Using sources

Using the work of others in your assignments is a required practice in the academic community. It shows your marker that you have found and read relevant literature, understood the contributions of others to scholarly debates, and most importantly, critically applied this knowledge to developing and supporting your own ideas.

Incorporating others' ideas and research into your work strengthens your analysis and argument. Much of the evidence for your assignments comes from peer-reviewed literature, so it is important to critically read this literature with your assignment question in mind, and take notes to gather relevant information.

There are four main ways to use information from written or spoken sources in your paper: in a summary, paraphrase, synthesis or quotation. Whichever way you use the information, you will need to provide a citation each time you use a source. 


As you identify and take notes on relevant sources for your assignment question, aim to write concise summaries from your notes. A summary is a succinct overview of a source, which distils the key ideas of the author's argument. Your summary is an important test of your understanding of the source. Furthermore, the process of writing summaries will help you to think about the relevance of the source for your task. Indeed, good summaries also demonstrate your critical engagement with an author's argument and ideas, which you show through your choice to highlight relevant aspects of the source.


When you need to provide specific evidence of the author's argument or findings or discuss their ideas at length, paraphrase a sentence or two, or a short section from their study. Paraphrasing is an important skill that demonstrates your ability to articulate an author's idea or piece of evidence in your own words and, in turn, your understanding of the content.

Paraphrasing and summarising both involve rewriting someone else's ideas in your own words. However, paraphrasing is harder to do properly than summarising as you are closely following the ideas of a source. To ensure that you paraphrase appropriately and with integrity, it is vital to change both the sentence structure and wording of the original source, and to paraphrase from your notes.


Synthesising is a higher order skill valued across all disciplines as it requires you to select, analyse and relate sources in critical and insightful ways. As you will be drawing on multiple sources from your research, it helps to group the sources based on their similarities (shared ideas) and differences (contrasting ideas), rather than simply summarising one source at a time. Doing so allows you to identify key themes or issues, and work out a logical and coherent structure for your discussion of the sources.

Synthesising provides evidence of your wide and critical reading, and understanding of where the sources fit in relation to each other. The relationships that you choose to highlight will depend on your overall argument. If you identify areas of consensus and/or contention in the literature, it is important to ask yourself what accounts for these. The more relevant sources you can use and cite in support of your points, the stronger your arguments will be. It is worth remembering that the sources you are drawing on are themselves almost always the product of synthesis.


Quoting directly from a source is another legitimate way to provide specific evidence from a source. When quoting, you are copying someone else's words verbatim - that is, using exactly the same words as in the original source - and using quotation marks to indicate this as well as providing a reference. Whenever you use a direct quotation, it is also important that you recreate the exact spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, and font style (e.g. any use of italics, bolding, or underlining). If you need to make changes to the wording of a quotation, there are conventions to be followed to show that you have made changes. 

It is generally better to rephrase or summarise the idea into your own words as this better displays your critical engagement. However, in some disciplines, academics regularly use quotations in their written work. In other disciplines, quotations are used sparingly or not at all.

Quotes are most effective when they are utilised sparingly to draw attention to an author's definition of a key term, when you wish to critically evaluate the meanings attached to specific words or phrases, and/or to demonstrate the essence of their argument. Quotes are also instrumental in analysing primary source material, such as a literary text or historical document. In all cases, the quote should never be allowed to speak for itself. As a writer, you should surround the quote with your own words, demonstrating your understanding of what the quote means and its relevance to your argument.