Processing, interpreting, quoting and referencing source material

Just a quick reflection on a recent session.

Jenny (not her real name) is an overseas mature student in the School of Social Sciences, having started her degree course only a few weeks ago. She approached the Study Skills Centre for a mentoring appointment because she lacks confidence with the “technicalities” (her word) of academic writing.

The introduction to the session went well. We had time to briefly discuss the services of the Centre and Jenny’s background, country of origin and experience at Bangor so far. She seems to be a very diligent student, having comprehensive, beautifully hand-written lecture notes for all her modules, and is generally confident when talking about her subject. She very quickly presented her main concern to me: avoiding plagiarism, knowing when and when not to reference, and the Harvard system of referencing in particular.

The source of this concern seems to be a lack of instruction during her ‘access to university’ course on how to process information and incorporate it into her own writing, where (it seems) students were permitted to quote large sections of source texts as long as they referenced the author. She instinctively feels that this is wrong but doesn’t know why or what to do about it.

This is a problem I have encountered with other early university learners. They are conscious that they need to engage with the substantive information and discussion of experts in the field but can’t see a way of processing and re-presenting the material other than to quote it in full: “How on earth can I express this any better than the original author did? Particularly as I don’t really understand it anyway!” Rather than compromise on the intellectual tone of the essay and leave out complicated (and perhaps important) details/ideas, they end up quoting large sections of the source text verbatim.

Of course, this isn’t a ‘writing’ problem per se, it’s more of a general study skills issue about how to engage with your reading material, how to understand it and reflect upon it, how to extract the most important details, how to express your understanding of it, how to rephrase it into your own language and present it back to a new audience.

I don’t have the answer to this problem! But I would like to reflect on the approach I’ve taken with Jenny and others before.

Essentially, I separate out the two tasks: i) summarising the ideas/theories of another writer, and ii) deciding what needs to be quoted or referenced, and how. First I ask the writer to put all their notes and quotes aside and just freely (and orally) summarise what the author is saying in the given text. They usually do an excellent and eloquent job of this, often to their great surprise. I then ask them to write down what they have just said. This passage/paragraph is normally suitable for inclusion in their essay somehow, depending on how they tie it in with the rest of the discussion. I then turn to Colin Neville’s guidelines in his book The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (copy available in the Peer Mentors’ room) and assess the passage based on these guidelines. I’m not going to go through them all here, but ideas like controversy, pithiness, exceptionally good phrasing, etc., may incline the writer to quote a particular section of the original text verbatim in their summary. This can normally be done quite easily retrospectively. Further to that, ideas such as differentiating between new/specific/unique vs. ‘common’ knowledge help the writer decide what aspects of his/her summary need to be attributed directly to the original author or left as their own authorial comment. We might also discuss how those references to the original author might be made, whether in the text or in footnotes, etc..


I find separating out these two tasks makes the process a lot easier. The task of mentally ‘processing’ the source text and summarising it into your own words is fundamental and cannot be avoided. Whether you MUST or CHOOSE to then quote or reference the original author and text are secondary and can be assessed in the light of guidance and good practice, and there is plenty of published material out there to help. First ‘own’ and communicate the information, then decide what needs to be attributed to others and how.

That is how I have dealt with this rather common problem anyway. But I’d be grateful for any thoughts…

Phil Davies

Writing an Encyclopaedia Entry

By Phil Davies, 10th March 2016

Writing an encyclopaedia entry can be a quicker and easier way of getting published than submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal. It is also a way to get your own specialist area of research out into the public domain, and, where appropriate, your own work cited, and therefore publicised.

An encyclopaedia is generally understood as an ‘authoritative’ reference work suitable for students and professionals, whether online or in printed form. They are normally ‘scholarly’ and ‘professional’ but of interest to a wider audience. They give a comprehensive view of a subject (more than is available in a dictionary) without going into the complicated detail of a specialist text. Very often, they are the entry-point to a topic for students and researchers alike.

