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Handbook for Historians

Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College

Using Sources in your Paper

Scholars often become confused regarding what must be foot/endnoted and what may be legitimately incorporated into their own writing without attribution. The old adage, “When in doubt, foot/endnote,” is of little assistance if doubt exists in each and every case. A paper that foot/endnotes every sentence is unacceptable. The following six categories are offered as aids in determining when and how to use foot/endnotes. Please bear in mind that your professor will be happy to offer additional guidance.

  1. DIRECT QUOTATION - A direct quotation reproduces the original words exactly as they were written.  Direct quotations should be used sparingly, since this paper is your own work -- not a string of quotations from other sources. Use a quotation only when you need to invoke the authority of the original writer, or when the material would be ruined by a summary or paraphrase. REMEMBER: When you use direct quotations you must either enclose the quotation in quotation marks, or, if the quotation is more than a sentence long, indented it into the text, and use a foot/endnote in either case. This is true not only for complete sentences lifted from the work of another, but also for parts of sentences. 
  2. PARAPHRASE - A paraphrase is an attempt to put into your own words the words or ideas of another. Paraphrasing is not indicated by quotation marks or indentation; but such changes must be foot/endnoted. Paraphrasing, like direct quotation, should be used sparingly, since this paper must be written in your own words.  Remember that a paper that is no more than a string of paraphrases is no more acceptable than one that is a string of direct quotations.
  3. IDEAS - The ideas of another scholar may not be appropriated for your own use without being foot/endnoted. This area is admittedly rather hazy. Is anything really original?  But generally speaking, if an idea can be traced to one source, or it is not a concept agreed upon by a great number of writers, foot/endnoting is required. 
  4. FACTS - Students sometimes attempt to foot/endnote every fact used in their papers because the facts being presented constitute information new to them. Instead, the “common knowledge” standard should be applied. If the fact is “common knowledge” – that is, if it is known by most well-educated people – no citation is necessary. Generally speaking, facts found in survey textbooks, or in encyclopedia, or in classroom lectures are “common knowledge.” For example, most well-educated people know that Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Hence a foot/endnote of this fact is unnecessary.
  5. STATISTICS - More often than not statistics should be foot/endnoted because few well-educated people carry in their minds the details about the GNPs of the world’s countries, the  number of troops sent into a battle, the percentages of men supporting women’s suffrage during the suffragist movement, etc.
  6. MANAGING DIRECT QUOTATIONS -  If you are an upper-level history student or a particularly ambitious first-year student, you may want to apply the following when using direct quotations in your paper:
    1. ELLIPSIS – three dots . . . (four if at an end of a sentence) to indicate that you have left words out of a direct quotation. Example: This direct quotation from page 97 of Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning is as follows, “The detention of Mau Mau suspects without trial seemed perfectly reasonable to many colonial officials. Most thought Africans and Asians not yet civilized, and therefore not entitled to the rights and obligations that went along with the postwar notions of international citizenship.” But if you only want to use part of it, you may use ellipsis to show that you have left out part of the quotations as follows, “The detention of Mau Mau suspects without trial seemed perfectly reasonable to many colonial officials. Most thought Africans and Asians . . . not entitled to the rights and obligations that went along with the postwar notions of international citizenship.”
    2. BRACKETS – the use of [  ] to show you needed to change a quotation, perhaps to make it correspond in number or tense to what you, yourself, have written. Let us use the example above.  Let us say you are speaking in the present tense about colonial officials in your paper at the point where you want to use this quotation. You would then do as follows, “The detention of Mau Mau suspects without trial seem[s] perfectly reasonable to many colonial officials. Most [think] Africans and Asians not yet civilized, and therefore not entitled to the rights and obligations that went along with the postwar notions of international citizenship.”
    3. SIC – used in parentheses (sic) to show that an error in a direct quotation was made by the author of the quotation, not by you, its copier. Using the same example, let’s pretend that the word “therefore” was spelled incorrectly on page 97 of Imperial Reckoning. You may not correct it when you copy the direct quotation wherein it appears. Instead you use (sic) as follows, “The detention of Mau Mau suspects without trial seemed perfectly reasonable to many colonial officials. Most thought Africans and Asians not yet civilized, and theirfore (sic) not entitled to the rights and obligations that went along with the postwar notions of international citizenship.”

Handout

Examples of proper paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting can be found in this handout developed by the University of Wisconsin's Writing Center.