judge the applicability of a pluralist explanation
- From all of this then, we can see that our question above can be broken down into at least three distinct questions:
- What is pluralism?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of pluralist theory?
- To what extent can pluralist theory be applied to explain power in Britain?
Structuring your Answer
- As highlighted above, one of the most important facets to a good answer is your ability to structure your answer into separate parts/sections; each covering different, albeit related, themes
- The most obvious way to do this is to break the question down into it's constituent parts, as highlighted above, and to use these as a way of structuring your answer
- So, an obvious approach to the question above is to use a 3-part structure to your answer, with each section addressing the three questions posed above
- Even though you should try to break your answer down into separate sections, you should avoid using headings for each section
- Instead, you should indicate the breaks in each section by stating in the main body of text that you are now moving onto the next section where your aim is to discuss…..(whatever themes you've chosen to discuss in this section)
- However, one thing you should always bear in mind is that the most obvious structure is the one which most other people on the course will choose to follow
- Try to bear in mind that the person marking your essay will probably be marking many essays on the same question
- If you imagine that every one of these essays take the same approach and structure as yours, then your answer may lose a lot of its individuality
- As such, it is often useful to attempt to be more creative in your structure, in order to give your answer a more individual approach
- But remember that you still have to be able to address all of the main themes which the question is asking you to address
- Nevertheless, you can do this in different ways by using a different type of structure to your answer
- Your essay should always have a formal introduction and conclusion.
- Your introduction should include an overview of the structure of the essay
For eg, ‘This essay will break down into three main sections….the first section will discuss…the second section will look at…the third section will analyse'…etc
- You can include other things in your introduction, but it is crucial that you explain the purpose of the essay and the structure behind your answer
- Similarly, your conclusion should have a similar purpose; it should clearly outline and summarise again the main thrust of your answer and the key points that you've made in relation to the question
- It is best to try not to include any new arguments or themes into your conclusion
- Rather, the conclusion should provide a tidy summary of how you've tackled the question
You are not Writing a Detective Novel
- The main temptation for most people is to leave the overall answer to the question until the conclusion
This type of approach is good for detective novels where you don't want to give away the identity of the murderer until the very last chapter!
- However, for the purposes of a good politics essay, your overall answer should be given at the beginning of the essay – in the introduction
- As such, your introduction should tell the reader what direction the rest of the essay will take
- In this vein, you should include at least one sentence which states something along the lines of: ‘This essay will argue that pluralism does/does not provide an accurate analysis of the contemporary British state…' (include your main reason for this)
- Notice here that I've written the words ‘this essay will…' as opposed to ‘I will…'
As much as possible, it is best not to use ‘I' in your essays unless it is difficult to avoid doing so
- In a similar vein, it is useful to keep reminding the reader, throughout the main body of your essay, the overall direction in which your answer is going
- In this sense, it is good practice to keep your main argument/answer fresh in the reader's memory by commenting occasionally on the direction that the essay is going – so, for eg, you may want to remind the reader at the end of each section why you've discussed the themes you have and how this discussion will contribute to your overall answer
Utilising Source Material
- Getting your hands on good source material is absolutely key to being able to put together a good answer
- Clearly, the obvious starting point is to use the key reading outlined in the module handout
- However, an essay which merely recounts the key themes of a textbook will rarely have enough depth or originality about it to make a great impression on the marker!
- In contrast, an essay which demonstrates a wide variety of reading material is likely to make a good impression
- As such, it is important to gather information from as many sources as is practically possible within the short time that you have to prepare an essay
This means that it's always good to give yourself an early start to your preparation as possible
- A common cry amongst students is that they find it difficult to get the right reading material for an essay because ‘all of the books are on loan'
- This is certainly a problem to some extent given that it is impossible for the library to stock enough copies of each book for everyone
- However, it is important for you to learn to be creative in your search for reading material and to familiarise yourself as much as possible with the full set of resources that the library has to offer
- For eg, if we refer back to the example of pluralism, the most obvious starting point is to use the library catalogue to search for all books with ‘pluralism' in the title
- This may not take you very far and you'll probably find that most other people on the course have done exactly the same thing
- A more resourceful student may, in fact, discover that there are some more general ‘Politics' textbooks which include discussions of pluralism, elitism and Marxism
Indeed, more than that, there are some ‘British Politics' textbooks which will actually address the question of whether pluralism provides an adequate explanation of power in Britain!
