Using sources: checklist

A checklist to help you edit your writing and make the most of your sources.

Using sources effectively involves more than just referencing them correctly; you need to consider what and how much research to include and how to balance your thoughts and words with those of other authors.

The questions below have been categorised under three common marking criteria and will help you to evaluate how effectively you’ve incorporated your sources.

How should I use this checklist?

Focus on one question at a time. Read the question, then scan your paper to look for relevant examples of that aspect. To help you scan quickly, highlight sentences or phrases written in your voice (hint, they won’t have a citation).

Criteria 1: Demonstrating your knowledge and understanding

Look at all the non-highlighted sections of your paper - these represent the voices of other authors.

  • Have you used a variety of different sources in your paper, or relied on one or two?

    Reading widely exposes you to a variety of perspectives on a topic, helping you to deepen your understanding and develop an informed opinion. Your argument is likely to be stronger if it is supported by a range of sources, rather than only one or two. In addition, being able to identify and address any prominent ideas that contradict your key points may also help strengthen your argument overall. Remember to check the task brief for specific requirements on type and number of sources.

  • Are there any direct quotations you could paraphrase?

    Paraphrasing, or rewriting someone else’s idea in your own words, shows that you understand the content and helps you to incorporate the ideas in a way that supports your argument. Markers generally expect you to use own words as often as possible, rather than relying on the words of others.

Criteria 2: Presenting and supporting your argument

Look at the balance of highlighted (your voice) and non-highlighted sections (others’ voices).

  • Does your voice feature strongly where it’s expected to?

    Most academic writing requires you to present your critical analysis, interpretation and argument and we often expect to see this feature strongly at the start and end of papers (in the introduction and conclusion) and paragraphs (topic and concluding sentences). As you progress through your studies, the strength of your own voice should increase as your knowledge of the discipline increases.

  • Are there any large sections where your voice is lacking: e.g. paragraphs where all sentences contain a citation?

    Your voice needs to connect, analyse and highlight the importance of the evidence you provide throughout your writing. You shouldn’t really introduce a source without explaining it or expanding on it, because it will lack connection to the rest of your work. Integrating the paraphrase or summary well into your writing shows that you understand the evidence and how it contributes to your argument.

  • Are there any large sections that contain only your voice? Is this appropriate?

    Most university writing tasks require you to draw on sources to support your claims, arguments and ideas, but certain sections (e.g. introduction in an essay) may include only your voice. Likewise, your voice may appear more prominently in reflective writing (e.g. describing an experience before moving onto analysis). To decide if this is appropriate ask yourself: How do I know this? Can I find evidence for this? Am I expected to find evidence for this?

  • Are there parts where it’s unclear if the writing is your voice or somebody else's?

    Reference every sentence or part of a sentence that contains information from another source, even if this means repeating the same citation in consecutive sentences. Citations should appear throughout your paragraph, not only in the last sentence that uses information from one particular source, or at the end of a paragraph. If you only cite at the end, the reader will think that the preceding sentences contain your own thoughts or ideas.

  • Does your voice always link the evidence or examples back to the main topic? Have you used connecting words and phrases to help your argument flow?

    When using source materials, you should aim to integrate them into your own argument, making it clear to your reader how they add to your discussion. It’s important to be precise about the relationships between ideas. Particular phrases and words serve different functions in connecting ideas and arguments. For example, different clauses or words can signal additional or similar information (e.g. additionally), opposition or contrast (e.g. however), concession (e.g. while), cause or effect (e.g. consequently), emphasis (e.g. importantly), clarification (e.g. for instance) or a relationship in time or sequence (e.g. first).

Criteria 3: Critically engaging with ideas

Look at the language you are using to show your analysis and interpretation of ideas.

  • Are you critically engaging with the ideas? Have you used language to indicate this?

    To make sure you’re demonstrating critical analysis, check that you’re using language for interpreting. We can use this to indicate limitations (the study fails to…), strengths (this was significant because…), constructive suggestions (findings may have been more applicable if…), or similarities and differences (similarly,…).

  • What reporting verbs are you using? Are there particular ones that repeat? Do they indicate your attitude towards the source?

    Using a variety of reporting verbs helps to maintain the interest of your reader. For example, if you’ve repeated ‘states’, ‘argues’ or ‘according to’, consider which other verbs you might be able to use. Ask yourself if these verbs indicate your attitude towards the source [strong (S), weak (W), or neutral (N)]. Compare the examples below:

    Lee (2018) proves (S) / asserts (W) / states (N) that coffee is addictive. [agreeing]

    Lee (2018) denies (S) / debates (W) / questions (N) the notion that coffee is addictive. [disagreeing]

Final tip

The strength and validity of your writing is affected by how well you integrate the sources you use. If your sources are well integrated, the reader trusts that you understand what you have discovered in your research because you are able to contextualise and explain it. You should maintain your own voice in your writing and avoid over-reliance on the voices of others. It is important to use a variety of sources, but remember that it is your responsibility to take charge of managing these different voices and reference them correctly. Consider the words and phrases you use, as this will help you to indicate your analysis, the relationships between your ideas and show the strength of the evidence.

Explore all resources

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an appointment or attending one of our drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice