Chapter 1. What do you mean by professional writing?
In this first chapter, I will respond to three key questions related to professional writing. First, what does it mean to express your own voice through your writing? I will encourage you to be more deliberate in your use of language to communicate your ideas and enhance your own sense of voice. Second, how do you integrate the voices of others with integrity and transparency? I will introduce the concept of intellectual honesty and guidelines for handling the writing of others in an ethical and professional manner. Third, how do you choose the sources (voices) that are appropriate and most effective to support the message you want to convey through your writing? I will identify skills and strategies for integrating the scholarly literature base into your paper, along with information about how to access and evaluate information sources.
You can use the links below to navigate quickly to the topics covered in this chapter.
- Developing your voice
- Intellectual honesty
- Discerning appropriate information sources
Developing your voice
You bring unique experiences, ideas, and perspectives to your graduate program. You may get the sense that your own voice is less important than the voices in the published literature or the views of your course instructors or my voice. However, all of these other voices are really the background against which you can develop your own professional voice. One of the purposes of this introduction to professional writing is to provide you with the tools to integrate new knowledge, critically reflect upon it, and then clearly articulate your views. This interactive and reflective process is how new meanings are generated. As you work through this resource, you will gain confidence in your ability to synthesize ideas from others, critically analyze those ideas, and use them to support, challenge, and build your own professional opinions and perspectives.
Writing in the first person
Many graduate students believe that they should never write in first person. It is important not to clutter your paper with the extraneous use of phrases such as “I believe. . ., in my opinion. . ., it occurred to me. . .”. Consider this sentence: “I can see a relationship between stress and well-being. An increase in stress, in my opinion, can put people at risk of both physical and emotional health problems.” These insertions may suggest a lack of confidence in your writing, may appear as unsubstantiated opinion, and may reflect a failure to acknowledge the sources of your ideas (see Intellectual Honestly below). It is far more clear and concise to state the following: “There is a relationship between stress and well-being. An increase in stress can put people at risk of both physical and emotional health problems.”
However, it is also important to speak in the first person as part of developing your professional voice. One of the main criteria for effective writing is to eliminate ambiguity. Use the personal pronoun I, in your writing, when you are referring to your viewpoint, to your actions, or to activities you were involved in as part of a study or as the author of the paper. For example, you might write “I analyzed all articles published in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy between 2001 and 2006 to identify emergent themes” or “Based on this analyze, I reached the following conclusions. . .”.
There is a misperception that speaking from the third person enhances credibility. Instead, it may actually introduce ambiguity, and ambiguity reduces credibility. Consider the following examples:
- An analysis of Journal for Nurse Practitioners between 2001 and 2006 identified emergent themes (3rd person) vs. I conducted an analysis of the Journal for Nurse Practitioners between 2001 and 2006 and identified emergent themes (1st person).
- Based on this analysis, the following conclusions were reached (3rd person) vs. I reached the following conclusions based on this analysis (1st person).
- One might assume from this analysis that nurse practitioners. . . (3rd person) vs. From my analysis, I concluded that nurse practitioners. . . (1st person).
In the first part of each of these examples, the reader is left wondering who conducted the analysis and who came to these conclusions? If you want the reader to give you credit for your actions and ideas, you must claim your voice.
For additional support in discerning when to speak in the first person, here are two additional resources.
- Duke University Writing Studio – Because I Said So: Effective Use of the First-Person Perspective and the Personal Voice in Academic Writing
- APA Style – Use of First Person in APA Style
Using active versus passive voice
Your writing will also improve if you use the active rather than the passive voice wherever possible. You introduce further ambiguity and potentially obscure meaning when you use the passive voice. Here are two examples of passive voice versus active voice:
- The paper was written at the last minute (passive) vs. I wrote the paper at the last minute (active).
- It is believed by students that writing style is less important that content (passive) vs. Students believe that writing content is less important than content (active).
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center – Use the Active Voice page supplements the APA Manual Sections 3.11 (Guideline 3) and 3.18 discussion of voice.
