Class Sources & Outside Sources

Whether to use class sources or outside sources depends on the level of the class and the professor’s expectations. Make sure to check with the professor what the expectations are so that you can correctly and fully use all of the resources that are available to you.

  • Class sources: There is a reason that professors assign readings for class! If there is a class reading that has to do with the essay topic, it would be smart to use this information in your essay. In addition, you will have likely discussed the reading in class and will therefore have class notes to draw on for information.
  • Outside sources: These are any sources that are not part of class readings. If the literature of a specific topic seems overwhelming to you and you don’t know where to start, ask your professor. As the expert in this field, the professor can help you find the most relevant source pertaining to your topic.
  • Do not use Internet sources unless they are from a database or a verified website. The Howe Library has a Reference Guide for Political Science. Always be sure to acknowledge the source of information, especially from the Internet, because the source could be biased. Political issues often have a lot of discussion/ information out there about them, and a lot of it contains bias or has a certain agenda. Look at that when deciding whether or not to use a source.

Finding Trustworthy Information

Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.

  • Start looking for information early – when you have an idea of your topic
    • Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
  • Use the library’s available resources – particularly the online databases – rather than Google
    • These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
  • Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
    • Overgeneralizations
    • Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
    • Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
    • Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
    • The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
      • For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations – thus, we should make sure they’re being impartial in their research methods
  • Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
    • Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesn’t leave you feeling unsure –- implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
    • Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
      • This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
    • The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity

Understanding Dense Texts

It’s likely that during your research process you will encounter a dense, difficult-to-read text. A number of the primary sources in political science are from different centuries, translated from other languages, or are written for scholars in the field. Thus, it can sometimes take a little extra effort to understand what the author means. Some tips for understanding these texts include:

  • Reverse outlining: After every paragraph you read (or every section if it’s a long text) take a minute to summarize the main idea in the margins of the text. This way, once you are done reading, you will have a summary of all the main ideas of the text.
  • Discuss the reading with a friend in your class: This is a good way to test your comprehension, and also to fill any gaps in your understanding. If you are able to articulate an idea to someone else, then you know you really understand it. Plus, if there’s something in the text you don’t understand, you and your friend can work it out together.
  • Focus on what you do understand: If a text is rife with words you don’t understand, focus on the words you do understand. That way, you won’t get too overwhelmed, and you can get the general idea of the piece. Then, as you’re reading, you can look up the words that you don’t know.
  • Pay attention to the introduction, conclusion, summaries, and section headers: These are good places to look in order to figure out what the main ideas of the piece are going to be. If you have an idea of the main concepts that the author is conveying, it may help you understand the denser parts of the text.
  • Break the piece into manageable chunks: Only read a little bit at a time in order to maximize your comprehension. If you find that you’re starting to lose focus, take a break, and come back to the reading later.

Prepare Your Citations as You Research

As you are taking notes, keep track of all of the relevant information about the source that you will need to write proper citations and reference entries when you are writing your actual essay. It is much harder to go back to find the information while you are writing your essay if you don’t write it down while researching! You can keep track of your sources in your own notes or you can electronically keep track of your sources with programs like EndNote or Zotero.

In your notes, be very careful to indicate when you have taken the exact words from a source: put quotation marks around those words, even when you’re not quoting an entire passage. Come up with a method for distinguishing between your own words and words taken directly from a source. For example, when you’ve paraphrased or summarized text from a source or are reflecting on a source and how it might prove useful for your paper, put those words in brackets. This will help you avoid accidental plagiarism.

There is no set citation format in political science, so be sure to read the assignment carefully. If the assignment does not say to use a specific citation style, you can either check with your professor or just pick one. If you pick one, be consistent and make sure you cite everything taken from sources. Just because a specific format is not listed does not mean professors don’t want you to cite things. They do. Otherwise, that’s plagiarism. Some common citation styles to use in political science papers are