On the use and risk of quotes and references in academic writing. Two rules.

Posted: February 22, 2017 in Academic Writing, Communications, Writing

“Man only lives to make his own life and those of his fellow citizens better. To advance faster and more effectively, we look at what others have done before us: We study.”

This is something Georg-Christoph Lichtenberg once said. He then went on to criticize those who read just to know what others said before them. When we read for writing, we should keep it in mind.

Be plausible, not exhaustive

This is more true for a Master thesis than a Doctoral one, but usually students are scared to death that they could forget an important reference. We imagine that the day the day of our defense someone might say: “I saw that you did not quote this tremendously important reference”. Here’s what my thesis director, Jacqueline Lichtenstein said when I brought this up one year before she retired: “This will happen anyway. But it’s not a problem. If you really haven’t read it you say “Thank you very much, I’ll definitely take it into account for my publication.” If you made an informed choice not to include it, then explain why. What’s important is that you construct your own argument, that it is believable as it stands, not that you have read everybody who had the same opinion. As Karl Kraus said: “The thought is not to the person who had it first, but to the person who has it better.” But don’t quote this in your thesis defense. I’m afraid you might come across as slightly arrogant.

Build your own building

There’s an image that helped me. It’s to consider a thesis like a building. We get some of the stones from a stone quarry and carve them. But some stones we’ll take out of other people’s buildings. These are ideas you refer to or passages you quote from other writer’s articles or books. While we need these stones, their role is to make our own building more sturdy and beautiful. To to so, we’ll need to have to work on the stones we take so they fit into our own construction.

The more elements we take out of the other’s building, the more foreign they will appear in our. Each imported stone certainly had a place in the author’s building, but – if they and their buildings are not the topic of our thesis – this place counts little for us. What counts is our own building. So we have to make sure you only take those stones that fit our construction and don’t take more.

This may seem plausible, but when we read a text there is a risk to get dragged into the authors thinking process and to feel we have to take it all. We don’t. Quite the opposite. If there are too many foreign elements, our readers will lose track of what we are getting at. It will also make us look more insecure and unoriginal.

There is a second reason, why you might want to “recontextualize” the ideas you take from others: ethics. You sure shouldn’t misrepresent their thoughts. This is right. You shouldn’t. But stick to the minimum. Don’t cut a quote so it means something different than it meant in the original context.  Don’t consciously misinterpret when you paraphrase. For the rest, think of your own construction first. As long as the general idea of your own thesis is not directly opposed to theirs there’s no reason for blame. Of course, it is even more important to be careful when you quote people in order to criticize them than when the quote is used as a piece of your own argument

N. B. As I was into the last years of my thesis, I realized that many of the most important things about writing are only said when you dig deep. So I thought I’d make them public for others who struggle with their thesis. This is my second post on academic writing. The first was on how to choose a topic for your thesis.

 

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  1. […] On the use and risk of quotes and references in academic writing. Two rules. […]

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