One of the main reasons that writers slip into using passive voice is the mistaken belief that it is inappropriate to speak from the first person. In an attempt to speak from the third person, the passive voice often is drawn upon. Did you catch the passive voice in this sentence? The fact that there is no clear subject in the sentence is a signal that the passive voice has been used. I will illustrate first person, active voice: I find it natural to use active voice when I write from the first person.
A word of caution. Speaking from the first person and using the active voice does not mean expressing your views without reference to the body of knowledge in your discipline, your professional codes of ethics, or the context in which you write. Rather, you are positioning yourself as an active contributing member to this professional dialogue. Keep the focus on your subject and use “I” statements when you need to clearly indicate that you are speaking of your own experience, ideas, or actions. You may find Stokes’ (2012) No, you’re not entitled to your opinion commentary informative.
Complete Exercise 1 to test your learning in this area. Then check your responses against the Exercise 1 Feedback.
Modeling cultural sensitivity and eliminating bias
Non-dominant and marginalized populations in Canada and the United States have been widely underrepresented in health research, policy development, and practice. Arthur and Collins (2010a, 2015), Paré (2013), and Sue and Sue (2013) have all argued that the theories and practice models in psychology, nursing, and other health disciplines have traditionally functioned to maintain the status quo. In many cases, systemic oppression on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, language, or other cultural identity factors has occurred, and practitioners have done little to prevent it or to mediate its effects. In the last three decades, however, there has been an increased emphasis on addressing the contextual issues and social injustices that impact the health of clients from non-dominant populations (Arthur & Collins, 2010b).
This emphasis on reducing bias in theory and practice is also reflected in the editorial guidelines in the APA Manual. In both your spoken and written communication, the words you select and the context in which you place them can reveal both intentional and unintentional biases. Health care practitioners all have particular assumptions, beliefs, values, and worldviews that influence how we relate to other people as well as to ideas. Reducing bias involves bringing those attitudes into our awareness and actively acknowledging and addressing stereotypes, prejudices, or other misperceptions (Collins & Arthur, 2010; Paré, 2013; Sinacore, Mikhail, Kassan, & Lerner, 2009).
Refer to sections 3.10 to 3.17 of the APA Manual, then browse the following information, provided on the APA website.
- APA Style – Guidelines for Non-Handicapping Language in APA Journals
- APA Style – Supplemental Material to the APA Manual Section 3.12: Gender
- APA Style – The Basics of APA Style, paying particular attention to the slides on Reducing Bias in Language
Complete Exercise 2 to test your understanding of the way in which bias may be communicated through your choice of words. Check your responses against Exercise 2 Feedback.
Effective writing, like many other professional skills, is refined over a lifetime. I continue to learn how to be a better communicator, even in areas where I have some expertise.
A while back, I submitted a journal article in which I had focused on strategies for enhancing multicultural counselling competence. I was shocked to receive feedback from one reviewer who said that one of the statements in the conclusion was ethnocentric in tone. The offending statement was “Canada is a unique nation in terms of its advanced policies on multiculturalism and the diverse make-up of its population.” I honestly had not processed the nationalist sentiments of that statement. Thanks to peer feedback, I was able to reword the conclusion in a more inclusive and respectful way: “Canada has strong policies on multiculturalism, and Canadians pride themselves on their acceptance of diversity and welcoming of difference.”
My point here is that we are all on this path together. I have not yet arrived, and I invite you to join with me in the pursuit of increased professionalism, effectiveness, and quality in writing standards.
Exhibiting professionalism through tone of voice
In both verbal and written communication, pay attention to the tone you set through the words you choose. You may believe that you are being persuasive, but your use of language may quickly alienate your reader. You can provide support for your particular point of view by carefully selecting an appropriate tone.
Complete Exercise 3 to identify specific words that may need to be changed to create a professional, respectful, and collaborative tone. Check your responses against the Exercise 3 Feedback.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2005, critical, para. 2) defines the word critical in two ways: “inclined to criticize severely and unfavorably” or “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.” You are expected to demonstrate the second application in your written and verbal communications. In Chapter 2, we will do an in-depth exploration of the importance of critical thinking.
Your choice of tone can also be more subtle; please tie it specifically to the purpose of the paper. If you are writing a literature review, use a more formal tone. However, for a personal reflection paper, you may write in a more casual and personal tone. You can gauge appropriate tone by attending to both the purpose of the paper and the intended audience.
