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CSU Global Writing Center: Critical Thinking and Source Usage

Critical Thinking and Source Usage


In this section, you’ll find resources on how to critically read, evaluate, and engage with academic texts. You’ll also find resources on using source material as evidence in order to formulate an argument.

Read


 

Steps to read original research

Reading a scholarly journal article does not need to be daunting. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Read the Abstract and skim the Introduction (look specifically for the thesis statement) and Conclusion or Discussion section. These sections should tell you what the authors intended to prove, quickly how they went about it and what happened with the particular study.
  2. Read the Methods and Results section. These are likely the most complex parts of the article. But, these sections will detail the author(s) methodology and the results of their research.
  3. Re-read and take notes. As you are reading, try to answer the follow questions about the article:
    • How does this research fit into what is previously known? How is this research unique?
    • How was the study designed?
    • How is this study relevant?
    • Who does the author represent and how was the study funded?

Evaluate


Primary Analysis

Evaluating sources of information is an important step before using them for research. When trying to decide if a source is sufficient for your topic, consider the author, accuracy, and publication date in an initial evaluation. Questions to ask yourself include:​

  • Author: Who is the author or sponsoring agency responsible for publishing this info? Are credentials evident?
  • Has the author produced other information valued in the field of study?
  • Accuracy: Is background information easy to look up? Does the author cite sources? Are facts clearly indicated?
  • Publication Date: When was the information published, and how time sensitive is the topic? Is it updated regularly?

Even if you have found credible information, you must still do a secondary, or critical, analysis to make sure the information will fit into the context of your project.

Critical Analysis

When trying to decide if a source is sufficient for your topic, consider the type of authority needed for your project. Also, consider the audience or purpose of the source as well as relevance to your specific research project.​

  • Audience/Purpose: Who is the intended audience? Does the writing only share opinion or does it point to evidence?
  • Relevance: Is anything being sold, or do you feel as if the writing is attempting to persuade you?
  • Relevance: How directly does this information match my research or question(s)?
  • Relevance: How well does this resource complement other sources I have found?
  • Authority: How authoritative do my sources need to be?
  • Authority: Do I need scholarly information or peer reviewed information? Differentiate periodicals here.

Source Usage:


Using Evidence to develop an argument

When developing an argument, it’s important to think about how your thesis statement is supported by claims and evidence. A thesis statement is a short statement that introduces the argument of your paper as a whole. A claim is a debatable assertion or position that requires support. Claims build off one another in order to develop an argument over the course of an essay. Generally, every paragraph in your paper should begin with a claim, and each claim should be supported by evidence, the proof that validates your claim.

Evidence is generally factual and inarguable information that can be used to support and develop an argument. Typically, the type and scope of your argument will dictate which evidence you should use. The most commonly used types of evidence are outlined below:

  • Existing peer-reviewed scholarship (paraphrased or quoted)
  • Common knowledge in the field
  • Documentary evidence (evidence obtained from documents)
  • Anecdotal or testimonial evidence (someone’s personal experience or testimony)
  • Texts or artifacts being analyzed, evaluated, or critiqued
  • Demonstrative evidence (video, audio, photographs, etc.)
  • Original research (quantitative or qualitative data the writer collected/found)

Summary

What is a summary?

A summary is a brief, general restatement of a text’s central argument and main supporting points.

When should I summarize a source, as opposed to paraphrasing or quoting it?

Typically, you summarize a text to provide your reader with a holistic understanding of a source. Summary is often important to include in certain types of writing that grapple with one source or text throughout, like a literary analysis or a book review. Therefore, it can be helpful to include a summary at the beginning of your essay to provide your reader with important context and background information.

What do I summarize?

Usually, summary is reserved for capturing an extensive amount of source material. You can summarize several pages, chapters, or an entire text, depending on how much of the source material you want your reader to understand.

How do I summarize a source?

To summarize well, you need to have read a large portion of the source material so that you can explain it generally enough in your paper. When reading, it’s important to identify the source’s central argument by locating the thesis statement. Thesis statements typically appear towards the end of an introductory paragraph, section, or chapter, depending on the length of the text.

Next, you can identify supporting points in important paragraphs, sections, or chapters. Look for topic sentences to get a stronger understanding of the larger, more significant ideas to include in your summary. If it’s helpful to your reader, you can also describe the organization or structure of the source and incorporate any key examples or pieces of evidence.

How long should a summary be?