Many authoritative encyclopaedias are now found online, along with a host of more traditional printed versions, along with ‘companions’, ‘quick reference guides’ and ‘[extended] dictionaries’. Most online encyclopaedias accept online submissions for entries.

The objective, structure, contents, format and style of an encyclopaedia entry are different to other forms of academic writing, and we attempt to give an overview of the most important points here.

  1. Getting started

Most professional encyclopaedias, both on-line and in print, have their own guidelines for the objective, structure and style of their entries. Where available, this should be consulted first, as it may determine your choice of which publication to approach. They will, for example, detail the acceptable length of the entries in word-count, the required structure and format, and the word-processing software required (e.g. Microsoft Word) or text format (e.g. HTML). Some encyclopaedias may require a formal contract to be agreed by the contributor (an agreement to transfer the copyright of the material from the author to the publisher) before accepting an entry for publication.

  1. Word count

The word-count of an entry varies greatly from encyclopaedia to encyclopaedia, depending on the scholastic objective of the publication. ‘Quick reference guide’ entries can be as short as 200 words, entries in large, specialist subject-matter encyclopaedias can be as long as journal articles and even short monographs (6000-12,000 words). Here are some examples:

A Dictionary of Critical Theory (OUP): c.200-400 words

Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge): c. 800 words

Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (Routledge): c.4000 words

The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Blackwell): c.4000 words

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (online): up to 12,000 words

  1. Structure

The exact structure of an entry varies from publication to publication and is usually outlined in the submission guidelines. However, the following are common characteristics:

  • A short one, or two-word title, sometimes including relevant dates for people, organizations, or events
  • A brief definition, or description of the subject at the beginning, followed by more detailed examination in the main body. This initial description might also state the subject’s interest and significance, and mention the main topics to be covered in the main body
  • A main body, sometimes with sub-sections and sub-headers depending on the length of the entry
  • References and further reading
  • Related entries
  1. What to write about and how

Encyclopaedia entries are an introduction and a guide to a topic, not a critical evaluation of it. They include the important facts about the topic, person, place, etc. (the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”), like the dates of birth and death, birthplace, parents’ names, education, career highlights, and place of burial of a person. When discussing a person, they should always be objective, not hagiographical. The following guidelines from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarise these requirements quite well I think, and are pertinent to all disciplines:

“Entries should be objective/neutral analyses/surveys that offer a broad perspective of the topic rather than advocate a point of view. Authors should see their mission as that of introducing advanced undergraduates (or grad students and colleagues), who may have no special knowledge of the topic, to the main issues and the most important pieces of primary and secondary literature on the topic, so as to bring them to a state where they can read that literature with insight and understanding. Clarity of substance and style should also be one of the most important goals / Encyclopedia entries should therefore not be idiosyncratic or polemical, or promote the author’s work, but rather strive for balance by presenting the important arguments that have been put forward on both sides of an issue. Controversial claims should be identified as such […] Authors should not use their SEP entry to raise or respond to objections if those objections and responses aren’t already in the published literature.”

  1. Style

Entries should be written in a formal, authoritative, register. ‘Editorialization’ (the inclusion of evaluative statements such, “… was the greatest sprinter of all time”) and personal opinions should be avoided. Entries should be precise and specific, the use of jargon minimized, and technical concepts expressed in plain or previously defined language. Entries on technical topics themselves should include definitions of the technical terms used.

