Papers: How to use sources

In one of the first few posts in this series, I mentioned that the best kinds of sources for filling out your paper are books, particularly chapters or paragraphs in them that line up almost exactly with your topic.

If you can get your hands on that kind of source or a couple of them, you can structure your entire paper around that. Just drop them into your paper and paraphrase them for the bulk of your project.

So to demonstrate, I pulled a (sort of) random paragraph from a piece called “Ditlhaka music learning and practices through transmission among the Batlokwa and Balete of Botswana” by someone named Otukile Sindiso Phibion. I know literally nothing about the topic, except I like music and know Botswana is a country just north of South Africa.

But that doesn’t really matter – I can just rephrase what’s already written, like this. (The quoted text is from the article – my paraphrases are right below the quotes.)

“During this research, it was discovered that Ditlhaka music in South Eastern Botswana is practiced by Balete and Batlokwa tribes respectively.”

According to Otukile Sindiso Phibion in an article on music performance in Africa, research showed that the Ditlhaka music practiced in South Eastern Botswana was produced by both the Balete and the Batlokwa tribes.(1)

“Music from these two tribes was noted to have subtle differences. However, Balete proved to be currently more practical than Batlokwa in the performance of Ditlhaka music. This tribe was rescued by former South African miners who revived the music on their return home.”

There were, however, slight differences in the forms of music produced by these respective tribes. The study seemed to indicate that the Balete, in contrast to the Batlokwa, currently appear to be more pragmatic in their approach to playing and performing the Ditlhaka music.(2) Former South African miners rescued the Balete tribe, which resulted in a revival of the Ditlhaka music when the miners returned to their homes.(3) This seems to account for how at least some of the distinction developed between the musical styles.

“Another important fact noted is Ditlhaka music is also performed by other tribes in South Africa such as Bahurutshe and Bapedi.”

Further, it is interesting to note that other South African tribes, such as the Bahurutshe and Bapedi, also perform the Ditlhaka music.(4)

Okay, so a few things to note about how this turned out:

  • I grabbed the quote from the discussion and analysis section of the article. You don’t really want to cite stuff about how a study was conducted. No one really cares about that. Instead, just jump straight to the parts that talk about what was discovered, whether you’re paraphrasing books or articles.
  • I expanded the quote. That’s usually a good thing. You want to expand on what’s written, like commentary, at least for these kinds of sources.
  • I used some of the same exact words, just in different orders. That’s the great thing about working with modern word processors. To change the order of a sentence – like from “This is what was discovered after much research” to “After much research, this is what was discovered” – you can just copy and paste.
  • I used some of the same order, just with different words.  To find words that mean the same thing as what’s in the source, you can often just right click or something to look up synonyms through your word processor. Suddenly, you’re paraphrasing instead of quoting.
  • I added those numbers in there. The numbers represent footnotes where you can cite your source. As long as you include your source, you’re good. It’s fair, not plagiarism (pretty much). On top of that benefit, adding footnotes expands your paper too.

At this point, I should also point out why, in most cases, it’s better to paraphrase a source than quote directly from it.

First, if you quote directly for more than three lines, you’re supposed to switch to single spacing, as opposed to double spacing, which is used for the body of most papers. Single spacing, simply put, doesn’t take up as much space. So if you’re going to quote directly, it’s best to keep it under three lines so you can stay in double space territory.

Second, professors don’t like direct quotes as much because they look like you just lifted them straight from your source, which in fact you did. Paraphrasing, on the other hand, supposedly indicates that you read the text, understood what’s being said, and rephrased it in your own words. Even if that’s not all completely true, that’s why professors prefer paraphrases.

In fact, taking this a step further, it’s actually better to paraphrase the way I just demonstrated than writing your own content. In most cases, your own content needs to have sources to back it up. It’s much easier to cite tons of sources if all you’re doing is paraphrasing. So professors actually prefer the paraphrases, because it means more citations.

Anyway, once you have a decent body of content from all your paraphrases, you’ll want to drop in some of one-off sources within your paragraphs. This serves two purposes:

  1. By using these extra sources, you can include them in your bibliography, which makes it look like you did more research than you actually did (it’s not like you need to read all your sources, just a sentence or two will do).
  2. The extra sources conceal the fact that you’re paraphrasing so much from the same source.

If you do this the way I’m explaining here, they’ll end up with a list of footnotes (perhaps for one of the five sections) that looks something like this:

  • Jones
  • Smith
  • Jones
  • Ibid.
  • Wilson
  • Jones
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • Jackson
  • Jones
  • Park
  • Jones
  • Ibid.
  • Erwin
  • Jones

And so on. Notice how often Jones shows up. Not only does the name show up all the time, all the Ibids, which mean you’re citing the same source you just cited, refer back to Jones. All in all, out of 15 footnotes, 10 of them cite Jones.

The actual content might be even more skewed than that. For instance, each time you cite Jones, you might actually be clumping together multiple sentences of content, say two or three each time. In contrast, for each of the one-off sources, you might only get a partial sentence worth of content.

Overall then, you could end up with over 70% of your content in a given section (or even entire paper) coming from one source. If you just dropped in a huge block like that without breaking it up, you couldn’t get away with it. By chopping it up with other sources, though, you not only get away with it, you look impressive in the process.

That’s why these one-off sources come in handy.

As a result, unlike the book or chapter sources that you paraphrase and try to expand, for these one-off sources, you want to summarize entire sections in just a few sentences, that or just pull one data point or something (my preference since it means less reading). You’re actually not trying to add much content with these sources – you’re just trying to break up the footnotes.

In short, books and chapters are for content – journals and articles are for footnotes. That’s how to use sources.