Introduction to Research & Documentation //


The following is intended to introduce University of the Arts students to the fundamental concepts underlying research and documentation in the context of their academic coursework. The sections address various intellectual and ethical matters, and are designed to have a cumulative effect, that is, to be absorbed in the order of their presentation and in conjunction with actual writing and research projects. A practical companion to this page is our Outline for Research. For additional assistance see our Subject Guides and Research Assistance pages.

Students with questions or in need of reference assistance may contact the author (see end of this page).

The Community of Scholarship || Research in University Coursework || Organizational Contexts of the Disciplines || Finding and Evaluating Information || Meaningful Documentation || Responsible Acknowledgement || Plagiarism || Works Consulted

The Community of Scholarship

A central ambition of higher education is to introduce those whom it serves to the world of discourse about ideas -- also known as scholarship. Scholarship is first and foremost an expression of community. In fact, community is a word frequently invoked in the context of learning environments. Students embarking on a scholarly project enter this community -- consisting of peers and mentors, teachers, and authors accessible through the written word -- as novices. All of us become novices again every time we investigate a new avenue of enquiry. But as novices we are at no time unimportant to the discourse, nor can we fail to hold ourselves to its standards, for newcomers are essential to the community's health and perpetuation. Without new voices in the discourse about ideas, humanity itself stagnates.

Use of the word "discourse" here is meant to convey the sense of give-and-take conversation. The community of scholarship depends on acknowledging assumptions even as they are questioned, on sharing information even as it is interpreted -- in short, on reliable and good-faith communication. To this end, scholarly discourse is expected to recognize and record its debts openly and generously. As we do not live in a vacuum, newly developed ideas always stand on foundations laid earlier than the moment of our own encounter with them; information however formulated always has a creditable source. Worthwhile contributions result from the attempt to clarify what it is that we understand in words borne of our own experience with prior texts.

Communicating with our own words, in this sense, presupposes a readiness to document the steps by which we arrive at understanding. Scholarly documentation allows members of the community to place new contributions in context, reveal the lineage of their derivations, and build on the work of others ethically. Now read this last sentence again and then look at this page from the University of Pennsylvania Libraries (this link opens a new window). You will see that my sentence paraphrases the last paragraph displayed there by that page's author, Nick Okrent. Though the words I used are "my own", the ideas they represent appear in the same order, and the general context is very similar. It is therefore incumbent on me to acknowledge my debt. In fact I do so happily: I do not wish to benefit dishonestly from those who assist me. By crediting an author who helped me organize my thoughts, I claim the honor of collaborating in the discourse, rather than asserting an illusory originality.

Research in University Coursework

Students at universities are often required to undertake research and writing assignments in order to complete academic courses, on the assumption that such assignments may prove as important a locus of learning as the classroom experience itself. What students are able to make of the opportunity hangs on many variables, chief among them the students' own capacity for perseverance. Many of us come late to the realization that solving the complex of problems one encounters in the research process can be extremely satisfying. There is gratification in mastery of the balancing act of assembling, sifting, and synthesizing information over time, and then presenting the distillate in organized prose.

But there is something else, too. The process itself is an essential social skill to have grasped by early adulthood in order to cope in our world, in our age. Mastering new vocabularies, comprehending foreign ideas, reconciling opposing views, and proposing resolutions, all within a prescribed timeframe, are abilities with broad practical application in an ever more confusing world. Moreover, employing rigor in asking and answering questions not only demonstrates how knowledge evolves; it also equips us with a critical sense. After honing your own research skills through dedicated practice and review, you will better evaluate whatever is important to you in the research of others, in whatever walk of life you choose.

Of the critical elements in the process, the first is paramount: success depends from the outset on a thorough appreciation of the assignment's parameters. You must determine early the amount of time you have from inception to final draft. You must assess the extent of the project, both in terms of the amount of information you will likely have to manipulate, and the complexity of the ideas you will have to analyze and explain. You will also have to balance the material resources available to you against the requirements of the course. Above all, you will help yourself in the end by remembering that each such exercise holds within it the potential for genuine, creative self-investment, not only because the skills required have real-world application, but also because the audience you reach -- and perhaps change -- can offer you real-world feedback.

Organizational Contexts of the Disciplines

There are many subgroups within the community of discourse about ideas, and awareness of the conventions and expectations of these audiences necessarily plays a role in scholarship. Understanding the parameters of research assignments involves effort in gauging such norms. Just as idiosyncratic vocabularies adhere to trades and professions, so also do terminologies, thought patterns, models, communication structures, and research methods evolve to characterize academic disciplines. The flow of ideas, the use of technical language, cognizance of traditions and fundamental assumptions all require a sensitivity to context in order to avoid misinterpretation.

