Monday, 19 November 2012

How to use information from websites in your academic writing


Most international students here in the UK were accepted at their universities and colleges because they worked very hard indeed to get good grades in the IELTS examination.  It can therefore be quite a shock to realise that the techniques used in IELTS essays are not enough to get them good grades in the academic essays they are required to write for their degree courses.  For a start, IELTS essays are short, and written by hand under exam conditions, with no access to dictionaries or grammar books.  The coursework on a degree programme is much longer, and because it needs to be typed can easily be edited and corrected many times over a number of days or even weeks.  A more important difference, however, lies in the type of content which is needed.  IELTS essays are on topics of general knowledge, and although candidates think up a number of arguments and examples to support their opinions, they do not have to provide any evidence for this.  Students producing coursework at degree level, must back up the arguments in their essays by using information from reliable academic sources, and acknowledge the source of this information.  This causes three main problems: how to get information which is reliable, how to reference this information correctly, and how to integrate it into your writing.

How to find reliable information

Books from the college library and academic journals accessed through the college website are both excellent sources of information, and it is unlikely that any information you found through these sources would be considered unreliable. Sometimes, however, you will need to find additional information.  My Business students recently needed to write an economics essay about government policies designed to discourage people from smoking, and were told to look for information on the internet.  Most of them knew that they should not be using Wikipedia, for the simple reason that absolutely anyone can contribute information, even if they are not qualified to do this.  This blog is another example of information which should be regarded with caution - I know that I have got the qualifications and experience I claim to have - but do you know that?  If you are reading this because you are one of my students, I hope that you will be trusting the information I am giving, because you know that I work at a reputable college (who checked my qualifications very carefully), as part of a well qualified team of teachers, but other readers cannot be sure of that.  Try to look for websites provided by the following bodies:
  • academic institutions - in the UK, web addresses often end in .ac.uk
  • government organisations (often .gov)
  • reputable newspapers such as the Times, Guardian, Observer, Telegraph, Financial Times or Independent
  • well-known news organisations such as the BBC
  • non-profit organisations - the websites often end in .org.uk.  For example www.ash.org.uk provided lots of useful information about the dangers of smoking for my students' last essay.
The ASH website is interesting because it is an example of a reputable website which is still biased - it is very much an anti-smoking website.  This is not necessarily a problem.  In this case, my students were being asked to write about government actions against smoking, and ASH provided useful facts and figures.  If, however, the essay had been about the moral or philosophical arguments about people's right to smoke if this is what they want to do, then the arguments on the ASH website could be considered to represent only one side of the story - it would be a good idea to also look at the arguments presented by the tobacco companies, perhaps on this website.

How to provide correct references

When you have found some useful information, you need to use it in a way which does not get you accused of plagiarism, which could really be summed up as 'academic stealing'.  Most academic institutions use anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin (www.submit.ac.uk), and work containing information which you have not referenced correctly is in danger of getting a score of zero.  In some cases, you can even be removed from your university and college.  It's a serious matter.  

Although there are a number of different ways to present information about the sources you have used, students do not get to choose which system to use.  At most UK academic institutions, students must use the Harvard Referencing System (see, for example, the information provided by the University of Manchester here), and they must present their references in exactly the right way, both in the main text of their essay and in a list of references at the end of their work.  There are some slight variations in some small details about how the references are written (for example, some people put the date of publication in brackets, some don't) but you should exactly follow the system recommended by your own academic institution.  To create references for the reference list at the end of the essay, I've been recommending my students to use this referencing tool, available free online.  Once you have generated all the references for your essay, list them in alphabetical order, by the surname of the author or the name of the organisation if you are referring to something published by an organisation as a whole rather than an individual author - this is often the case with the BBC, or a government website. 

A list at the end of your work is, however, not enough.  You must also provide what is known as 'in-text referencing', which is basically the surname of the author (or organisation) and the year, plus the page number if you are providing a direct quotation from a book or journal - I'll talk more about this in the next section.

How to integrate this information into your writing

When you decide to use information from another (reliable) source in your essay, you have to find a way to include it in your essay in such a way that it supports the point you are trying to make.  I want to say that the UK government placed some very strong restrictions on cigarette advertising, and definitely  want to quote from this article on the ASH website.  Before I go any further, I create the full reference and put it at the end of my essay, so there is no chance I will forget to do that later:  

ASH. (2012). Advertising and promotion. Available: http://www.ash.org.uk/current-policy-issues/advertising-and-promotion. Last accessed 19th November 2012.

Let's say that I decide to use the information contained in this section of the webpage:

Virtually all tobacco advertising is now illegal in the UK and many other countries. The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005.

I have two basic choices about how to do this - I can either provide a direct quotation, using quotation marks, or I can paraphrase the words of the original text.  

To insert a direct quotation into my essay, I introduce the idea in my own words (you must always talk about your quotations - never just drop it in and say nothing), then write my quotation:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal: "The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005" (ASH, 2012).

Alternatively, and this is usually the better way, I can rewrite the information using my own words:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal, passing the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in 2002, which banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005 (ASH, 2012).

Paraphrasing (and summarising, if the information you want to include is written with lots of examples which are not absolutely essential) is much better because it shows your teacher that you have understood what you are reading, and how it relates to your topic.  Make sure you don't just change a few words - read it carefully, think about it hard, then write out the main idea without looking at the text.  Check it again, and make sure it's accurate and sufficiently different from the original.  Don't forget to reference it even if you've paraphrased - it's still someone else's ideas or information, even if it's now your own words!

If I want to emphasise the source of my information, I can do it like this:

According to ASH (2012), the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act was passed in 2002 and banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005.

All you need is the author (or, as here, the name of the organisation as ASH does not give the name of the actual person who wrote those words) and the year - the reader gets all the rest of the information by looking at the reference list at the end.  

What happens if you use more than one page from the same website?

This is the only tricky part of the business.  Remember that the purpose of the reference list is to enable the reader to locate the information which you used, and if you call the webpage mentioned above "ASH, 2012" but then use a different webpage from the same website and call it "ASH, 2012" again, the reader will not know exactly where to find each bit of information.  The same problem arises if an author has published two books in the same year - if you call each one "Smith, 2008", the reader will not know which one to look at.  The answer is simple: the first one you mention, call it "a" - therefore "ASH, 2012a", or "Smith, 2008a", and the second one "b", so "ASH, 2012b" or "Smith, 2008b".  Do exactly the same in the reference list at the end of your work - put a little "a" or "b" after the year.  

Now it's time for you to practise your referencing skills yourself......

Look at these links and decide which one is probably not reliable enough to use in your academic essay.  Create a reference for each of the others, and write a reference list - don't forget to put it in alphabetical order.  Finally, say how you would refer to each one of them in the text.  

Webpage 1   

I will post the answers later.

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