One of the skills you must learn to master in your academic writing is balancing your own voice with the voices of others in the field. Intellectual honesty essentially means giving credit where credit is due for the ideas you present in your writing. I am addressing this in the first chapter because it is such an important concept and the consequences for not attending to the principles of academic integrity can be very serious.
At its core, intellectual honesty requires students, academics, and researchers to be transparent about the sources of their ideas and to acknowledge the contributions of others in their writing. There is a large body of knowledge in the health disciplines that continues to evolve as writers integrate, debate, and build upon the ideas, models, theories, and research outcomes generated by others. However, that foundational knowledge becomes unstable and unreliable if there is no way to trace the origins and evolution of these conceptual threads because the ideas are not accurately and consistently contributed to their sources. As a writer, you not only compromise your own academic integrity by failing to accurately attribute ideas to their sources, but you break these threads that allow others to critique, evaluate, and build a solid foundation of knowledge in the health disciplines.
Please read the following policy statements.
- Athabasca University – Intellectual Ownership and Honesty
- University of Calgary Calendar – Statement of Intellectual Honesty
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is a form of intellectual dishonesty in which another person’s work is presented as one’s own. There are several ways in which plagiarism might occur in a graduate paper. I expand on some of these in later chapters. Here are some examples:
- You copy a phrase, sentence, or larger portion of a source and fail to put it in quotation marks or to provide the proper citation. For example, you might state that “Nurse practitioners should attend to the principles of assessment and triage for specific presenting concerns.” The portion underlined is word-for-word from one of your sources and is considered plagiarism.
- You make the following statements and provide no citation for them: “The helping relationship has emerged as one of the most important factors in effective health care service” or “There is little evidence that early detection alone can account for all of the variance in outcome rates.” This information is not something that you would know without drawing on the work of others, so you must provide an appropriate citation.
- You draw an idea from someone and fail to cite the source of that idea, even if you have carefully paraphrased the idea (e.g., you have used your own words, but not your own idea). For example, you summarize the work of Jerry (2009) or you write down in your own words what you learned from both Jerry (2009) and Nuttgens (2008), but you do not cite them. Even though you have used your own words, these are not your ideas.
- You provide an incorrect source for direct quotations (e.g., word-for-word excerpts) or paraphrases. You might make the following statement and cite Jerry (2009) when it was actually Nuttgens (2008) who made the statement: “‘There is little evidence that theory alone can account for all of the variance in success rates’ (Jerry, 2009, p. 15).” This may happen because of the use of secondary sources or because you have not kept careful track of the sources of your information.
- You paraphrase Jerry (2009) when Jerry, a secondary source, has already paraphrased the work of Nuttgens (2008). You give credit to Jerry rather than Nuttgens, the original source: “Theory only accounts for a small portion of therapeutic success (Jerry, 2009).”
- You submit work that you completed in one course, in whole or in part, for another course assignment. This includes taking an assignment from another course and editing it to resubmit in your current course, even if the first course was taken in another program; lifting sections from one assignment and including them in another assignment; or resubmitting a previously graded assignment from the same course (e.g., if you repeat a course due to withdrawal or failure). This is considered cheating and is often referred to as self-plagiarism.
Few students deliberately attempt to present the work of another as their own. Those who do will likely tell you that it is not worth the embarrassment or the academic consequences. There is a zero tolerance policy in most universities for plagiarism, and the academic consequences are very serious. Please be very careful when you draw information from a resource that you (a) present your ideas in your own words and (b) cite the source. (See Chapter 5 for detailed information on how to cite your sources.) There are many ways for instructors to identify plagiarism in your papers, including plagiarism detection software (in some cases).
When you were completing exercises 1 and 3, I hope you questioned the lack of citations in the paragraphs provided. I deliberately left out the citations because I have designed this resource to facilitate incremental learning. By adding concepts one step at a time, you will more easily gain mastery of the skills. However, you must remember that there is more to come in later exercises that will complete your learning. So, for example, if you submitted the paragraphs in the above exercises without citing your sources, this would be considered plagiarism.
