Using Secondary Sources: Purposes and Conventions

Using Secondary Sources: Purposes and Conventions  

For the student of literature at every level the scholarship and criticism contained in books and articles by those who have made that study their profession can be of immense value. The prime reasons for consulting materials other than the primary text in the study of literature are two:

  1. from the work of scholars one may glean very useful information about such matters as dates of composition or publication, sources and possible influences, the meaning of technical or obsolete words and allusions, details of conventions, traditions, genres, and the like; much of this material is in the realm of fact or near-fact;

  2. from the work of critics one may learn not only about appropriate critical methods, but also discover responses to the text that spur or supplement your own thoughtful and careful responses (but do not substitute for them).

In using both scholarly and critical reference works there are a number of conventions which must be observed; failure to observe these conventions scrupulously is a violation of your own personal, intellectual and academic integrity; willful or careless violation of the conventions is also a violation of the integrity, purposes, and standards of the academic institution of which you are a part. All of these conventions follow from the central principle of intellectual honesty: it is never permissible to make use of the words or ideas of others without making clear and proper acknowledgement of the sources of those words or ideas.

In practice this principle implies that words, phrases, sentences, as well as larger units, quoted from any source must be enclosed in quotation marks and appropriately acknowledged. Paraphrased material, even when loosely paraphrased, must also be acknowledged in a footnote. When an entire paragraph of yours, or a portion of your argument, is based largely on one of your sources, this debt must also be acknowledged (e.g., "In this part of my essay the argument follows closely that of C. L. Barber,Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. pp- 24-30). If your use of such material is in itself to be legitimate, more than mere copying must be involved, and more than paraphrase: fresh evidence of your own for the point made, or the use of that point as a basis for a further argument of your own would both constitute legitimate usages. From time to time you may wish to quote someone simply because the point has been very well put--do so, but remember that another's eloquence cannot substitute for your own analyses and conclusions.