Posted on


Booth, WC, Colomb, GG & Williams, JM 2008. ‘Engaging Sources’ [in] The Craft of Research. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 84-101.

Rather long summary of the text (notes to use for submission of critical reading).

“To make your research as reliable as you expect your sources to be, you must use them fairly and accurately.” (p. 84)

This text explains how to:
• engage your sources productively (use a sources as accurately, critically and fairly as possible).
• take notes so that readers can trust you when you rely on a critique or source

Key points:
• The way you use your research depends on where you stand in your search for a solution. For example, if you have only gone as far as choosing a topic, you will have read a number of sources which raised a multitude of questions to pursue.
• On the other hand, if you already have a question, you can search for sources to test and/or support your answer (this must be recorded so that you can accurately report not only the data and its arguments but also your own responses).

• Problem no.1: human nature. Firstly, we tend to embrace the ‘first’ answer wholeheartedly and do not read as critically as would be ideal. Quite easily, we spot data which matches our own claims, while often bypassing data which contradicts it.
• This isn’t deliberate, it’s just human nature… but it proves difficult, especially when your sources agree with you.
• Problem no. 2: When we read simply to understand, we feel that taking notes is a chore. This may lead to dodgy shorthand (consequences to be felt at a later date) – e.g. Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and TV pundit, accused of plagiarism, caused by careless note-taking.
• Notes need be to taken carefully.

1. Knowing what kind of evidence to look for: (p.85)
“Different fields use different kinds of evidence, so before you start collecting data, you must know the particular kinds of evidence your readers expect.”

– personal beliefs and anecdotes form writers’ lives.
– direct quotations from letters, diaries, books, poems.
– verbal accounts of objects, images, events.
– records of objects and events in photography, drawings, recordings.
– quantitative data gathered in laboratory experiements and surveys presented in graphs, charts, tables, etc.

Evidence used is dependent on the research field. For example, literary critics do not expect bar charts. Likewise, psychologists may be weary of self-reported anecdotes.

2. Record complete biographical data: (p. 85 – 86)
“Before you read one page of a source, record all its biographical data, not only to record what you read, but to credit your sources and help readers find them, should they want to check for themselves.”

(The text assures that this is one habit to hold onto.)

• For printed books, record:
– author, title (including subtitle), editor(s), translator(s), edition, volume, place published (the first if more than one is listed), publisher, date published, page numbers of articles or chapter consulted.
• For journals, record:
– author, title (including subtitle), title of journal, volume and issue number, date, page numbers of article.
• For online sources, record as much of this as applicable:
– URL, date of access, Webmaster (if identified), name of database (if any).

Note: If you access a printed text online (i.e. e-book), cite biographical data from the original printing as well as the source of your online access.

• If you photocopy a passage from a book, copy its title page and from its reverse side copy the date of publication, then record its library call number (not to include in list of sources, but to avoid frustration if needed again).

3. Engaging sources actively: (p. 87-88)
“If you can, read important sources twice. Make your first reading generous and sensitive to what sparks your interest. Reread passages that puzzle of confuse you. Don’t look for disagreements right away; read in ways that help the source make sense. Otherwise, you’ll be tempted to emphasise its weaknesses if it presents an argument that rivals yours.”

• If the source disagrees with your ideas, reread it again, slowly and critically.
• “If you can’t sum up a passage in your mind, you don’t understand it well enough to disagree.”
• “Don’t accept a claim just because an authority asserts it.”
• Don’t confuse opinion with expert opinion.
• Make sure you check the accuracy of everything important to your argument.

“If you ask almost anyone whose work has been used by others, he will tell you that, as often as not, it was reported inaccurately, summarised carelessly, or criticised ignorantly.”

4. Using secondary sources to find a problem: (p. 88-91)
“Once you have a research problem, use it to guide your search for evidence, models and arguments to respond to. But if you don’t yet have one, you won’t know which data, models or arguments might be relevant. So read sources not randomly but deliberately to find a problem. Look for claims that seem puzzling, inaccurate or simplistic – anything you can disagree with. You’re more likely to find a research problem when you disagree with a source, but you can also find one in sources you agree with.”