We will now use the paragraphs from exercises 1 and 3 to assess your understanding of the principles of intellectual integrity. Complete Exercise 4 and then check your response using the Exercise 4 Feedback.
Using effective paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism
The main way to avoid plagiarizing the work of others is to learn to paraphrase effectively. Be sure that you use this skill from the moment you pick up your pen to take notes.
Unless there is something unique or particularly powerful about the wording used by a source, you should use your own words in your paper, citing the source of the idea. You are expected to build your own argument, in your own words, drawing on ideas, concepts, and themes from the work of others. You are not permitted to simply string together statements others have made. We will explore how to synthesize and integrate the literature in detail in Chapter 2.
The following would be considered plagiarism because you have failed to properly paraphrase information from others:
- You repeat a simple phrase such as “the crux of education is collaborative learning” without putting it in quotation marks or substantially rewording it. Stating “learning collaboratively is the crux of graduate education” is not a paraphrase and would still be considered plagiarism. A proper paraphrase might be “what is really important is that the learning experience is bi-directional.”
- You create a list in your paper that pulls key points from a source without putting each point in your own words. For example, you state that “Collins (2015) identified four potential pitfalls in writing graduate papers: reference list padding, misuse of secondary sources, failure to cite sources, and failure to properly paraphrase.” Even though this is not one continuous statement from Collins, this is still not a paraphrase. You would need to say something like “Collins (2015) warned graduate students to pay careful attention to the proper use of primary and secondary sources, the importance of using one’s own words, and the necessity of clearly stating the source of all ideas that you do not come up with on your own.”
A number of online resources can support you in writing with integrity:
- San Jose State University – Plagiarism Tutorial provides some useful samples of what to do and not to do when you paraphrase other writings.
- University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center – Quoting and Paraphrasing provides good examples of the difference between plagiarizing and effectively paraphrasing a sample of text. It also provides some useful tips on how to paraphrase effectively.
- In many cases, you will not simply paraphrase sections of an article or book; you will summarize or synthesize what you have read. The University of Toronto Writing Centre – Paraphrase and Summary distinguishes between these two skills.
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Paraphrase: Write It In Your Own Words also describes the difference between direct quotations (words of others), paraphrases (rewording in your own word), and evaluation or summary of ideas (your own ideas and words).
- Another source is the Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing.
Recalling the discussion of developing your own voice, if you are providing your own opinion or pulling out the themes from various sources you have already described, then be sure to indicate clearly that this is what you are doing: “Based on the analysis provided above, I have identified three themes that reflect current trends in the literature….” In this case, you do not need to include all of your sources again, but you must be sure that this is your own synthesis and that the sources are documented in the section you are summarizing.
Complete Exercise 5 to practice applying these principles (Exercise 5 feedback).
Mastering effective paraphrasing will reduce your writing stress considerably. I recommend that you set up a clear pattern to follow consistently in your note-taking to indicate (a) the source of information, (b) whether what you have written is a quote or a paraphrase, and (c) what elements of your notes are your own ideas or elaborations on the ideas of others. The University of Guelph Academic Integrity – Avoiding Plagiarism site provides some useful tips on smart note-taking to avoid plagiarism.
Discerning when to cite others
It is often a challenge for students to figure out how much citing of other works to do in a paper. Here are some general guidelines:
- Each main point you make should have at least one key source. In some cases, you can then reflect on that point without citations. However, you must be certain that the reader understands that the source cited at the beginning of the paragraph is the source for subsequent sentences. As soon as you make another main point or talk about anything that is not your original idea, you must draw on the literature to support that point.
- Sometimes, you will possess information about a topic before you begin to write your paper. In most cases, you will need to back up your points from the literature base. However, if you believe the information is either common knowledge in the public domain (such as dates of historical events) or that it is common knowledge in your field (such as a Likert scale format), you may not need to find a specific reference for that point. Be careful not to assume that common knowledge in one context applies to all other situations: see APA Style – The First Thanksgiving: A Tale of Common Knowledge. The key question to ask yourself is: Will my readers also possess this information? If you are unsure if something is considered common knowledge, the Purdue University Online Writing Lab – Is It Plagiarism Yet? page suggests you confirm by finding five credible sources who do not provide their source for that idea. When in doubt, locate and cite a source for the information.