  1. Formatting

The exact requirements for each encyclopaedia should be provided in the guidelines. If not, keep it simple and unadorned in the first instance when submitting something to the editor. Some additional tips:

  • Spell out acronyms the first time they are used, e.g.: “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)”, and then “RSPB” for all further references
  • The readers of an encyclopaedia can be generalist, non-specialist and geographically dispersed (especially on-line encyclopaedias). Care should be taken to explain acronyms which might in the first instance seem obvious to the specialist or local reader
  • The entry will be copy-edited in most cases, but avoid typos, spelling errors and grammatical errors wherever possible. It has a greater likelihood of being published if the editor does not have to do too much work to it
  1. Images

Some encyclopaedias permit/encourage photographs and other images to be submitted with the entry. If this is the case, make sure you include the copyright details of the image for the editors to seek the appropriate permissions

  1. Personal biographies

Some encyclopaedias require a brief biography of the contributor (e.g. 300 words) and contact details such as email address, the URL of a relevant website you might have. Writing a personal biography is an art in itself, but as a rule it should be concise and focused on the details relevant to the entry, publication and readership. For those wishing to write regularly in the academic world (and make applications for grants, scholarships, project funding, book/article proposals), it is worth having a well-crafted, stock, biography in your store cupboard which can be used each time, perhaps adjusting it slightly for different audiences. Some encyclopaedias may request a personal photo for use on the contributors section as well.

  1. Originality

The work must be original, and it is worth consulting other encyclopaedias to check what has been written on your subject before; even Wikipedia. Usual considerations of plagiarism and copyright protection apply, but properly quoted and cited extracts would normally fall under the “fair use” principle widely recognised in scholarly and academic writing.

  1. Sources / further reading

Encyclopaedias differ in the quantity of sources which they require/permit to be cited but this is normally a low number (e.g. 3). These sources should be ones where the ‘best’ information in your entry comes from, and the ‘best’ additional information for readers will be found. They are not ‘footnotes’ in the formal sense of the word, although large encyclopaedias with long entries such as Stanford do permit footnotes.

Academic encyclopaedias normally require that only ‘refereed’ publications may be cited, and most discourage citing of unpublished and inaccessible materials.

The editors will normally format the bibliographic details as they see fit during the copy-editing process, but they may provide detailed requirements in the guidelines. In the absence of specific advice, err on the side of caution and provide full details of the works you cite (Author, title, place and date of publication).

Likewise, encyclopaedias differ on the acceptability of citing Internet sources, and while this is increasingly common, they might differ on what type of internet source is acceptable (e.g. “.edu”, “.gov.” and “.org” domains may be considered more acceptable than “.com”). They discourage citing on-line versions of major printed texts (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica), preferring the original printed version, but when doing so, most require that the URL is included.

Some encyclopaedias prohibit or discourage the citing of the author’s own published work, except where that work is the only, or most, authoritative source available (e.g. Stanford).

  1. Related entries

Some encyclopaedias end their entries with a ‘Related Entries’ section. This will normally be a list of key concepts or people mentioned in your entry for which there is a separate, dedicated entry in the encyclopaedia. If these are not known in advance, there is no harm suggesting some in your submission, you may be asked to contribute more!

Good luck and have fun…


Submission guidelines consulted (online), ‘Online Encyclopedia Entry Guidelines’, (

Duke University Scholar Works, ‘Writing an encyclopedia article’ (

Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ‘Guidelines for Writing Entries’, (

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Guidelines and Policies for Entry Content’, (


Encyclopaedias consulted

Buchanan, Ian (ed.), A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Coyle, Martin, et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1991)

Ryan, Michael (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011)

Taylor, Victor E., et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001)


Am I a smart reader?

“Reading selectively and at speed” (151) is a core study skill according to Stella Cotrell and she provides some very useful quick questions to help us think about how smart as readers we really are:

Do you…?

  • Know exactly what you are looking for
  • Use reading lists selectively
  • Examine sources for suitability
  • Select relevant parts of the book
  • Find information quickly
  • Select relevant parts of the page
  • Use photocopies
  • Make posters to link information
  • Chart the main ideas
  • Read interactively
  • Practise prediction
  • Vary reading speed and method
  • Engage with your reading
  • Use markers
  • Listen to yourself read
  • Maintain your attention
  • Create ideal conditions
  • Consider time and place
  • Reading off the computer screen or paper?

Cotrell, Stella, The Study Skills Handbook (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), ‘Am I smart reader?’ (165-167)