Step 6: Read and Document Sources
Undertaking comprehensive research takes time. After designing your research strategy (Step 3), choosing sources of information (Step 4) and drafting a preliminary thesis (Step 5), you will now engage both print and online primary and secondary material in detail, critically engaging with your topic and documenting sources along the way.
Carefully Select the Material You Will Read
After you have chosen the books and articles you feel are appropriate for your topic, you need to decide how much of these texts you will actually read. If your assignment requires you to read a book and comment on it, then you must read the whole book. If your topic involves reading a novel or poem, then you must read the entire work. On the other hand, if your assignment is to examine one event or phenomenon, then you may only need to read the one or two chapters of a book that apply specifically to that event.
Because journal articles are substantially shorter than most books, you should always read them in whole. Be aware that it is never acceptable to read only the abstract of an article in place of the whole article. It is preferable to read fewer sources and read them carefully and completely rather than skimming over many sources.
When you have time, reading widely is highly recommended. When you are working towards an assignment deadline, you may need to budget the amount of time you allocate to reading untargeted texts. Skim the texts you chose in Step 4, prioritize which are most important for you to read first, and identify those which are optional.
Read First for Comprehension
You will need to read each text more than once. The first time you read, you should read for a basic understanding:
- Highlight words you are unfamiliar with so you can look them up.
- Make marginal notes or use other signs on the text to draw your attention to important points or questions you may have.
- Skim over the headings and subheadings to get an understanding of how the author has organized his or her ideas.
- As you read sections of the text, make sure that you understand what is written and can summarize or recount the author's point(s).
This first reading should be carefully done, but do not spend too much time trying to understand everything the author may be saying. Texts often offer new insights to the reader each time they are read.
Demonstrate Independent Thinking
The second stage in reading is to read analytically, breaking down the text into its constituent parts and examining them closely.
- Consider the content, the context, and the meaning of the text. To do this, it is helpful to pose critical questions, such as: what is the author's thesis? What points are made to support this thesis? Is evidence provided to support these points? What is this evidence and is it sufficient? What conclusion is reached? Is the conclusion reasonable? Are there any obvious biases or limitations evident? Are there inconsistencies or problems in logic? What is this text's purpose? What audience is the text written for and how do we know this?
- Being analytical requires careful attention to detail and developing the habit of close, analytic reading to uncover exactly what the author is doing in a text. Be aware that the criteria for what counts as knowledge, what is assumed, and what qualifies as evidence vary between disciplines and fields. Apply the standards of the field when you analyse your text, or be prepared to explain your analytic framework.
- Use notes in the margins or elsewhere to record your ideas, your analysis, and any questions your analysis raises.
Read Again for Significance and Evaluation
Consider the text's significance and evaluate it and make a judgment about the text and its message.
- Carefully read the text and identify sections that provide support for your evaluation. Critical questioning can help you make this evaluation: What are the implications of the conclusion reached? Are the argument and/or conclusion significant? Relevant? Timely? Unexpected? Are there various ways the text can be interpreted, for instance, by different audiences? Does the text communicate its content and its message well? How does it do this/fail to do this? Do you like the text – why/why not?
- Use your emotional response to a text as an initial guide to evaluation, but do not mistake this to mean that you can trot out trivial observations, unsubstantiated personal beliefs, or vague feelings to make your judgment.
- Determining significance and evaluating a text are the most personal and idiosyncratic elements of critical reading. It is at this stage that your own opinions, values, and experiences are drawn upon to make sense of a writer's text. Reading for significance, however, requires meaningful engagement with the author's ideas and an honest attempt to respond by contributing to the academic conversation, rather than merely using your analysis to buttress previously held assumptions. Talking with someone (your professor, classmate, friend, tutor) about what you think of a text can help you to identify its compelling elements and to frame or present your own responses and judgment.
- Write down your impressions, thoughts, and concerns about the text. These notes can later be used to inform your first draft.
Critical Reading Summary
The three steps in critical reading are summarized below. For more detailed guidance on critical reading see The Little, Brown Handbook.
- Literal (Comprehension):
- Consider the topic, issue, argument, structure and purpose.
- Strategies include: skimming the text, highlighting or underlining and marginalia.
- Analytical (Analysis):
- Consider the text’s content, context and meaning.
- Strategies include: critical questioning and breaking the text down into parts.
- Interpretive (Evaluation):
- Consider whether the text communicates its content and meaning well, what the text implies, its significance and how it can be read/interpreted.
- Strategies include: synthesizing and judging.
Document Your Sources
The sources you read about your topic need to be documented when you write and the authors must be given credit.
Write the names of authors, complete titles, call numbers and/or URLs, places and dates of publication, relevant page numbers, etc. In short, record all the information necessary to find that same source again; this is also the same information that will appear in your final references or Works Cited list.
Comprehensive research is an ongoing and diffuse process: one source leads to many others, and it is your job to keep following the trail. This means ongoing documentation is very important. Make sure your notes contain key points and include page numbers, so you can go back to clarify information, if necessary. A research strategy (the blueprint), combined with careful note-taking will help you keep track of material, think critically about what you are reading, and apply relevant material in the development and articulation of your own argument.
Become Familiar with Documentation Terminology and Practices
What is a Citation?
A citation is a formal reference to print and/or non-print source material embedded within a scholarly text; citations will refer to both primary and secondary material.
What is Documentation?
Proper academic documentation is comprised of two parts: an in-text (or parenthetical) or foot/end noted citation within the body of the text, plus a bibliographic entry at the end of the text as part of a complete list of all works cited.
Academic documentation methods can take several forms depending upon the disciplinary community, format, and venue in which you are writing. For example, the humanities tend to use the Modern Languages Association (MLA) format while the social sciences use either the American Psychological Association (APA) or Chicago styles. Your instructor will specify the preferred or required form of documentation for your assignment. Consult with your instructor on the proper practices for your assignment.
You will find the most authoritative information on the conventions and current practices of a specific method in the official citation style guides, such as the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (now in its eighth edition) or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (now in its sixth edition). Both these style guides, and others, are available for reference and circulation through the Laurier Library or the Writing Centre's style guide.
- For an introduction to MLA citation in undergraduate papers, consult MLA: How to Use Sources.
- The Writing Centre at the University of Wisconsin also provides an excellent online guide to various documentation styles.
- Take a look at the multiple Laurier Writing Centre handouts on documentation, including “Why We Cite Sources in Academic Papers,” “APA and MLA Documentation Styles,” and “Chicago/Turabian Documentation Style.”
Plagiarism and Academic Integrity
Improper documentation, citation and poor note-taking can lead to problems distinguishing between your own ideas and those that you have read in your source texts, which is a serious problem with serious consequences. Consult Step 8 for detailed explanations on how to integrate sources into your writing to become adept at using others' research to inform your work and to avoid problems associated with plagiarism. For helpful tips, consult the resource, “How Not to Plagiarize” (University of Toronto).