A summary is typically much shorter than the original source. For instance, you could compose a paragraph or a page of summary for several pages or chapters of a source, or even the source in its entirety. Keep in mind that a summary should be short and proportional to the rest of your essay. If your summary is too short, your reader might not have enough information to understand the source within the context of your essay. On the other hand, if you include too much information, your summary might be too lengthy and detailed, and there might not be enough space left in your essay to sufficiently analyze, evaluate, or critique the source.

Paraphrase

Note: This section covers the basics of using paraphrase as evidence in your essay. For more detailed information on how to paraphrase, please see our “Paraphrasing” handout.

When should I paraphrase a source, as opposed to summarizing or quoting it?

Generally, you paraphrase source material when you need to do the following:

  • Show that you understand complex ideas well enough to rephrase them in your own words.
  • Synthesize multiple perspectives and ideas concisely.
  • Restate ideas that you want to thoughtfully and critically engage with.
  • Create a seamless transition between your voice and someone else’s.

Oftentimes, paraphrased source material serves as evidence within a body paragraph of your essay. While evidence can serve multiple functions in a paragraph, paraphrased information is most often used to support a claim in your essay or to illustrate a point.

What should I paraphrase?

Generally, you should paraphrase a specific section of source material that is relevant to your argument and that you want the reader to understand well. In other words, a text in its entirety might not be relevant to your paper, but maybe the author addresses your topic tangentially. If you want to use the relevant parts of a text but not the entire thing, then select a few sentences or a paragraph to paraphrase for your essay.

When paraphrasing, you should focus on accurately representing the following things:

  • The author’s claim (which should be relevant to your own topic or argument).
  • The evidence used to support the claim.
  • The author’s interpretation of the evidence and how it supports the claim.

Direct Quotation

When should I quote a source, as opposed to summarizing or paraphrasing it?

Direct quotation is rarely used in academic writing, especially in APA style, because your essay should focus on your own ideas and writing, not the words of other authors. There are exceptions to this, depending on the field you are writing for. In the humanities, scholars often critically engage with individual texts, so direct quotation is more acceptable in disciplines like art history, literature, philosophy, etc.

Outside of the humanities, paraphrasing is generally preferred over direct quotation because paraphrasing requires you to understand source material well enough to put it into your own words. Avoid direct quotation with the exception of the following circumstances:

  • The material is particularly striking or unique, and you want to preserve the author’s credibility and/or tone.
  • You need to provide a definition of a term or phrase that is complex or unfamiliar to the reader.
  • You will conduct a close reading of the source material.

If you do need to include a direct quotation in your writing, keep the length of the quotation to a minimum. You can quote specific words, phrases, or even sentences, but try to avoid using block quotations, which are 40 words or longer.

Paraphrasing


Paraphrasing is a precise restatement of a short passage of text into your own words and writing style. Even though paraphrased material should be written in your own words, it must always be cited to indicate that the ideas are from an outside source. Therefore, it is important to accurately represent the source’s meaning, logic, and intent. When writing in APA style, paraphrasing is preferred over direct quotation—especially at the graduate level—because it requires you to demonstrate comprehension of source material. This handout provides an overview of the following topics: 1.) reading and engaging with source material prior to paraphrasing, 2.) presenting source material in your own writing style, and 3.) evaluating the originality of your paraphrase.

Before Paraphrasing: Engaging with Source Material

Choose a section of the text that you want to paraphrase.

Start by selecting an appropriate amount of source material to paraphrase. It’s difficult to paraphrase a single sentence, but if you select too much of the original source, it will be challenging to prioritize the most important ideas. Aim for a few sentences at least and a couple paragraphs at most.

Reread the section you want to paraphrase.

To paraphrase effectively, you need to know and understand the source material well enough to put it in your own words. Before you begin paraphrasing, re-read the source material you’ve chosen several times. Be sure to look up words that you don’t know. Identify the context for the source: Think about the audience for the text and why the author wrote the text.

Select the ideas that are most relevant to the purpose of your essay.

Break the source material down into a few key ideas. Create a list where each bullet point is an idea from the text. Decide which ideas are most relevant to your paper, and omit information that is repetitive or outside the scope of your paper. Only include what you really need in your paraphrase. Remember that you’ll need to justify the significance of each idea when you analyze the source material to show how it develops your argument.

Identify the author’s claim and evidence.

