Using Information From Sources
There are several ways to effectively incorporate information from sources in essays. Which type of source integration you use will depend on the purpose of the material. Every literary essay should strike a balance between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing—and articulating your own perspective. Whether summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting, you need to include both in-text and Works Cited citations for every source. It is also very important to not pass off quotation as paraphrase: this could be considered plagiarism.
Summarizing refers to the action of boiling down an author’s ideas into a shorter version in your own words. Summary demonstrates your understanding of a text, but it also can be useful in giving background information or making a complex idea more accessible. In a literature essay, you might briefly summarize the plot of a text through the perspective of your topic before diving deeply into the analysis portion of the essay.
When we paraphrase, we are processing information or ideas from another person’s text and putting it in our own words. The main difference between paraphrase and summary is scope: if summarizing means rewording and condensing, then paraphrasing means rewording without drastically altering length. However, paraphrasing is also generally more faithful to the spirit of the original; whereas a summary requires you to process and invites your own perspective, a paraphrase ought to mirror back the original idea using your own language. Paraphrasing is helpful for establishing background knowledge or general consensus, simplifying a complicated idea, or reminding your reader of a certain part of another text. It is also valuable when relaying statistics or historical information, both of which are usually more fluidly woven into your writing when spoken with your own voice.
A direct quote uses quotation marks (“ ”) to indicate where you’re borrowing an author’s words verbatim in your own writing. Use a direct quote if someone else wrote or said something in a distinctive or particular way and you want to capture their words exactly. Direct quotes are good for establishing ethos and providing evidence. In a research essay, you will be expected to use some direct quotes; however, too many direct quotes can overwhelm your thesis and actually undermine your sense of ethos.
For literature, quotation is most effective when attempting to analyze literary devices such as tone, character, metaphor, and so forth.
Below, you can see three examples of these tools. Consider how the direct quote, the paraphrase, and the summary each could be used to achieve different purposes.
It has been suggested (again rather anecdotally) that giraffes do communicate using infrasonic vocalizations (the signals are verbally described to be similar—in structure and function—to the low-frequency, infrasonic “rumbles” of elephants). It was further speculated that the extensive frontal sinus of giraffes acts as a resonance chamber for infrasound production. Moreover, particular neck movements (e.g. the neck stretch) are suggested to be associated with the production of infrasonic vocalizations.
Baotic et al. conducted a study on giraffe hums in response to speculation that these noises are used deliberately for communication.
Giraffes emit a low-pitch noise; some scientists believe that this hum can be used for communication with other members of the social group, but others are skeptical because of the dearth of research on giraffe noises. According to Baotic et al., the anatomy of the animal suggests that they may be making deliberate and specific noises (3).
Some zoological experts have pointed out that the evidence for giraffe hums has been “rather anecdotally” reported (Baotic et al. 3). However, some scientists have “speculated that the extensive frontal sinus of giraffes acts as a resonance chamber for infrasound production” (Ibid. 3).
Whether summary, paraphrase, or quotation, you need to use an in-text citation! For every in-text citation, ensure there is a matching entry on the Works Cited page! Also, remember to use information from sources only to support your own argument. For a research essay, a healthy ratio is generally no more than 10% to 20% material from sources to 80% your own original ideas, argument, interpretation, analysis, and explanation. This is not a rule as much as a reminder to think critically about how much your writing relies on the ideas of others: unless the assignment is a summary or literature review, the emphasis should be on your ideas!
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from "Research and Argumentation" EmpoWord: A Student-Centered Anthology & Handbook for College Writers by Shane Abrams of the Portland State University, 2018 CC BY-NC 4.0