- Such valuable sources will not simply show up by searching for ‘pluralism' in the library catalogue
- As such, it is important to use your imagination and to attempt to familiarise yourself with the full range of key sources which could, perhaps, include discussions relevant to your question
- In your spare time, why not simply spend some time flicking through the shelves of the main political science sections in the library to give yourself a clearer mind map of where you might find future material?
- More importantly, when you do find a useful text, why not follow up some of the sources which that author has used in their work
- Additionally, what most students tend also to forget is that the library has a huge stock of journals – many of which can be accessed electronically
- Why not try a search for journal articles instead of books?
- Sometimes a good journal article will address a particular question far more directly than a general book on the topic
- One quick way to find relevant journal articles is to use Google Scholar
Simply find Google on your computer – click on the word ‘scholar' and type in some key words to find electronic versions of articles (and books) on that topic
- Moreover, the internet is an increasingly useful resource for students, with most major news channels and newspapers having dedicated websites with archived information on most contemporary issues
Try to Avoid Mere Description
- One of the key problems with many essays is that they rely on providing a descriptive approach to answering a question
- This occurs when a student merely recounts the key themes in a debate without providing their own interpretation or critical comment on those themes
Such essays tend to lose a lot of marks!
- A good essay will always retain a balance between recounting the key themes (ie, description) and providing some broader critical comment on these (ie, analysis)
- As such, one of the keys to good essay writing is to include your own views in your answer
- Importantly, this does not mean that you are being asked to come up with your very own theory
- Rather, it means that you should assess rival interpretations from within the literature and provide a reasoned criticism or set of criticisms based on some evidence or point of view that you have read
- So, for eg, if we come back to the example of pluralism again, you may decide to critically comment on the usefulness of pluralism by utilising arguments given by Marxist or elitist theorists
- Your ability to analyse a theme critically, then, depends largely on your ability to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of different arguments using rival perspectives and available empirical examples
When in Doubt, Use your Course Books and Academic Texts as Guides
- As you will probably be thinking by this stage, the ability to write a good essay is not an easy or quick skill to acquire
- Rather, it takes some practice and it is useful to utilise your first year in order to try and hone these skills
- However, perhaps the best way to approach getting things right is to use your academic texts and books as a rough guide
- Not every academic text will include all of the techniques or points listed above – some are better than others!
- However, the more you read the more you will become familiar with ways in which you can structure your answer and the ways in which you can utilise different perspectives and empirical evidence to construct your own argument/answer to a question
- As such, when you're reading academic texts, try to take notice of the structure of the piece, the style in which it is written and the type of language that is being used by the author
- Attempt as much as possible to integrate those types of writing styles and techniques into your own essays
For details on how to reference your work properly, I've attached below the School of Social Sciences guidelines on referencing, which are also included in your student handbooks. Please take time to familiarise yourself as much as possible with these.
How to Reference Essays/Coursework
(Taken from the Department guidelines laid out in your student handbook)
The School of Social Sciences' Academic Committee agreed to adopt the HARVARD system of referencing for all student work where appropriate.
You may wish to quote directly from a particular textbook, for example: “Economics is the study of how countries use their limited resources.” (Shone, 1987, p.5)
Note the use of inverted commas at the beginning and end of the quoted passage and the citing of the author's surname, date of publication and page number at the end of the quotation in brackets.
After the quotation, you indicate the source of the quotation, the year of publication and the page number in brackets. Note the use of quotation marks (commas) to delineate the quotation and colon preceding the quotation.
If the author's name is used before the quotation then it is referenced as follows...
Shone states that: “economics is the study of how countries use their limited resources.” (1987, p.5)
Citations to Bibliography
Clear citation of sources shows anyone reading your work the effort you have put into your research. Often students will use sources that are not known to their markers. By clear citation of source by name, year and page will allow your readers to pinpoint the source in your bibliography. For example, the above source would be cited, in the bibliography at the end of your essay, as follows:
Shone, R. (1987), Microeconomics (Longman: Harlow).
In general, if your quotation takes up more than two lines, it should be indented (moved in approximately one-inch/three centimetres from the left-hand side of the page) as follows:
Shone states that:
economics is the study of how countries use their limited resources, such as land labour and natural resources to produce goods and services and to provide for the wants of their members. (1987, p.5)
- If this format is utilised then the quotation marks are not used.
- You must also leave a blank line before and after the indented quotation.
- You may think that a quotation less than two lines long is so central to your argument. You can highlight it by using this style of quotation.
