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The Use of Secondary Sources

by John Porter


The use of secondary sources constitutes an essential element of any research essay written for an upper-division class, particularly in cases where students are dealing with a subject matter in which they have little prior background. Secondary sources often play an important role in the composition of first-year essays as well. It is important, therefore, that you know how to employ such sources properly.

Your principal resource for such issues should be the UofS Regulations on Student Academic Misconduct, which deal specifically with matters of plagiarism and other forms of inappropriate conduct. What follows below are my own thoughts regarding problems students experience in researching and producing formal essays.

The three most common types of mistakes that students make in using secondary sources are:

A fourth difficulty that has to be addressed is:


Documentation: it is important that you document your use of secondary sources properly. Failure to do so puts you in danger of committing plagiarism — the unacknowledged use of another person's work, whether it be their exact words, or their specific arguments or ideas presented in the form of a paraphrase. As a general rule, if something in an essay directly stems from something that you have read, acknowledge its precise source, either in a footnote or in the text itself. The citation need not be elaborate but should be specific. For example, if you have cited Bill Smith's work, An Aardvark's Odyssey, in your bibliography, you need only include a reference in the form, "Smith 97", to tell your reader that this quotation / idea / information (or whatever) is to be found on page 97 of Smith's book. (If you have more than one work by one particular author, include the date: "Smith (1987) 97.") Be certain to include the page reference: "Smith" by itself is not sufficient.

You need not cite a source for general references to matters of common knowledge (the date of a particular work, for example, or the author's birthplace), nor need you cite the source for material derived from the class lectures (again, such material can be assumed as common knowledge between you and your reader). Thus, for example, the general statement that Homer composes in dactylic hexameter or that his gods are anthropomorphic in nature does not require a note — these are matters of common knowledge, and the latter could be deduced from the text itself; the statement that Homer's treatment of the gods reflects the rise of a panhellenic outlook in Greece in the 9th to 7th centuries (something that you or your reader probably would not deduce from the text itself) does need to be documented.


Over-reliance on secondary sources: it is important that you use your sources creatively, not slavishly. An essay that merely summarizes or paraphrases material from a secondary source is a report, not a thesis, and is not acceptable. Essays are assigned so that students will develop their knowledge of a particular field — the material with which it deals, the resources and methodologies employed by scholars in the field — but essays also serve the general purpose of encouraging students to develop their ability to express ideas effectively and combine them into a coherent and compelling argument. The summarizing of material from a secondary source does little to serve any of these purposes.

Rather than merely reproducing some scholar's argument, one strategy that can be useful is to begin with a brief statement of a scholar's views and then use that scholar's arguments as a springboard for your own discussion. Along the way you can use works by other scholars to reinforce your own views. For example: "E.R. Dodds claims that the Oedipus of Sophocles' play is guiltless and that concerns with possible flaws in the character of the protagonist are the result of modern misreadings of the play. I disagree. The following essay will examine Dodds' arguments and will demonstrate their weaknesses by showing that flaws in Oedipus' character are deliberately highlighted in a way that recalls Herodotus' Croesus. This view of the Oedipus has been developed, in part, by Griffith, (FN: "See, in particular, Griffith 203.") whose arguments I will employ to reinforce my own."


Insufficient command of sources: if you cite a work on your bibliography or in your text, be certain that you have read it thoroughly and fully understood the author's arguments. Do not inflate your bibliography with works that you have not seen: to the degree that any of the works you cite deals with issues that you raise, you will be expected to have taken the author's views into account. Neither should you use articles as window-dressing: if you purport to analyze or critique a scholar's work, be certain that you present his/her views fully and accurately. To ensure that you have fully understood a particular article, you should read it carefully (and more than once), take notes on the points that it has to make, and compose a brief summary, in your own words, of its principal argument(s).

For more on this and related matters, the student should consult the brochure published by the Department of English, Requirements for Essays.


Use of WWW resources: the World Wide Web offers an immense amount of material of varying quality and reliability. Students who use the Web should be aware that information is not necessarily true simply because someone has made it available on a server. (The same holds true for academic books, of course, but these usually are reviewed prior to publication and only survive in the marketplace if they have been found to have a certain degree of merit.) While the Web offers many useful sites, it is crucial that you verify the reliability and accuracy of any material that you elect to cite from such a source.

It is also important that such sources be cited accurately. Make sure that your bibliography includes the precise URL for all pages that you cite — e.g.

"http://www.usask.ca/classics/Exams/enns.html"

as opposed to simply

"http://www.usask.ca/classics/"

Be sure to include as well an indication of the most recent date on which you accessed the page.

In the case of on-line scholarly resources (accessed via JSTOR, Google Books, or the like), you need to be aware that simply having a group of scholarly works to cite in your footnotes does not constitute meeting the research requirement for a university-level essay. Too often, students settle on the first articles that pop up on a Google search, without a proper evaluation of how appropriate those articles might be or how up-to-date, or how much weight to accord their viewpoints.



For notes on preparing a term essay, see Notes on Composing a Term Essay (Porter).

For notes on preparing an assigned in-class essay, see CLAS 110: In-Class Essay and Class 121: In-Class Essay under Sample Examinations and Study Guides.



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Last Modified: Saturday, 29-Mar-2014 09:51:38 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.