Because academic writing is centered on making and supporting arguments, it’s important to communicate the value of a source through the lens of argument. Readers will assume that any source material you include serves a purpose in relation to your central argument. When deciding to use outside research, think about the role that research will play in your paragraph and in your paper as a whole:

  • Will the source material back up your claim?
  • Will it provide context or nuance to your claim?
  • Will it function as a counterargument?

The role of source material in your paragraph and in your paper as a whole should influence the way you present the information. Regardless, you need to know the author’s argument and the evidence they use to support that argument before you can use their claim in a sentence.

Drafting: Putting Source Material in Your Own Words

When you’re ready to start drafting the paraphrase, put the source away. After a few minutes, start rewriting the information from memory; this is a helpful strategy for distancing yourself from the source. Once you’ve written a draft of your paraphrase, return to your list of key ideas from the source material. If you included each idea, then you’re in a good spot. If not, then try to incorporate the missing ideas into your paraphrase. Once your draft includes all the ideas you need, you can focus on differentiating your paraphrase from the author’s words.

Identify key features of the author’s writing style.

To paraphrase effectively, you need to be familiar with the author’s writing style. Pay attention to features like:

  • Syntax (sentence structure): How much distance is there between the subject and verb? Does the author use active or passive voice? Does the author use a lot of modifiers, like prepositional phrases or adverbs?
  • Concision: Is the author wordy and verbose or direct and concise? Are sentences short or do they tend to take up several lines?
  • Tone: Is the writing style formal, informal, or somewhere in between? What words stand out? How would you describe the author’s tone?
  • Point of view: Does the author use first (I/we), second (you), or third (he/she/they) person?

By pinpointing the unique characteristics of an author’s style, you can identify the ways in which your writing style differs, or you can adapt your writing style to avoid imitating the author.

After Paraphrasing: Evaluating Your Draft for Originality

Once you’ve finished paraphrasing, it’s important to compare your draft to the original source material to make sure it’s not too similar. If you’ve familiarized yourself with the author’s argument, evidence, and writing style and taken steps to distance your paraphrase from the original source, then you probably won’t have many revisions to make.

When comparing your paraphrase to the original, look for places that are too similar. As previously mentioned, it’s okay if you use two to three keywords from the source, but if you notice similarities in phrasing or sentence structure, consider revising your paraphrase. There are also other tools that will help you avoid plagiarism when you paraphrase. Try running your draft through Turnitin to get a similarity score. If you notice a lot of overlap between your draft and the original source, then you should re-examine how you present the author’s ideas.

Sample Paraphrase

To better understand the concepts discussed in this handout, review the following excerpt from Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World and The Rise of the Rest. Then, compare the original source material to the two sample paraphrases.

Original Source Material:

“The traditional mechanisms of international cooperation are relics of another era. The United Nations system represents an outdated configuration of power. The permanent members of the UN Security council are victors of a war that ended sixty years ago. The body does not include Japan or Germany, the world’s second- and third-largest economies at market exchange rates, or India, the world’s largest democracy, or any Latin American or African country. The Security Council exemplifies the antique structure of global governance more broadly. The G-8 does not include China, already the world’s fourth-largest economy, or India and South Korea, the twelfth and thirteenth. By tradition, the IMF is always headed by a European and the World Bank by an American. This ‘tradition,’ like the customs of an old segregated country club, may be charming and amusing to insiders, but to outsiders it is bigoted and outrageous” (Zakaria, 2008, p. 37).

First Draft of Paraphrase:

According to Zakaria (2008), international cooperation requires modern mechanisms that are willing to incorporate non-western nations with global influence. Existing institutions privilege western powers, like European nations and the United States. Countries like Japan, India, China, and South Korea, which have robust economies, would be obvious candidates for involvement, yet their influence has not yet been acknowledged in the form of inclusion in the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank. It is also worth mentioning that the aforementioned institutions fail to include any African or Latin American countries. While traditional world powers might see their leadership in these institutions as unquestionable, rising powers view continued western leadership as a continuation of the status quo (Zakaria, 2008, p. 37).

Second Draft of Paraphrase:

According to Zakaria (2008), international cooperation requires modern institutions that incorporate industrialized nations with global influence. The United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank privilege western powers, like European nations and the United States. As a result, the influence of other industrialized nations, like Japan, India, China, and South Korea, has not yet translated to inclusion in these intergovernmental organizations. Latin American and African powers are also overlooked. While western world powers might see their control over these institutions as conventional, excluded world powers view continued western leadership as a bigoted preservation of the status quo (Zakaria, 2008, p. 37).