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B. The Decision to Consult Secondary Sources

Because of the diverse standards and interpretative approaches in various fields, it is advisable to consult with your instructors for guidelines on the proper use of secondary sources in each course you take at Vassar. The use of secondary sources in every case depends on the varying demands and expectations in different assignments and in different courses. In introductory English, for example, the expectation is that a student will rarely consult a scholarly article written on the literary work he or she has been asked to read or explain. In many other humanities courses, students immediately begin consulting secondary sources as part of their introduction to the discipline. This is also true in the natural sciences where the primary literature on a particular topic is often highly technical and specialized, and authors often assume that the reader knows the broader framework of issues and theories into which their research fits.

The teachers of English courses want each student to develop an individual, personal approach to reading and interpretation, and secondary sources are not likely to be helpful in the early stages of such development. In fact, they might inhibit a student’s confidence in his or her own ability to understand and explicate a text. Even in more advanced English courses, the use of secondary sources is not advised without a warning. If you begin an assignment with only a vague idea of what you want to say, and then read through the scholarly literature on your chosen topic, you may be tempted to adopt a point of view or interpretation from the sources you read. This not only short-circuits the learning process by disallowing the formulation of your own original ideas, it also sometimes leads to plagiarism. To prevent this, students in English studies should write their papers, or draft them, before they consult other scholars’ works. If you write out your thoughts first and then investigate the secondary literature, you may find related ideas but never one that is precisely the same as your own. This is because the expression of an idea is not separate from the idea itself.

In art history courses, works of painting, sculpture and architecture are considered primary material, and students— especially at the introductory level—are often asked to analyze such objects without recourse to the interpretations of other scholars. As in English courses, this helps develop students’ confidence in their own ability to understand and to explain the meaning of works of art. But in other assignments, students are required to read and to examine critically the writings of various art historians, not only to gain important information about the works but also in order to assess the validity of contrasting methodological approaches to interpretation. The ability to read and evaluate secondary sources in an intelligent and critical way is an essential aspect of study in this discipline, and therefore students must consult them in many of their art history courses and cite them properly in their papers.

In the sciences, secondary sources may be particularly valuable in defining broad goals of a particular type of research and in providing the background information regarding observations, methodology, and technical vocabulary required for understanding the primary literature. As in other disciplines, however, secondary sources in the natural sciences may limit one’s own thinking on a subject of inquiry. This is especially true in the natural sciences where the primary literature on a particular topic is often highly technical and specialized, and authors often assume that the reader knows the broader framework of issues and theories into which their research fits. Thus, a student enrolled in Abnormal Psychology who is not a Biopsychology major but who wishes nevertheless to write on the neurophysiological bases of schizophrenia may be bewildered by papers on the structural and functional properties of various neurotransmitters found in the central nervous system. For students confronted with this sort of problem, the use of secondary sources (including the advice of the instructor) is not only permissible but advisable, even before the exact paper topic has been selected. Secondary sources may be particularly valuable in defining the broad goals of a particular type of research and in providing the background information regarding observations, methodology, and technical vocabulary required for understanding the primary literature. As in other disciplines, however, consulting secondary sources in the natural sciences may limit one’s own thinking on a subject of inquiry. Scholarly articles are written by experts who have studied an area for many years and have achieved an understanding of the issue that will almost certainly exceed what can be attained by an undergraduate in only a few semesters or years of study. Perhaps the best solution to the conflict of reasons for and against the use of secondary sources is to use the secondary sources for some kinds of information but not for others. Use them to acquire background information and views on the broad issues on which the research bears. This should make it possible for you to read and evaluate for yourself the primary materials.