Crucial Tip: WARNING If you do not use quotation marks, do Not Forget to Indent a quotation! If you do not indent a direct quotation and yet reference it as above, i.e. without using quotation marks, you will give the impression that you have in fact paraphrased (used your own words to summarise the author) rather than quoted your source. This is veering very close to PLAGIARISM (The issue of Plagiarism will be dealt with later in this section) and as such will be heavily penalised if it occurs in your course work.
It is not necessary to fill an essay with quotations. You may utilise ideas presented in textbooks in your own words (paraphrasing), yet the use of such ideas mustbe acknowledged.
Using the earlier quotation by Shone this could be paraphrased as follows:
Economics considers the manner in which nations employ scarce economic reserves to create goods and services thus meeting its constituents desires. (Shone, 1987, p.5)
Quotation marks are not utilised; otherwise the same format is used to reference your paraphrasing of Shone's words, as you would do if you had directly quoted his words.
Again you may use the author's name but instead of quoting the author you may wish to paraphrase…..
Shone argues that economics considers the manner in which nations employ scarce economic reserves to create goods and services thus meeting its constituents desires. (1987, p.5)
I cannot stress the point concerning paraphrasing too much. Large minorities of first year undergraduates seem incapable of grasping the difference between direct quotation and paraphrasing when citing sources.
If you are at all unsure of what is meant by this distinction, discuss it with your tutor or the teacher responsible for the coursework..
Authors' Citation of Other Sources.
A common query which arises is how do I reference author A being cited by author B?
For instance, you have come across an author who uses another person's study to illustrate a point, which you wish to utilise as part of your essay.
For example, I have quoted Lee and Newby who make the following statement where they paraphrase the findings of a study by Atkinson and Harrison:
Private wealth of all forms also remains highly concentrated in a few hands. In America, for example, it is estimated that in recent years 1 per cent of the population held at least 25-30 per cent of the total of all wealth. In Britain the figure is as high if not higher: the richest 1 per cent of the adult population owns between 22 and 29 per cent of private property; the richest 5 per cent owns between 41 and 54 per cent (Atkinson and Harrison 1978).
If you wish to use this sort of statement then this is how you quote this source.
Private wealth of all forms also remains highly concentrated in a few hands. In America, for example, it is estimated that in recent years 1 per cent of the population held at least 25-30 per cent of the total of all wealth. In Britain the figure is as high if not higher: the richest 1 per cent of the adult population owns between 22 and 29 per cent of private property; the richest 5 per cent owns between 41 and 54 per cent (Atkinson and Harrison cited in Lee and Newby, 1986, p.141-142).
Yin makes the following statement, which includes the author's name:
Campbell first showed how the annual number of traffic fatalities in Connecticut had seemed to decline after the passage of a new state limiting the speed to 55 miles per hour.
This is quoted as follows:
Campbell first showed how the annual number of traffic fatalities in Connecticut had seemed to decline after the passage of a new state limiting the speed to 55 miles per hour (Campbell cited in Yin, 1994, p.25)
If you wish to paraphrase this type of quotation then you must still cite your source material. For example I will paraphrase the above Yin quotation as follows:
The passing of legislation, which established a speed limit of 55mph in Connecticut, was found to have reduced road traffic deaths.
This is cited as follows:
The passing of legislation, which established a speed limit of 55mph in Connecticut, was found to have reduced road traffic deaths. (Campbell cited in Yin, 1994, p.25)
Authors' Citation of Edited Books.
The way to do this is relatively straightforward. For example where Chapman cites Dahlerup in Marsh & Stoker's 1st Edition, Theory & Methods in Political Science this would be cited in the text of your essay as follows:
(Dahlerup cited in Chapman, 1995, p.110)
Chapman is then cited in the bibliography in the following manner:
Chapman, J. (1995), “The Feminist Perspective” in D. Marsh & G. Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science, (MacMillan: Basingstoke), pp.94-114
Crucial Tip: Do Not try to Give the Impression that you have covered more sources than you have......
Students will occasionally read one book by author X, where X cites other authors A, B, C, D & E. It is not acceptable to give the impression that you have read A, B, C, D & E's original works if you have only read what X has to say about these sources. If you have only read X then you must use the referencing style (A cited in X; B cited in X) and so on.......
There is a clear example of this sort of material in Marsh & Stoker's Theory and Methods in Political Science. There is a section in the first chapter called ‘What is Political Science' (pp.3-7) This section includes reference to work by Zuckerman, Heywood, Gamble, Chapman, Leftwich, amongst others.
