Papers Should Be About the Content, Not the Works Cited Page


This November marks the first anniversary of when I officially declared myself a history major. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of talking to me, you know I have trouble shutting up about it. I’m a little obsessed with the Tudors, I can tell you more than you’d like to hear about torture in 15th century Italy and I can provide you with plenty of random facts about the Dutch beginnings of New Amsterdam.

I could probably write a pretty decent paper on all the information I’ve gleaned over the years in one good all-nighter, but one thing would hold me back from greatness: citations. I understand the need to prevent plagiarism, and if you’re going to write a 15-page paper the night before (I, of course, have no experience doing so), some kids might kid get a little tempted to copy and paste information from elsewhere.

However, not every student is out to cheat their way through their college career. I know I work best at the last minute. That sense of panic that kicks in as I realize I’m officially in over my head somehow clears my mind and makes the writing process relatively quick and easy. I’ve not time to teeter-totter between ideas—I just have to go for it at that point.

At times, though, this genius process of mine is sufficiently stymied by citations. I’ve combed through the books. I’ve paid attention in class. And when it comes to writing the paper, my memory is suddenly fuzzy as to what quote appeared on which page in which of the dozens of books I read.

My great idea suddenly falls flat when I realize I have no way to cite its origins. So what do I do? I instead open at random one of the many books and hope I find something worth quoting. I lose sight of my idea for the sake of following protocol.

Then when I’ve decided I know which sources will help my point the best, I hesitate again as I realize my teacher wanted a specific sort of citation. In high school, my teachers drilled Modern Language Association (MLA) format into my mind so much that I brought two versions of the style book to college. No one was ever going to accuse me of incorrectly inserting a period or comma in my bibliography, and my capitalization skills would be perfect.

Last semester, though, one of my professors had a penchant for Associated Press (AP) style.  All my MLA skills were suddenly for naught, and instead of spending the majority of my time fine-tuning my ideas, I found myself googling the AP Stylebook and getting more caught up in the format of my footnotes than the worthiness of the information they contained.

Then, just when I decided I could deal with AP style, I sat down to write a paper a few weeks ago, and to my horror I noticed the teacher explicitly stated he would not even read a paper unless it was written in the Chicago style. I stared at the words “Chicago style” for a good five minutes and then texted my friend in a panic. I’ve never had to write anything in Chicago style.  My friend and I agreed the changes were minute, but I couldn’t help looking up the proper citation technique every five seconds for fear of being accused of plagiarizing.

This fear of accidentally plagiarizing another historian’s work has often made for some subpar research papers on my part. Instead of running with my ideas, I often hold back, thinking I will too heavily rely on one writer’s point of view and be accused of stealing their theories altogether.

Then there are all the requirements for those items being cited. How many books, how many quotes, how many primary sources—after a while, I’m less concerned with the substance of the sources and more concerned with how they’ll look in my bibliography. Even if one source hardly offers anything insightful, I will include it in my paper just to satisfy the teacher.

I understand some students may get carried away with one source so teachers try to prevent too much reliance on one book in the name of variety, but sometimes, you just can’t deny the usefulness of one particular author. If he or she inspires the best ideas, why should a student be afraid to reference their work?

Students shouldn’t get to run away with the content of their papers, writing whatever they want without giving credit where it’s due, but when papers are hurt because a student is more paranoid about plagiarism or more concerned with a professor’s particular citation fetish, maybe teachers should rethink their citing requirements. Otherwise, they’re simply squashing insight and reducing students’ observations to page numbers and publication dates.