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posted on July 29, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Some Remarks on Documentation

Many students
are unprepared to do
high quality work when they
come to us,
and for many reasons.
Documenting  sources in their writing
is particularly difficult for many students
to understand, for some reason.  They are
warned strongly about plagiarism in high
school, but
seem to take from it that they
must always do entirely original work,
which would be crazy to expect
from anyone, let alone
undergraduates.

They think it is
cheating to use other people’s work,
and feel guilty whenever they do.  But it is not
that they shouldn’t 
USE other people’s work IN their
own, and they must always do that,
but that they honour
those sources 
and not claim them as AS THEIR OWN. I
want them to discover the thrill of real, curiosity-based
scholarship, and I offer them tools for doing
that openly and honestly. 

What follows
is a handout to address that
issue at the first year university level.
Since they had been through it before without

‘getting it like it is’, I took an entirely
different
approach to it here.

 

Some Remarks on Documentation

You might not
guess this from how I
dress,
but I’m not a bad cook.
Once or twice
I’ve been accused of
being great. B
ut I don’t know what to
say
when people ask me if I started from
scratch. 
What does that even mean,
anyway? 
Do I claim credit for it all?
Do I acknowledge the grocer,
the farmer, and the hen
when I make an
omelette?

Cooks usually
claim all the credit,
though
many of them brag about
using only
‘the finest of ingredients’.
Writers also
use materials from other sources,
and they acknowledge that. 

The important
point so far is that there are
at least 3 kinds of credit
in cooking.

First,
and most
important from the
cook’s perspective, 
is that
the cook made the omelette,
not the hen or anyone else.
Hens make eggs,
not omelettes.

Second,
from the hen’s
perspective,
the omelette
could never
have been made
without the hen. 
Cooks
make omelettes,
not eggs.

Third,
no matter how creative
the cook
or how perfect the omelette,
that cook didn’t invent omelettes. More
than likely,
a recipe, a mentor, or an example
opened the cook’s mind to omelettes general or to
particular kinds of omelettes to try.  B
ut the cook
used the finest of ingredients
and the finest of
ideas about eggs,
both of which are borrowed,
to make a masterpiece
that is the cook’s
and not anyone else’s.  And the
cook deserves credit
for that.

Don’t forget
that your
paper is your
own paper
.
You asked the questions
that  led to the research that led to the paper.
You structured your time and effort, found and
organized the material, and
created a plan to convey
the results
You did all that.  You can and should be
proud and
deserve great credit for making it
happen. 
But don’t forget you used other
people’s work
in creating your
masterpiece and just
face it!

All scholars
are thieves.
It is our job
to use other people’s work and we
have to do it.
Stealing is what scholars do.
Generally, and this is true in most disciplines,
scholars are honest thieves who create new
combinations of old things.  A
great
deal of creativity is required
to do that. 

Your paper will
be a unique combination of other
people’s ideas, organized around and cemented
together by your own thinking, and expressed in your
own writing.
You will use other people’s ideas.  That is
OK, necessary, expected, and a very good thing.
And you will acknowledge anything
of anyone else’s you use.

 

How do
we do that in science?
We rarely use footnotes or quote whole
passages directly.  We just say what we want
to say in our own words and drop citations
of our sources along the way, right in the
middle of what we’re writing.  
Here
is the general rule and
it’s simple:

Anywhere you
need to cite something,
just stick it in.

Here’s how
you stick it in.  When you
cite something, just
put (the author’s
last name and the year)
in parentheses.
It’s easy to remember,
easy to
do, and easy to
read. 

All
you have to do
is do it.

Then, after
you’ve written the text
and
included the citations, 
you list all of the
sources you cited in the text
alphabetically
by author,
on a special page at the end
called 
Literature Cited, in a
special format.

Your
Literature Cited
is not a list of everything
you read
in your research.  Not
that at all.  That would be a bibli-
ography, 
be very much longer than
a list of what you actually used
to
make your case,
and be totally
uninteresting to
nearly
all readers.

Especially me.
Bibliographies are totally
uninteresting to me and I’ll tell you why.
I don’t care at all what you read, though I
hope you read a lot.  But
I care a lot about
what 
you consider important enough
to cite in your own writing.
And so should you.

As its name implies,
your Literature Cited page
will list only what you choose to cite,
specifically, in parentheses, in your text,
and ignores everything else that you read.
Anyone should be able to find the source
of anything you say
in what you cite.  If
they can’t, unless they really are your
own ideas, then 
you haven’t
done your job.

Make sure everything about
your citations is clear,
complete, and
accurate.

 

Imagine
this scenario. 

Say something
you read 
says Darwin said
something, 
way back then when
Darwin was writing, 
and what
you read cites Darwin as
the source.  

Now imagine this.

Say you
want to cite
what Darwin
was said to have said
by the one who
said he said it.  Say
it is important in some
way
to something you want to say.  Then
go ahead and cite it and list it i
n
your
Literature Cited.

But
don’t cite ’em
unless you read ’em.
Cite only what you yourself read.

Here’s one reason why.

If you cite
Darwin in saying Darwin
said it, 
but Darwin really didn’t, you’d
be a fool to have said
he had. You’d be misleading
your own readers about whether you read
Darwin or not as well, whether or
not Darwin said it.

But if you
said the other guy said
it, everyone would know
who got it wrong.

 

Cite
what you your-
self read 
with your own eyes.
If you read Darwin that’s great
and wonderful!  B
ut don’t cite
him if you didn’t read him.
That’s simple.

Sometimes
in citing sources
you
may get carried away
and that’s OK.

If you want
to cite several sources 
in
one same paragraph, sentence,
or parentheses, go ahead.  Just stick
them in, 
wherever they make the most
sense
in terms of what YOU want
to say and get on with it.

If you want
to compare
sources to
show how they
support or
contradict each other,
for
example, 
do it.

Use the info,
cite your sources,
and get on with
your writing.

 

In each
of these cases,
just
stick the author’s last name
and the year in parentheses at an
obvious place
that doesn’t break
the flow of YOUR meaning.  

Wherever makes
the most sense.  At the ends
of sentences, the ends of phrases
or paragraphs. Wherever makes
the most sense.

A key to
effective writing.

Generally
when we’re writing,
when we write effectively
we say what we want to say
then cite it,
not the other way
round.  That reminds us whose
writing we’re doing, which
is always our own.

Something else
said 
about writing that we tell them
what we’re going to tell them, 
tell them,
then tell them what we told them.
 That reminds
us of what it is to introduce, present, and discuss
any set of information, which is what
we do as authors.


The rest of
the handout gave examples
of kinds of documents. 
Books, journal
articles, newspapers, magazines, 
interviews.
Web based sources came late in my career.  
Those
details are not important here.  
I wanted the
handout to make it clear to students how
critically scholarship depends on docu-
ments and documentation, and
it worked.

Students asked
many questions about how
and whether to cite things, but the
handout made them aware of citations
in their reading.  And they often knew
the answers to their questions
before they asked them.

(Sometimes
they misrepresented
sources, but that’s a
different issue.)


The image
at the top
illustrates not
my cooking, per se, but my ice
cream making. It shows two scoops
of wild huckleberry ice cream from
the 2009 crop, garnished with a
sprig of 2010 huckleberries. 

Photo by Lee Gass.

The same
photo illustrates my story
Postscript on Wild Huckleberry Ice
Cream
The story you just read isn’t really
about cooking, as you’ve discovered,
but about documentation.  
The
other one really is
about ice
cream.

Well, sort of.


First published in the Vancouver Observer.


Edited March 2021

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