- You should predominantly translate others’ ideas into your own words and then cite your sources. Sometimes, a direct quote says something in a way that is unique or particularly eloquent. In this case, it is appropriate to use it. But if you string too many quotes together, you risk losing your own voice and your ability to demonstrate that you have thought critically about the material. In many cases, it also becomes very difficult to follow your train of thought. As a general rule of thumb, if you do a word count and your quotes are edging up to 1/5 of your total words, you are in trouble!
To do a word count, paste all of your quotes into a separate Word file, use “Control + a” (or “cmd/command + a” on a Mac) to select all of the text, go to the “Tools” menu and select “Word count.” You will get the total number of words quoted. Compare this to the word count for your total paper (without title pages, references, or appendices).
- Avoid relying heavily on one source for large chunks of your paper. In a section of 200 to 400 words, you should draw on at least two or three sources.
- If you find a great article in which the author made a number of points that you want to incorporate into your paper, do not simply paraphrase what that person has said and conclude you have written a paper. You may incorporate the author’s points, but you must also integrate other materials, demonstrate that you have thought critically about those points, and organize the paper according to your conceptual framework, not the author’s.
- Although the focus of this e-book is on writing graduate papers, it is important to remember that citing your sources is required for other professional materials you create: presentations for conferences or workshops (even PowerPoint slides), worksheets or handouts for clients, or articles for newsletters.
Avoiding secondary sources
An original source is a source cited within the text of the article or book you are reading. A secondary source is an article, book, or other source of information that you are reading and that contains information from another source that you did not read (the original source). So, for example, Mules (2015) described a study conducted by Simons (2013). Mules is a secondary source of information. Only Simons is the original source. Using Mules as your source, rather than reading and citing Simons, is like hearsay in court and is a breach of academic integrity. You cannot state for sure what Simons said unless you actually read that article. Otherwise, you are taking Mules’ word for what Simons had to say, and this is not considered solid academic research. You may later discover that Mules did not correctly represent Simons’ views. You have then become responsible for that misrepresentation. In addition, you put yourself at risk of plagiarism and other breaches of scholarly integrity that may have occurred in the secondary source you read.
This is a very common challenge in graduate student papers. So, how do you avoid this? First, go to the library and find the original article by Simons (2013). Unless this article is difficult to access (i.e., not available through the library or an Internet search), you are expected to read the original source before you make reference to it in your paper. You would then cite Simons (2013). Even if you complete this step and you still list Mules (2015) as your source or add Mules to your reference list for this particular information, you would be committing an act of academic misconduct for not citing the proper source of your information.
Many textbooks are prime examples of secondary sources. For example, the person(s) who wrote your text on nursing or counselling theory did not develop those theories; instead, they drew on other sources to pull together a succinct overview of each model. The text is, therefore, a secondary source, and you must find works by the original theorist, wherever possible, if you want to reference key aspects of that theory.
For more information on secondary sources, see the APA Manual sections 6.17 and 7.01 (example 17) and the following links.
- APA Style – Secondary Sources (aka How to Cite a Source You Found in Another Source)
- APA Style – Alligators and Academia: The Importance of Primary and Secondary Sources
I will address how to cite secondary sources (where unavoidable) in Chapter 4.
Discerning appropriate information sources
Scientific and scholarly foundation
The conceptual and operational bases of the health disciplines are grounded in a shared body of scientific knowledge, which has evolved through research, clinical observation, and generation of theory. Health care professionals, including students and instructors, are accountable to and reliant upon this common body of knowledge. It is important to ask yourself whether the sources you are relying upon are considered to be scholarly, academic resources by others within your profession.
Some graduate programs will specify the minimum number of scholarly sources that you must integrate into a particular writing assignment. See the example from the AU Graduate Centre for Applied Psychology (GCAP) in Figure 1. In other cases, you will need to use your own judgment to ensure you ground your paper in the professional literature.
Scholarly Foundation in Writing
Unless different instructions are provided in the assignment description, all GCAP course papers are expected meet the following minimum standards:
- The reference list must include recent scholarly (typically peer-reviewed) sources such as academic journals, books, monographs, and other appropriate sources. GCAP defines recent as within the last ten years, with emphasis on most current sources.
