An Overview of Documentation Systems
Documentation systems are tools by which one participant in an academic discipline, or field of study, acknowledges the work of another. Using one is much more than a professional courtesy: it is a requirement.
This guide covers the reasons for this requirement, the kinds of sources that must be documented, as well as explanations and examples of the different formatting rules governing the five systems most frequently used in the academic and professional world.
Overview: Documentation Systems
Research writing is how an academic community exchanges ideas and shares the results of their work. You may hear this community called a "discourse community". That's because its members belong to a specific discipline, like anthropology, Victorian literature or physics. The ongoing conversation between members of these communities helps further the work of individual contributors.
Publishing is one of the ways in which these communities talk to each other: text-books, articles in professional journals and conference proceedings, for example, are part of the conversation. Collectively, they constitute a library of sources upon which any researcher may draw. To "borrow" from this library, participants in the conversation must document their use of these sources.
Available to meet this requirement are a variety of documentation systems designed to fit the specific needs of different academic disciplines. In the humanities, for instance, the Modern Language Association (MLA) style is preferred, while in the social and natural sciences there is a larger tendency toward the American Psychological Association (APA) style.
There are no hard and fast rules, however. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is often used in both the humanities and the social sciences. In the "hard sciences" preferences run more to the Council of Biology Editors (CBE) style and the Civil Engineering Citation Guide (CEC). Your instructors will advise you on which to use.
Why Sources are Documented
The most obvious reason for documenting your sources is to avoid plagiarism and its consequences. There are other reasons as well, all related to preserving the integrity of academic inquiry, the process involved and the results produced.
Most students are aware of the general definition of plagiarism: intentionally representing another person's ideas, findings, statistics, language, sentence structure, etc. as their own.
There is more to it, however, than handing in a roommate's composition or pulling a paper off the Internet. In fact, many incidences of plagiarism are unintentional and quite often the result of carelessness or simple ignorance regarding academic rules.
Deliberate or not, plagiarism is academic dishonesty. The consequences are significant: failure or expulsion from an academic institution for students; loss of credibility and severely damaged reputations for professionals.
The importance of understanding and avoiding plagiarism cannot be overstated.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
Acknowledging sources is an ironclad rule in the world of academic research. Not only are intellectual property rights at stake, but the simple notion of doing the right thing, as well.
Individuals who have pursued a specific line of inquiry and have made a significant contribution to their field of study deserve recognition; it's their due. More importantly, giving credit eliminates suspicion of having taken credit where credit isn't due.
Keeping "who said what" organized allows for an orderly presentation of ideas. Accurate documentation ensures a tangible background of verifiable sources against which the trustworthiness of someone's findings or conclusions can be measured. It also creates the foundation upon which future inquiry and research can be built.
Building Your Own Credibility
At the core of winning over an audience is the ability to present an argument. Convincing others that your way of thinking is worthy can be very challenging and it will be an uphill battle if you build the foundation of your argument on poorly documented research. At stake is your credibility.
Citing and documenting trustworthy sources in your work will bolster the notion that what you have to say is credible and trustworthy. It will help convince your audience that you know what you talking about, that you are familiar with the historical context of your topic and that your contribution or perspective has value.
It also provides the information needed for others with similar interests to test your findings. Successful duplication of your research serves to strengthen your thesis and validate your conclusions: a desirable result. Improperly documenting your sources will hinder other researchers from achieving this goal.
It's important to draw a clear line between your own ideas and those of others. Citing and documenting your sources draws that line. It also describes the contextual framework, or "context", in which you wish your ideas, arguments and observations to be viewed; the larger conversation in which it should be placed.
When there are multiple sources and varying viewpoints in a discourse community's conversation, the contextual frame assigns intellectual and academic responsibility to the contributing authors. This is particularly important when forming an opposing argument or attempting to disprove the conclusions of someone else.
Proper documentation separates the various points-of-view in the source material and helps the reader see the path you followed in developing arguments that support your conclusions.
What Sources are Documented
Generally, all published or copyrighted information must be documented. This means anything summarized, paraphrased, or quoted. The same goes as well for any unpublished material. If it's not yours you have to say so: You have to give credit where credit is due.
Here are some types of information that should always be documented:
- Facts not widely known or debatable, especially if their veracity can be challenged in any way.
- Hard evidence such as statistics, graphs, charts, diagrams, or figures unless they are products of your own field research.
- Opinions, claims or assertions that illustrate a point that may be perceived as questionable or controversial.
- Unique Phrasing and Terminology that does not fit your writing style, personal voice or level of academic experience.
The types of information that need not be documented include:
- Information largely considered general knowledge.
- Information that can be found in encyclopedias, dictionaries or any of a variety of other sources.
- Information derived from personal experience, observations, or field research.
If you have any difficulty determining whether a piece of information needs to be documented, ask yourself this: Did you possess the information in question before you began your research project or after? You must cite and document information learned about in the course of your work. When in doubt, you should do the same. An ounce of prevention never hurts.
How Sources are Documented
Conventions for documenting source material differ slightly from style to style; however, both in-text citation and end documentation are universal requirements.
They are used in conjunction with each other: First, the in-text citation flags the reader's attention identifying the source material and second, the end documentation catalogues the bibliographic information flagged by the in-text citation.
Note: The Chicago Manual of Style points out an exception: when only a handful of sources are used, footnotes may replace end documentation.
There are various types of in-text citation methods. The Chicago Manual of Style uses superscript numbers inserted into the text at the citation point. These numbers direct readers to corresponding footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes found at the end of a document. The Council of Biology Editors (CBE) uses superscript numbers also, but they direct reader to corresponding entries found only in a References List at the end.
By far, the most common method is parenthetical. Used by most style sheets, this system relies on parenthetical notes inserted at the point of citation. In the case of the American Psychological Association (APA), The Chicago Manual, and CSE styles, the parenthetic note contains an author name and publication date. The Modern Language Association (MLA) style places page numbers inside the parenthesis as well, indicating where the cited material can be found.
Each parenthetical note refers to a bibliographic entry in the end documentation, known as a Works Cited or References List. Most writers and readers prefer the efficiency of this system since interruption to the flow of text is minimal and less distracting.
The Works Cited or References List is a bibliographic compilation of the specific sources cited within an academic paper or book and is located at the end of a document on pages that are separate from the rest. Though there are similarities, each documentation system handles formatting a little differently.
Regardless, end documentation accomplishes two things: First, it offers reading suggestions to those interested in your research, especially those who wish to replicate your work. Second, it provides the writer with a tool for assessing his or her research.
Once a Works Cited or References List is compiled it is much easier to consider the following questions:
- How comprehensive is my research? What have I omitted?
- Are there other sources that would lend further credibility to my position?
- Will my audience expect me to have reviewed more source material?
In-text citation and end documentation are two sides of the same coin. They function together. One without the other makes little sense.
Connor, Peter, Donna LeCourt, & Laurel Nesbitt. (2009). Documentation Systems: An Overview. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=14