You might hear your tutors talk about using 'good quality sources' or 'academic sources'. You might see these phrases in your assignment feedback. How do you know whether a source is considered a quality source?
When writing we refer to other sources for lots of different reasons. We might want to cite all kinds of writing and that is perfectly acceptable. When you are discussing the existing research in a particular field, however, you might want to focus on those sources which are considered academic. These are sources which have been peer-reviewed. A peer-reviewed journal article, for example, has been read by some other academics working in the field and they have made suggestions for ways in which it could have been improved and they have attested to its quality. You can find peer-reviewed research by searching the library catalogue.
You might want to look up a topic online to find out more about it; everybody does this. You might find useful websites and lots of different kinds of materials. But you might also find resources online that haven't been checked by anyone. They might not be reliable or useful to you. Take a blog, for example. You might find someone has written a blog on the exact topic of your essay. The blog might help you get a feel for the subject. But the writing might not have been reviewed by an academic and might contain errors or inaccuracies. There is also the fact that your tutors are more interested in how you engage with academic writing on the topic. They want you to read, think about and write about scholarly writing. Therefore, finding and engaging with academic sources and evaluating sources for their value is an important part of our academic practice.
Once you have found a useful source and read it, you will be thinking about how to write about it. The skill here is engaging with the writer's ideas. Challenge what you have read, interpret the ideas, evaluate them, or explain to the reader how they help to further your own arguments.
Consider this example from an essay:
Although Archer (1995) explains that actors do have the capability to transform their structures, this essay questions her concept. Archer places a disproportionate emphasis on structural factors, rendering agents as mere reactionaries. She stresses the separation of structure and agency, the the extent to which she claims there is a 'temporal distinction' (Archer, 1995:71). As Colin Hay affirms: 'The relationship between actors and their environment is an organic one' (Hay, 2002: 125). Thus, structures and agents do not, as Archer claims, exist in a distinct temporal domain.
Here the essay writer has questioned another scholar's position, giving reasons for the challenge and referring to other writers who support his or her position. Rather than simply reporting the different views on the subject, the essay writer has engaged with their debate and offered a perspective. This can be difficult to do at first but critical analysis is a valuable skill to develop.
Good referencing is an important part of academic scholarship. You should reference every source which you refer to. Referencing means giving the reader some important information about the thing you have read. This information usually includes the name of the person that wrote the thing, when they wrote it and where it was published (a journal? a book? a report?)
Referencing has two important functions.
First, when we reference we acknowledge an intellectual debt to another author. You have drawn on their ideas and when you cite it you are giving them credit for that work.
Second, referencing helps to show the person reading our work where we have got our ideas from so that they could also refer to those sources themselves. It is for this reason that in text referencing and the reference list are very uniform and precise in their requirements.
There are a number of different referencing systems which each have their own requirements. Some common systems are Harvard, Vancouver, Chicago, and MHRA. It is important to check which referencing system you are required to use and to research the conventions of that style. Your school may have produced their own guidelines for referencing; if so, follow this carefully.