- A shorter paper (e.g., 10-12 pages*) must include at least 10 recent peer-reviewed sources.
- A longer paper (e.g., 15-20 pages) must include at least 15 recent peer-reviewed sources.
*Note: Page lengths refer to the assignment criteria, not the length of paper you choose to submit!
- Students are encouraged to also draw on the course materials and required/supplementary readings in assignments, although these sources are in addition to the minimum research requirements outlined above.
- Citations of foundational or important critical works may be older than ten years.
- No citations from secondary sources should be used unless the original work is not available from the AU library. These exceptional secondary sources should be kept to a maximum of one or two citations.
Figure 1. GCAP expectations for scholarly foundations in graduate writing.
One of the key features of quality health care literature is that it is typically peer-reviewed. This means that other professionals with relevant expertise have provided feedback on the article or book and judged it to be of sufficient quality to be published. Many books are not peer reviewed. However, most academic journals have a peer review process. The Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, for example, clearly articulates its Review Process.
In this new age of digital publishing with its ease of self-publishing, however, there are also many resources that are not peer-reviewed. This does not necessarily mean they are not quality, scholarly sources; it simply means you should apply a critical lens in evaluating their appropriateness for integration into your graduate papers. This e-book, for example, has not undergone a formal peer-review process; however, it has evolved from over a decade’s worth of interaction with graduate students, instructors, faculty, and available writing resources and guidelines.
Information literacy is the ability to identify, evaluate the appropriateness of, and effectively make use of information for a particular purpose. The Association of College & Research Libraries does an excellent job of defining information literacy and articulating the competencies students need to develop in their Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. The Society of College, National, and University Libraries (SCONUL) provides a very useful competency summary: 7 Pillars of Information Literacy through a Digital Literacy ‘Lens.’
Operating with scholarly integrity requires you to accurately identify and communicate the message from your source as well as to select appropriate sources from which to draw information. If you argue, for example, that the sky is falling in a scholarly paper, you may be accurately reflecting the assertion of Chicken Little (from Robert Chamber’s folk story); however, you would be hard pressed to convince your instructor that Chicken Little is a reliable and credible source. So, how then do you go about selecting sources for your information that are considered scholarly?
The most obvious starting place for finding scholarly information is the university library. You are strongly advised to draw most of your sources from the library. The library journal collections have been carefully screened and selected for quality and relevance. There are a number of resources to help you optimize your use of the library. (Note: Only Athabasca University [AU] students will be able to access some of these using their AU login.)
- The AU – Library Welcome Video provides an overview of the library services.
- The AU – Virtual Library Tour walks you through the various links on the library website and provides an overview of what information is available through each link.
- The AU – Library Catalogue Tutorial provides information on how to search the catalogue and take advantage of some of its features.
- The AU – Journal Title List Tutorial demonstrates how to access to a specific journal. This tool is useful if you have a complete citation for a journal article and want to know where to find the full text of the article.
- The AU – Nursing and Health Studies Research Guide provides an overview of how to conduct research in the health disciplines.
- The AU – Tips for Searching (Boolean Search Guide) provides tips on conducting keyword searches using AND, OR, and NOT, as well as when to put terms in parentheses and use truncation symbols.
- The library team has already pulled together a page of AU – Library Databases with psychology content.
- Libguides are a collected source of resources pertinent to specific groups or topics. For example, the AU Libguide for Nurse Practitioners is a collection of journals, e-books, websites, and clinical practice guidelines that provide shortcuts to valuable resources.
- There is also a Psychology Research LibGuide created specifically for counselling and psychology students.
In graduate papers, a heavy emphasis is placed on peer-reviewed and current scholarly sources. You may want to have a look at Cornell University’s Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals, which is designed to help you distinguish between scholarly journals, newsletters, magazines, and periodicals that are inflammatory or sensational. You must also be discerning when it comes to books and other monographs. If you are unsure about a source, apply the principles in the AU – Evaluating Your Results of your library search guide. The library may contain religious manuscripts or popular psychology books from Oprah’s book list, for example; however, these likely will not meet the criteria for inclusion as scholarly sources in your academic papers within the health disciplines.