In the past students have tried to claim that they have read all of the above and these authors have all appeared in the bibliography under separate entries. The reason why this approach is not acceptable is that you are supposed to demonstrate the range of your reading while researching the essay question. Reading one book and attempting to claim that you have read six sources does not demonstrate wide reading. It can also give the impression of dishonesty.
If you have read only one source, this should be clearly indicated.
1) If you read Marsh and Stoker's introduction and think that their comments on, for example, Feminism look interesting. If you then read the chapter itself you will have read work by another author. (Chapman in the 1st Edition, Randall in the 2nd Edition)
These would be cited in a bibliography as follows:
Chapman, J. (1995), “The Feminist Perspective” in D. Marsh & G. Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science, (MacMillan: Basingstoke), pp.94-114 (If a direct quotation is used give the specific page number)
Randall, V. (2002), “Feminism” in D. Marsh & G. Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science 2nd Edition, (Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke), pp.109-130
2) If you read Marsh and Stoker and then track down one or more of the cited author's original text and read it, then you are more than entitled to cite the original source in your bibliography. (This is, after all, one of the standard tactics of basic research i.e. read a basic text and use it to pinpoint more detailed sources and read what they have to say) However, if you have gone to the trouble of tracking down one of these sources, are you telling me that you have to use the same quotation/paraphrase as Marsh and Stoker?
You may find a quotation, which makes several key points interspersed with information, which is not relevant to your essay. For example:
Pluralists argue that political power in Britain is dispersed and fragmented, that there are a very large number of different groups and interests that seek to influence policy, and that no particular group is able to control the state or influence policy on a large number of different issues. In other words, different groups influence policy on different issues and, in many cases, the outcomes result from pressure from a large number of separate groups. Individuals are seen as free to join groups and attempt to influence policy. Any particular individual will be likely to have more than one interest, such that the individual's concerns will pull in different directions at different times on different issues – he or she will be ‘cross-pressured'.
Pluralists, further, maintain both that all interests may be represented and may influence policy and that no particular interest, such as trade unions or the employers, is dominant within the state. (Abercrombie et al, 1988, p.492)
As the above stands, this is a very long quotation. You have to remember that 1) you will have stay within a word limit for your essay and 2) that you should spend the minimum time defining your terms, in this case pluralism, in your essay. The above quotation makes two basic points and could be quoted as follows:
Pluralists argue that political power in Britain is dispersed and fragmented, that there are a very large number of different groups and interests that seek to influence policy, and that no particular group is able to control the state or influence policy on a large number of different issues…Pluralists, further, maintain both that all interests may be represented and may influence policy and that no particular interest, such as trade unions or the employers, is dominant within the state. (Abercrombie et al, 1988, p.492)
Inserting three dots where you excised some of the text indicates your editing of the quotation.
You may wish to cite more than one source, which makes the same point. This is referenced as follows:
Some authors argue that the research process is broadly circular. (Walliman, 2001, pp.193-194; Bryman, 1989, p.7; Frankfort-Nachmias & Nachmias, 1992, p.22; Blaikie, 1993, p.157)
Related Points made by the Same Author
A perennial problem I have with students is finding a paragraph containing for example three distinct pieces of information with an author cited at the end of the paragraph. This leaves me unsure as to whether the author is responsible for all three points or merely the last. If you are going to use several points made by one author, it is good practice to signal this by mentioning their name at the beginning of that paragraph. Thus, when marking your essay I encounter ‘Author X makes the following points'; these are then outlined. At the end of the paragraph the source material is cited e.g. (2002, p.15). As such you have made it clear to me that all the material, from the mention of the Author's name through to the citation, comes from that source.
Foreign Language Texts.
Foreign Language text books are quoted as follows:
The original language is quoted in the main body of the text and a translation is provided as a footnote.
Sources on the Internet are cited in the bibliography as follows:
You need to cite the author, title, publication place; date and page number (if possible). The full Internet address MUST be included at the end of the citation.
Remember to be absolutely meticulous in copying down the Internet address in your bibliography.
When used in the main text of your essay, indicate the author (human or corporate) date and page number (again if possible). Feel free to indicate that the source is a webpage as part of your citation. However, for reasons of time and space do not enter the full address every time you cite the webpage but make absolutely sure that you have included the exact web address in your bibliography.
By exact web address I mean giving the address in the bibliography that will take me directly to the page cited. A general webpage address that directs the marker to the homepage of an organisation but not to the article cited is not acceptable.