Adequate working knowledge of the sources, then, has to do with much more than proper documentation. It encompasses as well the notion of knowing one's audience. Some degree of immersion along with a healthy amount of courage are required. There is no such thing as effortless mastery. But at the same time, disciplinary conventions should facilitate, not serve as barriers to, communication. The "remaking of knowledge" by professionals remains a little-studied subject, one of currently renewed interest among American educators: compare the very different works by Gerald Graff and Kurt Spellmeyer cited in the list of Works Consulted at the end of this page. For perspective on the problem of professional-language acquisition in higher education, see Richard Lanham's essay also listed there.

Taking time to frame your research in the contexts of its disciplinary traditions and modes of discourse will help you distinguish between central arguments and peripheral commentary. Reading widely during the early stages of your research will make you aware of conflicts inherent to the subject and that have yet to be reconciled, as well as disagreements between interpreters of the sources. Chief among the pitfalls that only sufficient time can help you avoid are those that Booth and his colleagues label "inappropriate evidence" (Booth et al., p. 124-5): the informal checklist by these authors distinguishes between anecdote, documentary, field description, laboratory data, and inferential networks, among others, along with an example of a discipline with which each type of evidence tends to be associated. Discovery of the subject-specific circumstances within which lines of reasoning are presented necessarily plays an essential role in research and documentation.

Finding and Evaluating Information

An abiding cliche of our times has it that we live in the Age of Information -- though it may not always be clear whether we mean something positive or negative by the phrase. Sometimes the amount of data we can readily accumulate, to say nothing of the proliferating vehicles that deliver it, seems likely to overwhelm us. In fact, opportunities to find information often exceed our abilities to judge its validity and relevance. And so, despite the serious reservations that we may harbor regarding the quality of what we find, discouragement over quantity typically arises only when immediate currency is the defining factor (obviously events occurring in the present have yet to accrue a literature). The first step, therefore, toward identifying sources for a given purpose might be described as the development of a strategy, or the plotting of a map. There is no single correct way to do this, but without a plan, no course can be charted.

The outlines of your strategy will emerge from the working questions you shape and your surmises about the types of evidence you will need. Much depends on your level of familiarity with your subject. In arts and humanities research, for instance, direct interrogation of the primary sources -- the work or works you are studying -- will likely dominate your approach; a few deft appeals to the secondary literature -- other commentary based on primary sources -- may complete your strategy well enough. If you are venturing into unfamiliar territory, however, you should not hesitate to introduce yourself to it through tertiary aids, such as journalistic (non-scholarly) surveys, or the summarizing entries in general dictionaries and encyclopedias. A word about tertiary sources: articles and trade books based on the research of others may supply satisfactory accounts of a field for the purposes of your introduction to it, but their homogenizing tendencies offer a poor foundation for the later stages of your work. Yet at the same time, remember that many specialized dictionaries, including encyclopedic ones (or encyclopedias), go beyond tertiary summary to report new research otherwise unavailable. For help in making this kind of critical judgement, seek out the resource that, in happy circumstances, could well be the most important arrow in your quiver: librarians.

Librarians are specialists in finding and evaluating information. Turn to them as soon as you have identified your initial sources and can begin to describe your work in progress. Realize that the extent to which they can help you will be largely determined by the nature of your queries: simple questions will tend to elicit simple answers. It is up to you to cultivate the dialogue, to take advantage of this expertise. The further development of your research strategy only stands to benefit. Librarians in academic settings, moreover, have led the way in promoting the use of electronic resources in university-level coursework. Databases to which academic libraries subscribe carry the tacit recommendations of librarians, in the same way that printed reference materials do. But just as you must determine the appropriateness for your purposes of various primary, secondary, and tertiary printed materials, so too must you exercise critical judgement in confronting the similar variability on the public web. Only a small proportion of the data accessible this way has value for scholarly research, as methods of review within the medium have not solidified. This circumstance, however, is likely to change, as search capabilities become more sophisticated and electronic publishing finds its level ground.

Meaningful Documentation

This discussion focuses on questions of meaning and purpose, not of form or "style" (for methods of documenting sources see the page on Citation Style Guides and relevant links there). Meaningfulness implies an interpretive context. Those undertaking research are most successful who employ documentation not only for purposes of recording debts, but also to enlist support at various junctures in the construction of their arguments. Judicious use of sources can also enable concision -- an economical means of addressing aspects of the subject that require acknowledgement but little exposition -- as well as the recognition of alternative or competing views.

Facility in determining how and when it is best to call upon support in this way leads to opportunities for clearer communication than might be possible were every avenue fully explored. Indeed the conventions of citation styles have evolved in part to keep the complexities of multilevel discourse and documentation from overwhelming both writers and readers. At one time or other every researcher senses the need to recalibrate, up or down, the amount of text requiring such appeals to collateral support. Demonstration of interconnectedness need not be comprehensive, but it should be representative, and it should embrace competing ideologies when they exist. But meaningful documentation also entails judgement as to when dependence on the work of others constrains the writer's investment in his own point of view, even distracting readers away from it altogether.