• Looking for creative agreement (p. 88-89): If you agree with what a source claims, try to extend that claim. What else might it uncover? What new insights might it provide? Is there evidence the source hasn’t considered? But how do you go from here?

You can offer additional support (new evidence to support the claim), you can confirm unsupported claims (prove something that a source only assumes or speculates about) or apply a claim more widely (extend a position).

• Looking for creative disagreement (p. 89-91):
– Contradictions of kind (a source says something is one kind of things, but it’s another).
e.g. “Smith says that certain religious groups are “cults” because of their strange beliefs, but those beliefs are no different in kind from standard religions.” (p. 90)

– Part-whole contradictions (show how a source mistakes how the parts of something are related).
e.g. “Smith has argued that sports are crucial to an educated person, but in fact athletics have no place in college.” (p. 90)

– Developmental or historical contradictions (show that a source mistakes the origin or development of a topic).
e.g. “Smith argues that the world population will rise, but it won’t.” (p.90)

– External cause-effect contradictions (show that a source mistakes a casual relationship):
e.g. “Smith claims that juveniles can be stopped from becoming criminals ‘boot camps’. But evidence shows that they don’t.” (p.91)

– Contradictions of perspective (most contradictions don’t change a conceptual framework, but when you contradict a ‘standard view of things, you urge others to think in a new way): (p. 91)
e.g. “Smith assumes that advertising has only an economic function, but it also serves as a laboratory for new art forms.”

5. Using secondary sources to plan your argument:
“Experienced researchers read secondary sources mainly to keep up with work in their field, but they use them in other ways as well, and so can you.” (p. 92)

– Reading secondary sources for data to use as evidence
– Reading secondary sources for claims to use as support
– Reading secondary sources for models of argument and analysis
– Reading secondary sources to define your problem
– Reading secondary sources for arguments to respond to

6. Recording what you find:
“Once you find a source you think you can use, you must read it purposefully and carefully. But it does no good to understand your source when you read it if you cannot recall what you understood when you read your notes later.” (p. 95).
• take full notes (careless notes lose the point of careful reading!)
• best notes – taken longhand on cue card..? (Specifications on p. 95 of text).
i.e. record the author, short title of source, page numbers and key words.

(Here, you can differentiate between the following: quotes, paraphrasing, your own thoughts. But also make sure that you clearly distinguish your own ideas in writing.)

• Learn how to quote, paraphrase and summarise!
“It takes too long to transcribe the exact words of every source you read, but it’s a nuisance when you need to quote a passage you only summarised.”

• When taking notes, you need to know when to quote, when to paraphrase, and when to summarise.
– Summarise: when you just need the point of the passage, article or book – context or views.
– Paraphrase: when you can explain what a source says more clearly than a quote can (replace wording with your own!)
– Quotations: when quoted words are evidence to back up your reasons, the words are from an authority who backs up your view, the words are “strikingly original” (p.97) – so compelling that they can frame the rest of your question, if they state a view you disagree with (to be fair, this would be how you state it correctly and accurately.)

• Remember that if you misquote, you undermine your credibility. Do not copy down quotes in shorthand or abbreviations – this doesn’t work well in the long run.

• Get the context right! – “As you use material from your sources, record not just what they say but how they use the information.” (p. 97).
– Even if you only care about a concluding argument, readers will be interested in arguments which came before it. This means that you need to record these supporting arguments.

• When recording a claim – note its importance. Is it a minor claim? A major claim?
– Make sure you distinguish statements which are central to an argument v. those which are made, but downplayed.

• Record the scope and confidence of a claim, i.e. “Chemicals in french fries cause cancer” v. “Chemicals in french fries may be factor in cancer” v. “Some chemicals in french fries correlate with a higher incidence of some cancers.”

• Don’t mistake a summary of another writer’s views for those of an author summarising them. Some writers don’t clearly identify when they’re summarising, so be wary of this (don’t quote them as saying what essentially disproves their argument).

• Note why sources agree and disagree, i.e. who has the better argument, what do they agree on, what do they disagree on?

• If you use a source extensively, check that your understand it fully.

“You may believe in your claim so strongly that you read everything in its favour. Despite our best intentions, the temptation afflicts us all. There is no cure, save for checking and rechecking. And rechecking again.” (p. 99).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s