On Citation and the Research Paper

Like its cousin the five-paragraph essay, the research paper [1] shares a serious flaw: they are both artificial forms found mostly in formal schooling (and primarily in K-12) that teach more about compliance than about writing.

A related problem with the middle and high school research paper assignment is “teaching MLA.” Last fall, after several weeks of investigating how my first-year students had been taught to write and cite, one student fumed uncontrollably in class that her high school teacher had demanded they learn MLA “because everyone uses MLA in college.”

If, then, we begin to view the teaching of writing throughout K-12, into undergraduate and graduate school, and then into the so-called real world, we as teachers of writing must embrace more authentic concepts of writing as well as citation—while also providing students with writing experiences that prepare them for both disciplinary writing throughout college and any writing as scholars or writers they may choose beyond their formal schooling.

Therefore, just as we must set aside the five-paragraph essay (a false template that does not translate into authentic forms or inspire students to write), we must stop assigning the research paper and demanding that students memorize MLA citation format.

Instead, students need numerous experiences as writers over years in which they investigate how writers write in many different situations and for many different purposes (including academic and scholarly writing that is discipline-specific). And as teachers, we should focus on authentic forms as well as on the concepts that guide writing.

Consider the following guiding concerns for the shift:

  • Just as teachers too often teach writing modes (narration, persuasion, description, exposition) as if they are types of essays (they are not), to suggest that anyone writes “research papers” is flipping the role of research. For example, in my first-year writing seminar I assign four essays and then require that one includes both a formal style for citation (APA) and a sophisticated used of a wide range of high-quality sources (a requirement of all our first-year writing seminars). However, my students discover after submitting and conferencing with me about their essays that as they rewrite, sources and citation become essential to virtually all their writing. To write well and credibly, then, is to study, to research; and to be a credible and ethical writer is to give proper credit to the sources of new-found knowledge.
  • “Research” also becomes jumbled in how “research papers” are traditionally taught. Students need to gain a better and more nuanced understanding of what original research is as compared to young and established scholars seeking out and then both studying and synthesizing other people’s work (research). Conducting an original study and then writing about that process and findings is a quite different and important thing versus generating a literature review and/or seeking out substantial evidence to give an essay greater credibility in the academic/scholarly world.
  • Citation and its evil twin plagiarism are also greatly cheated by focusing on students acquiring a specific citation format. Students must understand powerful and complex aspects of finding, evaluating, and then incorporating other people’s ideas and works into their own original writing. Citation, however, like essay writing, is discipline- and context-specific. For example, before I ask first-year students to write an essay using a scholarly citation format, I have them write an online piece (modeled on blog posts or online journalism) that depends on hyperlinks for citations. This process forces students to step back from MLA and consider the ethics of citation—finding and using only credible sources, thinking about the aesthetics of citation (how many words and where to place the hyperlink), and investigating how the threshold for proper citation and plagiarism shifts for different disciplines and different types of essays writing (journalism versus high school literary essays using MLA, for example).
  • Even more broadly, students must be exposed to the big picture reality that writing is an ethical endeavor—and the parameters of what is or is not ethical shifts subtly as writers navigate different writing environments and purposes.

When and how students incorporate primary and secondary sources into their own original essays must be a continual experiment contextualized by the students’ purposes. Therefore, citation and citation styles must be within the teaching of disciplinary conventions.

An early and important lesson for students is that multiple formal citation styles exist because of legitimate demands of the disciplines—not because teachers have rules and enjoy torturing students.

Early in my first-year seminar, we discuss the differences in English and history when compared to the social and hard sciences as disciplines.

Literary and historical analysis are often grounded in individual text analysis; therefore, quoting is often necessary in that analysis. But the social and hard sciences tend to incorporate original research, requiring students and scholars to represent accurately a body of research (not one study); thus, writing in those disciplines typically shun quoting and expect synthesis (not rote paraphrasing of individual studies, but accurate representations of patterns found in the body of research).

Literary and historical writing forefronts titles of works and recognizable names of those producing written artifacts; but the social and hard sciences are more concerned with findings and conclusions along with the when of those students so parenthetical dates and footnote/endnotes support highlighting what matters in those disciplines.

As a consequence of disciplinary needs—the purposes of writing—many in the humanities embrace MLA or Chicago Manual of Style while the social sciences may prefer APA or a variety of footnote/endnote formats.

Further, students must be introduced to the ultimate purpose of citation formats—publication.

While school-based writing seems to suggest MLA, APA, et al, are created for students, these formats are publication manuals—leading to the authentic skill we should be teaching: how to follow a format regardless of the format and navigating the conventions of any discipline.

Students need to understand disciplinary conventions and then the why’s and how’s of following whatever conventions are appropriate for any writing purpose.

The “research paper” and “teaching MLA” at the middle and high school levels fail our students in the same ways that the five-paragraph essay fails them.

The teaching of writing needs a renaissance that honors both the authentic nature of writing and writing forms as well as the goal of fostering writers, not students who comply to assignments.

[1] For this post, when I refer to the “research paper,” I am confronting the traditional research paper assignment found in most high school English classes in which students are walked through a highly structured process in order to produce a prompted essay using MLA format. Grades are often highly affected by students complying with (or not) the process and conforming to MLA. Instead, I am suggesting authentic writing assignments that include students participating in and then implementing research because that is necessary for the type of essay written or the disciplinary expectations of the writing; I also believe we need to move toward larger concepts of citation and encouraging students to understand how to navigate any citation form as required by different writing purposes. As with the “5-paragraph essay” and confusing modes (narration, description, exposition, and argumentation) for types of essays, calling a writing assignment a “research paper” is overly reductive and inauthentic.


Citation Style Chart (OWL)

Why Are there Different Citation Styles? (Yale University)

Why are there so many Different Citation Styles? (Mercer University)

Writing for Specific Fields [far right column] (University of North Carolina)

Building a Nuanced and Authentic Understanding of the Essay 

The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education, UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative

The Five-Paragraph Theme – National Writing Project

The Five-Paragraph Theme Redux – National Writing Project

The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme, Kimberly Wesley

Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay, John Warner

Five Paragraphs: Unloved and Unnecessary, Susan Knoppow

See this FOLDER for the following scholarship on the 5-paragraph essay/templates:

  • What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • What Inquiring Writers Need to Know, Michael W. Smith and George Hillocks, Jr.
  • The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist), Mark Wiley
  • The Struggle Itself: Teaching Writing as We Know We Should, P.L. Thomas
  • Fighting Back: Assessing the Assessments, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Teaching Argument for Critical inking and Writing: An Introduction, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction, Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

And for historical context, see Lou LaBrant’s work reaching back into the 1930s.


6 thoughts on “On Citation and the Research Paper”

  1. Have you thought about the fact that hyperlinks change? It’s one of the reasons MLA doesn’t require them anymore in their citations. How do you address that?

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