Assignment #3: Finding and Taking Notes on Sources

For this assignment, there are three important steps. By the time you are done, you will have found sources and taken notes to prepare you for the drafting process.

Step 1: Choose a Topic

By now, you have a number of ideas, and perhaps a few valuable sources you were using to practice citations. While it may seem like choosing a topic for your paper is something that happens as you write, usually a paper at the graduate level requires enough sources and interaction with the existing literature that while ideas are important, you likely need to think about what literature is relevant and how you will use it before you begin.

Ambitious projects are wonderful. That said, there is a time and a place for more or less ambition. For many courses or exams, the intention is to establish that you have knowledge of a topic, and while you could write a clever critique of an existing author which demonstrates that you have that knowledge, that would be more than is required and should only be attempted if you are certain you can do it well, demonstrating that you have that knowledge in the process. A project building off of the work of favorite researchers, agreeing with them, is perhaps less complex, but still requires you to demonstrate knowledge. Whether the paper is for this kind of situation or not, consider carefully whether your idea can fulfill the needs of the audience. In publications, for example, it is tempting to just write about your interpretations of the field or your ideas, but in many fields this will seldom be well-received by publishers unless you have some kind of data or analysis to support your claims–for you, the paper may feel like it is primarily about your claims, but for them it may feel like it is primarily about your data, and should be written as such, as readers are always the ones who determine if a paper will ultimately be read.

Finally, do not choose a topic that is too small or too large either for your sources or for your finished project. If your goal as a graduate student was to write about racial injustice in the state of Ohio, that would be a very long project, perhaps even a book, and one with many, many potential sources you would have to wade through. If your goal as a graduate student was to write about racial injustice at the Ohio State University, that might be a suitable topic for a typical article or paper, and would have a manageable number of sources to examine without having too many. If your goal was to look at racial injustice in a particular department at the Ohio State University, it may be difficult to write a full paper or article and difficult to find many sources.

These are only examples, and there can be exceptions; the point is that you should be strategic about what you want to write about before you start trying to find all the sources about a topic, since in many cases you will need a thorough if not exhaustive knowledge of the literature to write about a topic in an informed way. Your plan for your paper may evolve as you read the literature on the topic, and this is good, but radical changes may prove a setback to your work. Remember the maxim: “work smarter, not harder” or graduate school may quickly overwhelm you!

A topic is a general area, usually expressed by a term or phrase, such as “marine wildlife”. A thesis is a specific idea, something which a person can agree or disagree with, usually expressed in a sentence, such as “marine wildlife are especially susceptible to pollution and climate change”–a person could agree or disagree with that idea, but they cannot agree or disagree with just “marine wildlife”. Write a topic, or better still when you are able, a thesis which you think is practical for this paper, and have that in front of you at all times when working on the paper from this point on–it can be adjusted, but the paper must remain focused on that thesis. Your instructor may have additional guidelines about the length, total number of cited sources, etc.

Step 2: Choose Sources

After you have a plan, the next step is actually locating sources. You have a vast array of tools and choices for how you go about this, and some of them are not very reliable. On the unreliable side of possible sources are the vast majority of websites: books and journals and even magazines require some kind of editorial approval, but many websites are created by the author themselves and have no expectations about the reliability of the information they include. It is no coincidence that this era of misinformation and disinformation corresponds to the surging popularity of Internet use. This is not to say that the Internet is bad, should be censored, or even that it is useless, but simply to say that one needs to apply caution before getting invested in using a website as a source.

There are three prominent examples of useful things on websites:

  1. Access to existing, reliable, published documents. More and more books, articles, etc., are accessible easily or even primarily through the Internet. Some search engines, such as Google Scholar, specialize in locating these; however, remember that you are responsible for what kind of sources appear in your paper, and do not assume that everything on Google Scholar is necessarily reliable. Review and consider first.
  2. Information from websites with protected domains. Some kinds of websites, such as .edu or .gov, require credentials to own or operate a website under that domain, and as a result are more reliable than websites that anyone can purchase and write what they will, e.g. .com, .org, etc. Universities and governments naturally do not allow just anyone to post on their websites, and so these may be a reliable source. One practical example is the CIA World Factbook, at www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/, which has a vast collection of statistics and demographic information for nearly every part of the world, and can be a useful source if you need to know an estimated population, etc. for a paper.
  3. Finally, websites may guide you to reliable sources. Wikipedia, for example, notorious in academic circles as an open-source reference guide, may only really be suitable for casual use, but it can be useful for learning the language and important names or publications in a field. For example, if one were trying to find the technical term for “someone who speaks two languages”, typing that into Wikipedia would likely take you to a page about “bilingualism”, and then you would know the term, and from the page there other words which might be useful. You could also consult the reliable publications mentioned in the article or in the citations for the Wikipedia page. In this way, while it is not a good source, Wikipedia can still be on the path to a good source.