Finally, if you have used an on-line journal or newspaper then these are cited as if they were a normal newspaper or journal. However, the full Internet address MUST also be included in your bibliography.
You may find a source, which presents some data in tabular, graphic or diagrammatic form.
If you wish to use this material in an essay then the source must be referenced at the bottom of the Table/Graph/Diagram. (See Examples in the Critical Analysis Section of this Booklet)
Equally, you may find that wish to construct your own Tables/Graphs/ Diagrams from sources, which have not chosen to present their data in this way.
It may be completely raw information presented in the text. The author may have been studying a much wider area than you wish to cover.
For whatever reason, if you wish to use other peoples' data and construct your own Tables/Graphs/Diagrams you must still reference your sources.
To show that you have constructed the Tables/Graphs/Diagrams then the reference should be preceded by ‘Derived from' (See Examples in the Critical Analysis Section of this Booklet)
Remember, the aim is to provide a clear indication to the reader of where you got your material from. This means that you can say things like: “This paragraph draws heavily on Smith (2003, chapter 4)” or “In this section I am following the argument in Krugman (2000).” If you quote your sources, you must still do this properly, but this is an admission that you are paraphrasing a section of your work. If the whole essay is paraphrased, that is a problem, but in order to present your own argument it may be quite legitimate to spend some of the time saying what someone else has said. If too much of your work is paraphrased, acknowledging your sources like this won't stop the lecturer concluding that you have not done enough work yourself, but you shouldn't be guilty of plagiarism.
Be careful about how you use internet sources. The internet contains much material, some of which is useful and some of which is very misleading. Whenever you access material from a web site, think about where it is from: do you trust it? A few general rules:
A. NEVER consider web sources a substitute for material on your course reading list. Maybe it is, but usually there is a reason why the lecturer has recommended some material and not others. You may think that you have found an internet source that is much better than what is on the reading list, but perhaps your lecturer knows of reasons why it is completely wrong.
B. Always be suspicious of web sites that have a political or ideological position. Some of the material on such sites may be good, but you should think about whether you have the expertise to tell whether it is good or not. If you are reading a web page because you did not leave enough time to get material from the library, and have not done the recommended reading, then it is quite likely that your failure to do the recommended reading may mean you don't know enough to evaluate the internet material.
C. If you do need to find additional material to what is on your reading list, then try web journals and other resources from the Information Services web site (http://www.is.bham.ac.uk) first. You may even find that the journal that you had not time to get from the library is available electronically, and you can get the article your lecturer recommended.
D. Online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia are of variable quality. You may get ideas from such places, but be careful. Check information.
Finally, you must present a clear bibliography of texts used in your essay.
Entries in the bibliography should be cited in alphabetical order by Author surname.
Occasionally, there may be reasons why you should subdivide your bibliography into categories such as ‘Books', ‘Journal Articles', ‘Internet Sites', ‘Interviews' etc. You do not need to do this unless your teacher suggests that you should do so.
There are several ways to present a bibliography using Harvard. However, you would be well advised to adopt this method of referencing.
Shone, R. (1987), Microeconomics (Longman: Harlow).
Edited Book: (contains distinct chapters by several authors)
Grove-Palmer, C. (1982), “Wave Energy in the United Kingdom - A Review of the Programme June 1975-March 1982” in H. Berge ed., Wave Energy Utilisation (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Publishers), pp.23-54.
Pahl, R.E. (1988), “Some Remarks on Informal Work, Social Polarisation and the Social Structure”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Volume 12, pp.247-267.
Kettle M. (1997) “Mud smears America's Mr Clean” The Guardian 15/9/97, pp.13
When to Cite Sources.
Another common question asked is at what point do we start having to cite a source. This is a difficult question because part of your education as an economist involves learning what needs to be cited and what does not. For example, if you say that demand curves slope downwards, and supply curves slope upwards (assuming diminishing returns), which means that there is a unique equilibrium price, I would not expect a source for that. It is common knowledge amongst economists, found in all textbooks. Similarly, you do not need to cite a source for a statement like “The Wall Street Crash happened in 1929”. However, if you use sources in the preparation of your work, the general rule is that they should be cited in the bibliography.
The following is good advice: if you have used any source in your course work then you must acknowledge its use. No matter how peripheral you think the use of this source is to the arguments you wish to pursue a failure to cite this source may leave you open to a charge of plagiarism.