There are some great sources of information on the Internet, and there are some very biased, unfounded, and non-scholarly sources. At times, it may be appropriate to include carefully selected information from the web in your assignments. Your responsibility, as a scholar, is to make this discernment.
- Google Scholar is a great starting place for web searches. Save yourself some time and use this AU – Google Scholar Tutorial to customize it to interface with the library resources and tools.
- There are many Open access journals on the internet. However, the quality and credibility of these sources varies. So, be sure to critically read both the content of the article and the description of the journal. Check out a few that AU Health Disciplines faculty use: Pimatisiwin – A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, the International Journal of Collaborative Practices, or the Qualitative Report.
- Professional associations, like the American Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, or the Canadian Association of Advanced Practice Nurses can be very valuable sources of information on ethics, standards, guidelines, and protocols.
- Special interest groups, community organizations, or government sites can also offer current, well-researched, and credible documentation on current issues and trends, government policies, theoretical approaches, interventions, etc. Take, for example, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Statistics Canada or the Dulwich Centre.
- There are also many other independent webpages designed by individuals or groups that range in credibility as scholarly sources.
With all of these resources, particularly the latter, you must be very careful not to integrate information into your graduate papers without applying a critical lens and to evaluate both the content and the source of the information. In addition, unless you find a peer-reviewed article online or your assignment specifically permits the use of non-peer reviewed Internet sources, the content you pull from these sources should be in addition to the minimum requirements for scholarly foundation of your paper. If you are unfamiliar with how to find information on the Internet, you may want to take a few minutes to review AU’s Internet Searching guide.
Evaluating Web Content and Sources
There are a number of excellent guidelines available to support you in applying a critical lens to your selection of content from the Internet. Check out a few of the links below to develop a sense of the kinds of evaluation criteria you should apply to all web-based content:
- The AU Library provides a Guide to Internet Searching, which includes a quick checklist for Evaluating Web Information.
- The Harvard College Writing Program – Harvard Guide to Using Sources includes some important cautions about using Wikipedia in scholarly papers.
- If you are less familiar with the Internet, you may find the descriptions of various types of web content on the Albany New York University Library – Evaluating Web Content page useful (scroll to the bottom of the page).
- The Ohio State University library offers a tutorial on Evaluating Web Sites with links to other resources to support critical analysis of Internet sources.
- It is particularly important to apply a critical lens to health information on the internet, because there is a lot of profit to be made by unfounded and sometimes dangerous claims. Check out the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing.
- The Cornell University Library hosts a page with links to a range of resources for Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools.
- The University of California Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask combines critical thinking skills with specific questions to ask in evaluating websites and strategies for obtaining answers.
- The VirginiaTech University Libraries’ Evaluating Internet Information highlights what to look for, why it is important, and how to make an assessment of a webpage.
- For a creative twist on this important issue, check out Place et al.’s (2006) Internet Detective: Wise up to the Web, which takes a broader look at the challenge of online research and provides a list of additional references and links.
- The University of Illinois Library’s Tips and Tricks for Evaluating Web Sites reinforces many of the key criteria for making critical decisions about web-based information.
Open Educational Resources
In recent years, there has also been an evolving body of knowledge that is shared publicly through open educational resources (OERs). Wikipedia is a good example. These are materials that are freely available on the Internet and have been specifically designated for sharing, adapting, and re-purposing by others. Along with written materials, you can access open source images, videos, and other digital materials. However, you must be very careful in drawing on these in course presentations or other graduate writing projects. Like other digital resources, you must be discriminating in your selections. They must meet all of the information literacy criteria as scholarly resources. It is also important to carefully review the copyright certificates to ensure you use and credit the materials appropriately.
This e-book is an example of an OER. The Creative Commons license I have applied allows others to adapt, pick and choose, rework, and evolve portions or all of this e-book for their own purposes. The only restrictions are that they must acknowledge my authorship, license their work in a similar way, and not use the content for commercial purposes. The intent of this type of copyright is to support collaborative knowledge sharing and development.
