References for College Papers

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and AppliedSciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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General Principles for References

How to let Professors know you are not Familiar with College Writing

How to let your Professors Know you are Familiar with College Writing

The Following are Usually NOT Acceptable References

Why? For the most part, they are not original sources. So why do we have encyclopedias and textbooks? To provide an overview or introduction to a topic for complete beginners. These are meant to get you started on a subject; they are not research documents. If you want to document a point in a textbook or encyclopedia article, locate the original source for the idea. Start with the sources cited by the textbook or encyclopedia. I have written tons of encyclopedia articles, and I strive to do the most accurate job possible, but I know the limitations of encyclopedias from all angles.

But won't that take a lot of time? Yes. That's why you start work on research papers as soon as they are assigned.

I can't use the Internet? Not the way most people do. Most of what is on the Internet is the electronic equivalent of the other print sources listed and therefore not acceptable as a college reference. Also it's unregulated and there is no quality control. You can only use the Internet if it's the equivalent of other acceptable sources.


If the medium itself is the subject of your paper: for example, how textbooks have treated gender roles over time, or how dictionaries have defined controversial terms, or how popular magazines have treated AIDS. If your subject is children's literature, The Cat in the Hat might be an acceptable reference.

If the topic is a fast-moving one where most of the information has flowed through the news media, newspapers may be acceptable. However, for subjects like AIDS, Comet Hale-Bopp, or the Space Shuttle, where the quantity of published information is huge, newspapers are not acceptable.


Many instructors forbid reference to Wikipedia at all. This surprises me, because I didn't think many professors allowed encyclopedia citations, period. Don't do it even if permitted, as a general rule. Just like you can drive 65 miles an hour in a dense fog, but it's not a good idea. Wikipedia suffers from the problem that it is not a primary source and has very weak quality control. More recently it's suffered from the problem of deliberate sabotage, vandalism, and censorship. It's generally reliable for checking routine facts and extremely specialized topics, and it's often the only source on popular culture. But don't use it if you're not familiar enough with the subject matter to spot biases or errors.

The Following MAY be Acceptable References

News media are acceptable only if the story is so fast-moving or so recent that there are no scholarly publications on the subject, or if you are researching a news story that has not yet been reported in other forms. Bottom line: use the media only if there is no other source.

Serious popular magazines occasionally have articles by authorities, interviews (even Playboy can be an acceptable source at times; President Jimmy Carter got into political hot water over an interview there), or summaries of current topics of interest. Acceptability depends on how reputable the authors are and how thoroughly the publication checks its facts.

Government publications are acceptable if they are research or technical publications, but generally not if they are popular brochures or pamphlets.

The Following ARE Acceptable References

Most of the information in academia does not flow through books! The real information flow is through periodicals. Even here, acceptability varies. Scientific American is acceptable for most college research papers, but not for a graduate thesis.

Scholarly books serve several purposes:

Locating Sources

I like to use what I term the "snowball" approach

About the Internet

In its present state of development, the Internet is dominated by these sorts of materials:

None of these are acceptable references for college writing.

Academic uses of the Internet include:

You will not find certain classes of works on the Internet:

Bottom line: right now the Internet is dominated by the popular and trivial, or the advanced and specialized. If you want a good summary of plate tectonics or the Thirty Years War you can still find it faster in a good encyclopedia.

Internet Searches

Nobody cares how you find references. You can hunt in the library, ask other people, or use a dowsing rod, Tarot cards or a Ouija board. So searching on the Internet is perfectly okay - even if your assignment forbids the use of Internet sources. You will still have to use acceptable sources, but nobody cares how you find them. Only if your assignment forbids Internet searches - rare, but it might happen - are you barred.

Post-Web babies have no idea how tedious searching was before on-line bibliographies came along. I know this sounds like "walking ten miles through the snow to school," but it's true.

However, when you do a search on, say, Google, the address that comes up will be a long string of gobbledygook. That is not a correct Internet citation! That's a temporary search identifier created by Google and no two people will get that address. Also you have no guarantee that anyone who uses it will get through. You will have to obtain the actual URL of the site you're referring to and cite that. For example, I found a link to this page using <> but the correct URL is <>.

Shallow and Deep Linking

Nothing infuriates me more than to do a search, be directed to a page, only to find that the actual page I'm looking for is in an archive or several levels deeper. On the other hand, pages that link to a specific image rather than to a page that contains it are said to be "deep linked." That's considered a breach of Internet courtesy and can be a problem because it might tie up access to the page. So if you refer to a source, refer to the entire page, but also refer to the exact page, not to a home page that may contain the information on Tuesday but not Thursday.

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Created 1 May 1997;  Last Update 31 May 2020

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