One of the classic excuses used by first year undergraduates to avoid referencing is:
“but that's common knowledge”
“everybody knows that”
or words to that effect.
You are here to develop your analytical/investigative skills over the next three years. If you fall back on this defensive position, all you demonstrate is a complete failure to utilise your critical faculties. Thus if you are talking about supply and demand in the first year, you should cite your source, even though it may be in the course textbook. In your final year, on the other hand, general first year knowledge would not be referenced explicitly, but there would be a lot of other material, that builds upon this, that would be cited.
Why plagiarism matters and why referencing is important (again)
You will not build an effective argument of your own on the basis of what you think you know/believe to be ‘common knowledge'. It must be built upon what research you have carried out in response to whatever question the essay poses.
The crucial point is that you have an answer based upon your research into the question. It is that research that requires referencing.
No matter how you quote or paraphrase, your sources MUST be acknowledged.
In the first instance, it allows the reader to pinpoint the source material in the accompanying bibliography.
There are more fundamental issues concerning the necessity of rigorous referencing. I shall cover these after discussing the construction of your bibliography.
The reason we follow such conventions is to avoid plagiarism.
Some definitions of plagiarism, which explain why it is wrong:
“to steal from the writings or ideas of another”
(Chambers English Dictionary, 1963, p.477)
“the act of stealing or presenting as one's own, the ideas or work of someone else” (Grix, cited in Burnham et al. 2004, p.264)
A properly referenced essay is unlikely to be censured for Plagiarism! Moreover, by properly referencing your sources, you are demonstrating:
- confidence in your controversial arguments made in your essay.
- the scope of your chosen range of reading.
In order to avoid plagiarism, if you can't cite your sources, don't use them. It is a good idea to note down the biographical details and page numbers as you are reading the material. This avoids a huge amount of time wasted in tracking down sources long after you originally read them.
Therefore, we must make it crystal clear that, in any coursework submitted during your time at the University of Birmingham, whether essay, review, summary, extended essay, dissertation etc, any use of other's work without acknowledgement is unacceptable and will be penalised.
Honesty is one of the fundamental principles of ethical research. Plagiarism utterly undermines this basic research ethic.
You do not quote or paraphrase the contents of other people's work without acknowledging the source of those ideas.
If you inform your reader of exactly where your information came from but do not indicate whether this is quoted or paraphrased then, if it is a quotation, you will leave yourself open to a charge of plagiarism.
For example when quoting (as noted earlier under Conventions) one can either indicate this by the inclusion of quotation marks:
Leftwich argues “that the single most important factor influencing the way theorists conceive of politics is whether they define it primarily in terms of a process, or whether they define it in terms of a site or an arena.” (Leftwich, 2004, p.13)
or by indentation:
that the single most important factor influencing the way theorists conceive of politics is whether they define it primarily in terms of a process, or whether they define it in terms of a site or an arena. (Leftwich, 2004, p.13)
However, if you fail to do either and present this quotation as follows:
Leftwich argues that the single most important factor influencing the way theorists conceive of politics is whether they define it primarily in terms of a process, or whether they define it in terms of a site or an arena. (Leftwich, 2004, p.13)
Even if you have indicated the source, you will lay yourself open to a charge of plagiarism, This use of Leftwich is cited in such a way as to give your reader the impression that you have paraphrased i.e. put this into your own words, when in fact you have directly quoted the source without having acknowledged that fact.
You must not ‘cut and paste' from sources on the internet without acknowledging the source. Indeed you should not use the internet as a primary source of material for your coursework.
As with the above example, if you inform your reader of the exact web address but fail to indicate that the material is in fact quoted then you will lay yourself open to a charge of plagiarism as you have not properly acknowledged your source material.
It is fine for students to work in groups. There is no harm in cooperating over passing on information about a source you found useful or passing books between yourselves and even debating the topic etc. However, you should all be aware that such cooperation can be carried too far.
You must not collude with other students over the production of individual coursework. This obviously includes allowing other students to copy your work (you are aiding and abetting the committing of Plagiarism).
Equally, you should tackle the question posed in your own way and therefore you should avoid colluding over the structuring of your coursework even if you don't quite use the same sources or use the sources in a different order.
Collusion can also involve a student electing to do half of the coursework while another student does the other half. This is still engaging in plagiarism as both students are engaged in copying each other's work without acknowledging the source. There have even been cases of students taking the same courses in a single year and dividing up the coursework between them. Again this is plagiarism as all the students involved are engaging in copying other student's work without acknowledgement.