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Module 1: Grammar Module 2: Sources Module 3: Structure
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Unit 1:  About sourcesUnit 2: Evaluating sourcesUnit 3: Quoting & paraphrasingUnit 4: Reporting evidenceUnit 5: Referencing

Why & how to use sources

This section provides some reasons for using sources in your academic writing.

How are sources used in academic writing?

In the Western academic tradition we use sources and the evidence contained in them:

  • to gather ideas and information so that we can expand and enrich our own knowledge and understanding (and possibly that of the academic community generally) of particular disciplines, subject areas and topics.
  • to identify, build and support arguments or research which demonstrate the understandings we have acquired.

Why use sources?

Select each reason to see more information.

1. To satisfy the expectations of the academic community you are writing for:
When you write in an academic context, you are not writing for yourself. You become a member of an academic community which has particular expectations, including expectations about honesty and rigour in academic research and writing. Using and acknowledging sources is part of the 'currency' of this community; and, as with most communities, if you do not observe the rules and adopt the language of this community, your input and perspectives will be less valued.
2. To show evidence of wide, informed and relevant reading:
University assignments provide you with an opportunity to broaden your knowledge within your chosen discipline or subject by extensive reading on particular topics. It is essential to show that your reading has acquainted you with a range of perspectives relevant to the assignment topic.
3. To show that your writing does not rely mainly on personal opinion:
Although there are exceptions (see Module 2, Unit 2: Potentially questionable sources) personal opinion, personal experience and anecdotal evidence are not usually highly valued in academic writing.

Part of the reason you are encouraged to read widely is to acquaint yourself with the research and perspectives of others so that you can see and experience things differently.

Your own writing needs to acknowledge these other perspectives and the part they have played in taking you beyond your own experience and current level of understanding.

Note: It is your responsibility to find out whether personal opinion is expected, or allowed in your assignment topic or subject.
4.  To show the process by which you have arrived at your own conclusions about the topic, and to enable the reader to understand and evaluate the ideas and information you are presenting:
When you write about a topic, you are usually not only presenting the perspectives of others. Your reading should help you to form and present your own conclusions. You need to acknowledge the contributions other writers and researchers have made in helping you develop strong, persuasive arguments to support your own perspectives and conclusions. You need to demonstrate that you have made this material your own. Furthermore, the reader needs to know whether your ideas and information come from reliable sources. If the sources are not identified (by correct referencing), readers may conclude that the idea or information you present is not reliable at all.
5. To show your ability to integrate material from a range of sources:
In academic writing you do not simply list what you have read - your bibliography or reference list does that. Your writing needs to show how you have grouped and categorised information from a wide range of sources and organised this information around central points, arguments or sections.
6. To show evidence of an analytical and critical approach to your source material:
To develop a considered argument and present your own perspectives on a topic you need to be selective in the way you use evidence from your sources. You will want to:
  • foreground some sources and relativise others.
  • align yourself strongly with some sources and distance yourself from others.
However you need to make your reader aware of the basis on which you are doing this. You cannot do this effectively without taking an analytical and critical approach to the differing perspectives you are drawing on in your source material (see Module 2, Unit 4: Reporting Evidence for ways to do this).
7. To enable readers to follow up references or perspectives of particular interest to them:

In an academic community, people learn from each other. Even though you may be writing for assessment purposes, your readers may want to improve their knowledge too, by following through on references they were unaware of, or new perspectives you have outlined in your writing. For them to do this, you must acknowledge your sources. Your references must also be complete, genuine and accurate.
8. To avoid plagiarism:
You should own what you have written. Although you have consulted other people's research and writing, you have used these sources mainly to clarify your own perspectives on the topic and to develop your own position.

You cannot show that you have done this if you plagiarise other people's work - that is, if you use someone else's ideas or words without acknowledging where they came from.