At the most basic level of meaning, documentation affirms ownership of contributions to scholarly discourse. The imperative to give credit where credit is due emanates from deep within the record of human history. Though not unique to European thought, attributions of individual responsibility have undergirded conceptualizations of the "self" and the "person" in both legal and moral traditions of Western modernity. Occupation with the subject permeates the literatures of theology, psychology, and anthropology (see the essays in The Category of the Person, cited below). A prominent difficulty arises, however, from attempts to determine the nature of the relationship between ideas, conceived as products of individual minds, and the common traditions within which they are framed and communicated. And so this discussion will resume below in connection with the subject of ideas as intellectual property.

Responsible Acknowledgement

The research and writing process is seldom linear, for the tributaries most worth exploring cannot be predicted. At all stages, writers typically revisit their accumulated materials and then find themselves navigating an unexpected offramp. Trouble is, the sources that seemed marginal on first acquaintance may now acquire a central significance. For this reason alone -- though others exist -- the best course of action is to be guided by two basic rules: always note sources meticulously, and never trust memory.

To elaborate: record every element, down to a pageturn, of any text that intrigues, inspires, or suggests; organize the resulting notes so that you will be able to retrace your steps later; place quote marks around every literal transcription, however brief; indicate paraphrases of every reworded line of reasoning; and resist the self-flattery that you will simply remember what you need when the time comes. For illuminating examples of how regrettable a breach of these rules can become, see van Leunen, below in the list of Works Consulted, pp. 145-148.

After determining what documentation can most meaningfully support and amplify your efforts, you will reap the benefit of all this respect for your sources along the way. Commitment to the formal details of responsible citation says much about your intention to be taken seriously. In the first place, consistent accuracy in crediting debts demonstrates your awareness of the disciplinary shoulders upon which you stand, and clarifies what aspects of the discourse have value for your specific purpose. Second, care in documentation ensures preservation of the trail of accountability and verifiability without which there can be no dialogue -- no continuously self-renewing community of scholarship. Third, holding yourself to requisite standards of accuracy protects you from the errors of others, for reliance on data from secondary sources necessarily has its perils: if you unknowingly incorporate misinformation into a segment of your work, the ability to trace the difficulty to its origin will go some distance toward safeguarding the general integrity of your enterprise in the minds of your readers. Several real-world instances of problems arising from the careless use of sources occupy chapter 6 of The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth (et al.), cited below.


The conventions for acknowledging aid from others, then, facilitate the sharing of ideas. Publishing history prior to the establishment of such conventions has much to say on the subject of piracy, as conceived in opposition to community. Severing or obscuring the connection between ideas and their originators, called plagiarism, offends against this code of conduct by placing the open sharing of ideas at risk. Though not irrelevant to copyright and intellectual-property law, where fault is assigned without regard to purpose or deliberate effort, plagiarism presupposes the intent to deceive, as does forgery, with which it is sometimes classed. Infringement of copyright involves primarily the theft of expression, the outward manifestation of attributable ideas, and only secondarily, if at all, with determinations about ownership of intellectual abstractions themselves; and its remediation requires the formal granting of permission, not merely an acknowledgement of debt. Plagiarism, on the other hand, by its very duplicity perverts social incentives toward individual achievement. Its goal is unearned advancement, its effect debasement of the community, its realm ethical more than legal.

Thomas Mallon remarks that, as a phenomenon, one of plagiarism's striking characteristics turns out to be the lack of need for it (Mallon, p. 33; see Works Consulted, below). In all well-publicized instances that he has identified, persons who plagiarize have been well equipped to manage their assignments without doing so. More the pity, the pitfalls mainly have to do with carelessness. To avoid plagiarism: keep explicit records of your sources, linking page numbers to titles of all texts consulted; rigorously identify paraphrases and quotations; allow sufficient time to retrace and recheck; and hold to the view that influence and assistance are good things that you should be grateful to acknowledge. In cases of doubt, your readers -- your instructors -- will hardly fault you for citing too generously.

And there may be cases of doubt, for, as the truism goes, understanding the rules is not the same as playing the game. Inadvertant appropriation, if the claim is plausible, may be excused, not only because intent is difficult to discern, but also because the "economy of knowledge" in which ideas are shared "rests on the fiction of the singular creator" (McSherry, p. 80; see also p. 31 on "the disturbing likelihood that original ideas usually aren't"). That assumptions regarding what is "common knowledge" differ depending on disciplinary context might alone suggest something about the diffusion of responsibility in the dissemination of ideas. Still, the exercise of care in learning to use and acknowledge sources remains a fundamental component of university course-related research. The existence of ambiguity and the need for interpretation whenever ideas are shared call for vigilance and good will in the maintenance of a healthy academic environment.

See also our practical advice concerning plagairism.

Works Consulted

Booth, Wayne, et al. The Craft of Research. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Ed. Michael Carrithers et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures Learning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Lanham, Richard. "Strange Lands, Strange Languages, and Useful Miracles," The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 139-153.

Mallon, Thomas. Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.

McSherry, Corynne. Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Spellmeyer, Kurt. Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

van Leunen, Mary-Claire. A Handbook for Scholars. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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