You need to be cautious in using OER content in writing your papers. Wikipedia, for example, is not considered a scholarly source of information because there is no way to trace the sources of specific content it contains. However, if you are looking for an image to include in a course assignment, you are best off searching for OERs; otherwise, you may be required to get permission from the copyright holder to reproduce that image. A classic scholarly integrity infraction is the inclusion of commercial comics in PowerPoint presentations. Rarely has the presenter actually obtained permission to use those resources. Check out the following examples of sources of OERs:
- Creative Commons – Search is a great place to look for images.
- AU’s list of Open Access Resources allows you to search journals, thesis databases, e-books, and other repositories.
- Jisc – Open Education Resources (OERs) provides a list of search options at the bottom of the page, under Finding OERs
- OER Commons – Search allows you to search a vast repository of OERs by specific subject.
- Openclipart – has a large number of free images that you can integrate into your assignments or other projects.
The bottom line in selecting sources for academic papers, presentations, or other scholarly works is that you must apply a critical lens to the choices you make. You can write a brilliant paper based on unfounded and biased sources, but the paper has little academic value in the end (which translates into a low grade!). Your choice of sources forms the foundation for everything that follows!
Sources to use with caution
There are a few sources of information that you should use with caution in your graduate papers.
- Abstracts: In many library databases, you are able to access an abstract online, but not the full article. There may be a temptation to rely on the information in the abstract to support your points rather than take the time to retrieve the article. However, you are expected to read the actual article before you draw on the author’s ideas. If you are unable to access the entire article, then consider finding a different source for your information. If you have no other choice but to cite content from an abstract, be sure to clearly indicate that you accessed an abstract not the full article.
- Personal communication: Personal communication refers to any information that you have obtained, either verbally or non-verbally, that is not publicly documented or retrievable. This includes conversations with your instructor, e-mail correspondence, statements made in supervision or consultation contexts, or comments from an expert you correspond with. In most cases, ideas expressed in this context are likely supportable through the literature base. You are expected to turn to those academic sources to support the idea. There are less common examples, however, when the idea presented is new, innovative, or stated in a particularly eloquent manner. In these cases, follow the directions in Chapter 4 to cite your source. Online discussion posts from your graduate courses are not considered personal communication; rather, they should be treated as electronic forums (see Chapter 4).
The beauty of graduate school is that you are no longer simply considered a consumer of other people’s ideas. You are expected to critically engage with ideas, to bring forward your own lens and experience, and to be an active participant in advancing our understanding of issues, theory, and practices in the health disciplines. You do not need to wait until you complete a thesis (if you choose that route); you can begin with your very first graduate paper to develop your professional voice and to join that voice with credible, scholarly voices from others in your field of study.
One of the main points of this first chapter is that effective writing has as much to do with attitude as it does with skill. You are well on your way to becoming a professional writer if you approach your writing with (a) appreciation for the intellectual work of others, (b) respect for your subject matter and audience, (c) belief in your own ability to make a contribution to the intellectual community, and (d) willingness to learn new strategies to improve your communication skills. I hope you enjoy the rest of your learning process through this e-book.
Use the following checklist to ensure that you understand the key issues related to professional writing from this chapter.
- Are you writing in the first person, active voice when appropriate?
- Do the personal, social, political, professional values expressed through your writing reflect careful attention to issues of cultural diversity and professional ethics?
- Is your writing free of personal biases or sociocultural discourses that perpetuate social injustice?
- Are you consistently expressing yourself with a professional tone?
- Are you carefully implementing principles of academic integrity and intellectual honesty?
- Is it clear to you what constitutes plagiarism, and do you know how to avoid it?
- Is it clear to you when you need to cite others for their ideas versus when you are speaking from my your voice or introducing common knowledge?
- Do you consistently put things into my your words whenever possible?
- Are you able to discern whether the sources you choose for your writing meet the standards for scholarly foundation in writing?
- Have you selected current, relevant articles to support your ideas and chosen older sources only if are considered seminal contributions to knowledge?
- Do your citations reflect primary sources rather than secondary sources?
- Does your selection of supporting literature include diverse and marginalized voices?
- Depending on the writing goal, do your sources reflect an appropriate balance of research articles versus theoretical or conceptual articles?