The most reliable sources are typically academic journals and scholarly books in which different authors contribute chapters to an edited volume. This is not merely arbitrary reputation: they are more reliable because unlike other books which are reviewed only by an editor, these academic texts are peer reviewed, meaning that each submission (that is, the article or chapter) is sent to another expert in the field, usually anonymously for fairness, and then critiqued by that expert, and by a few others. The critiques then go back to the editor, who is typically themselves an expert in the field, who decides if a submission can be published in the academic source as it was initially submitted (this is rare), cannot be published (this is uncommon, simply because most people who submit papers usually know what is expected of them), or, most commonly, that it can be published, but only after some major or minor revisions are made. After the author makes those revisions, the submission goes back to the editor again, who may send it back to other experts, or make a decision then about whether it is adequately revised to be published. Even in this phase, a submission can be rejected, representing that the standards are high for peer-reviewed academic publications. Be cautious still, as not all academic publications are peer-reviewed, but any publisher which uses a peer review system will likely declare it proudly on their website. This concept of peer review is one that will be revisited in Chapter 5.

On a somewhat related note, for your own publications, be warned that there are predatory publishers, usually ones who solicit you for submissions rather than you making a submission first, who use your publications to sell low-reliability journals without adequate peer review. They will essentially publish anything, and will take advantage of a good researcher’s work rather than giving it the respect of a proper review and critique–that researcher would then essentially be ignored by respected academia. Some are so brazen that they will request money from the researchers to publish their article or chapter, which is truly a sign that they are suspect since their income should come from satisfied readers rather than desperate writers. In any case, have no association with these journals or publishers, either as sources for your writing or as eventual destinations for your hard work. There are many lists online of predatory journals, which unfortunately are non-exhaustive and need to be constantly updated–be sure to consult one if you are suspicious about a publisher’s or journal’s practices. Here is one example of such a list.

Find 5-10 reliable academic sources related to your topic. In some fields, that is more likely to be books, and in other fields, that is more likely to be articles. Consult the campus libraries and librarians for guidance, as they are there to help.

Step 3: Take Notes on the Source

After you have a stack of interesting sources, begin to take notes about them. Naturally, there are different ways to go about that, but in the authors’ experience, tables such as Tables 2 and 3 below work best.

For Table 2, note the name or authors of the source, usually with the year of publication, and then write the thesis in the next, wider column. This will allow a very general comparison of your sources, although it can be difficult to make specific comparisons from this unless the theses are closely related. These can be quotations from the text, or in your own words, but be sure to put quotations taken from the original source in quotation marks so that it is clear to you that they are quotations when you later go to write based on these notes. Most formats require quotations to include page numbers, so note the page number as well.

A table for students to compare sources by thesis. Table 3, below, allows for a more focused comparison of your sources. Make note of three (or more) issues related to your research that the articles address. You might want to choose ones commonly addressed in the articles you found, or ones central to your own research (in the latter case, you may end up needing more sources). Then, fill in the name or authors of the source, usually with the year of publication in the left column, and any notable theories and methods in the next two columns. In the third column and onward, make a note about how the article addressed each of your chosen issues. Not all sources are likely to address the issues you are writing about, and so you can simply write “N/A” for “not applicable” in that case. When there is a pattern in the answers you have for some or several of the issues you chose, it is probably a good topic for further research. The methods or theories used may be a factor in how these issues are considered, and so are included in the table. You may add to the table any other factors you think may be important.

A table for students to compare sources by theories, methods and issues.Notice that with the table, all of the information is arranged in a way that allows for easy comparison. Is one author more common than the others? Are there clear trends in the conclusions about the topic? Are there prominent outliers or exceptions? When you are writing about the literature, you will have to make statements like, “most authors agree with X, but a few think Y”, which will require you to have been able to make these kinds of comparisons. A neat table will help with that. Also, as mentioned in Chapter 2, it is a good idea to copy down any especially good quotations for possible use or paraphrasing, or to paraphrase a valuable piece of information; however, be sure to use quotation marks around the parts you quoted rather than your paraphrasing in your notes so that you do not accidentally plagiarize. Again, most formats require page numbers when creating a citation for a quotation, so be sure to include page numbers from the original source for the notes you take. These page numbers also allow you to go back and re-read a section if new questions come up about a particular note during the writing process.

Collectively, these notes and tables form your annotated bibliography on this subject. The authors have annotated bibliographies on various topics they write about, going back over years of their research, and which they add to over time, forming a very substantial body of notes and citable literature for current and future projects. For some of you, this may be a valuable example to follow.

Your instructor will give instructions about how to submit the tables you created, as well as possibly your notes.

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