Taking ownership of your sources

I have spent my morning working through the essay of a student that I am meant to see this afternoon. She is concerned with style. Among the many things that struck me, one pattern struck me when I tried to think about how I would have written it differently. All the information was well organised, but the delivery lacked authority. I began to think carefully about the mechanics of the language she was using, and how they compared with writing that does assert itself, of which journals in all subjects are rich. An interesting revelation hit me that I realize is common to many students I have encountered.

Incorporation of source material (referencing) is a big deal in academia: We strive to reference to give our writing context and authority, but mainly (let’s not be coy) because we dread any accusation of academic dishonesty. We reference in self-defence.

This I find can be reflected in the tone of the writing, as the writer attributes ideas explicitly to the author of the source. For me this makes the argument sound slightly more passive, thus weakening its resolve.

A simple sciency example:

“Frank et al. (2005) find that Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role: Their experiment showed that declines in cod are correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes.”

With minimal changes to the wording and the placement of the reference, it is possible to take more ownership of the idea without any dishonesty. Thus…

“Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role as declines in cod are found to be correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes (Frank et al., 2005).”

The information is all there, and still attributed to the original author. With the reference in place there is no reason not to present the idea with the authority you would your own, making a punchier, assertive sentence.

Here is an extended version of the sentence:

“Frank et al. (2005) find that Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role: Their experiment showed that declines in cod are correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes. Frank et al. (2005) also found that through trophic cascade effects this led to an increased numbers of herbivorous zoo plankton and lower levels of phytoplankton in the water. Further, Casini et al. (2012), who find that the natural introduction of cod into the Gulf of St Riga had a significant positive effect on water clarity.”

Here the same reference is used twice, even though the focus has not shifted from it. I find this can sound a little clumsy and can be avoided through clever placement of a connecting word:

“Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role as declines in cod are found to be correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes (Frank et al., 2005). This led to trophic cascade effects causing an increased numbers of herbivorous zoo plankton and lower levels of phytoplankton in the water. Further, the natural introduction of cod into the Gulf of St Riga was found to have a significant positive effect on water clarity (Casini et al., 2012).”

The phrase “this led” refers back to the previous sentence, and thus the previous reference, to there is no need to interrupt flow by introducing it again. When incorporating a new reference the same is achieved here by referencing at the end, again taking more ownership of what is being presented.

The benefits of this thinking really become clear when packing in multiple sources of information into a single, sweeping sentence:

“Wide geographic ranges are common to numerous marine fishes including cod (Richardson, 2010), hake (Smith et al., 2003), herring (Peterson et al., 2004; Smith and Jones, 2006) and various species of flatfish (Hope 1999; Richardson, 2010; Parker, 2014). Several factors are thought to play important roles in such wide distributions including temperature (Smith, 2005) and salinity (Jones, 2004), although oceanographic currents are widely thought to be most important (Jones, 2012; Hope, 2003; but see Smith, 2003).”

Here, rapid fire citation allows us to write a few short but well referenced summary sentences in a manner that would not be possible if we included accreditation to each study. Note also the use of “but see” at the end, a hand way of noting a contradicting view without getting sidetracked.

I am not suggesting that any of the exemplified approaches is wrong, indeed they are all perfectly acceptable. But so many students seem afraid to be flexible with their referencing, when doing so can add texture and flow to your writing and show a formidable command of the information at your disposal.

And if you are still worried about presenting the ideas as your own, think of it this way. The author wrote the paper, but you are the one who read it, critically reviewed it, synthesised it with other papers  and presented it as part of your own coherent argument. So give yourself some credit.

Thoughts?