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So I'm new to university and have written like 5 papers in my life, please help!

So basically the scenario is, I have a paper about a certain topic which I know nothing about. So I do some research on it. After reading a lot about the topic I form an opinion on it. The problem is that my opinion was formed based on reading a lot of other people's opinions. For example, I will read a lot of academics argue one thing, and I will think "oh that makes sense, I agree!" so when I write my paper I will be of the same opinion.

So the question is, do I have to cite the sources that led me to my opinion when I state my opinion?? Or phrased differently: Do I have to cite the people that agree with my opinion?

For example, if I write:

X because of Y. And this specific author also agrees with this. <- in this case, do I have to use in-text citation for the first sentence?? Should I write something like:

X because of Y (author, year). <- because I feel like in this case it does not sound like I also agree? It just sounds like I am describing what "author" thinks. How do I add my own opinion to this?

Please keep in mind that these are undergraduate level papers. Up until now, I have been writing entirely descriptive papers (with "someone argues this and someone argues that" and my grades have not been great :( ) without offering my opinion because I was so scared that it would be plagiarism to agree with someone's opinion without citing (since it may be considered to not be an original opinion). Again, I will cite the other authors that agree with me after stating what I think, but my question is if I have to in-text cite them when I state my opinion.

I am a confused and lost freshman and with the pandemic I can't even go to campus and talk to a librarian about this, so if anyone could help me I will owe you my life, thank you.

2 Answers 2

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As you present this, it seems as if the answer is yes, you need to cite your sources, probably including those you don't agree with with as well.

Plagiarism is presenting the ideas of others as if they were your own. It is considered to be serious academic misconduct and most professors who recognize it in a student's paper will mark it down pretty severely if they accept the paper at all.

And, since you are an undergraduate, it might be especially important to get into the habit of this.

Note that you don't need to copy the words of others to commit plagiarism. It is about the ideas, not the specific words.

You can "weigh" the ideas of others to come to an original opinion, but you need to be specific about the sources.

And if you must err a bit on one side or the other, citing too much is not usually a problem, but citing too little always is. So, tend toward over citation, especially as you learn this stuff.


Example:

John Smith in the July 2020 issue of International Basket Weaving asserts ... A ... and gives the following reasons....

In contrast, Mary Jones in the April 2019 issue of the same journal suggests ... B ... and asserts...

I conclude that the correct solution is B because...

It is the things that follow "because" that are your contribution. It can include the weakness of A, the strength of B or other factors not considered by either.

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  • Oh I see, thank you! Yes, I agree with the point about citing too much being better than the alternative. I have been told that many times, but I always feel like my papers are 99% citation 1% original thought lol but I guess I'll become better the more I write! Thank you for your help!
    – ba_tog
    Dec 13, 2020 at 17:54
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I would reexamine what you mean by "agree with my opinion." Consider for example:

Einstein proposed the Theory of Relativity, which has been widely accepted by the scientific community and has withstood a battery of experimental tests over the last century [cite]. I agree that this theory is correct.

This last sentence is a little bit ridiculous -- your opinion is altogether irrelevant (unless you are an esteemed physicist). The is true in other fields -- saying you, as a student (or even me, as a professional in a different field), agree or disagree with Mark Twain or Charles Darwin or Thomas Aquinas is almost comical.

On the other hand, facts are facts regardless of who says them, and you are entitled to an "academic opinion" even now. So consider, instead, this much stronger paragraph:

Newton's laws of kinematics were widely accepted for hundreds of years, and have been experimentally verified many times [cite, cite, cite]. However, Einstein's recent work argues that Newtonian kinematics does not apply at very high speeds [cite]. Recent work with cathode rays [cite] seems to support Einstein's findings.

So in this case, you are clearly arguing that Einstein is correct and Newton is wrong (i.e., "your opinion" is that you "agree" with Einstein), but you do it with facts and logical reasoning, without ever mentioning "agreement" or "opinions."

Now you had asked specifically about making a choice -- what to do when experts disagree. Even in these cases, you can present your analysis without ever mentioning "agreement" or "opinions." Consider:

"Jones argues A [cite] while Smith argues B [cite]. While there is no clear answer, Adams makes a compelling case for B [cite], noting that _. Indeed, in light of Adams' arguments (particularly his ontological argument), Jones' position seems wholly untenable.

In the above, it is clear that you "agree" with Adams and Smith, and your claim that Adams' case is "compelling" is very much an opinion (one that you will need to defend in the paper). But you never use the words "opinion" or "agree," and the citations take care of themselves.

Nor are you limited to discussing others' ideas; you can also raise your own ideas:

"Jones argues A [cite] while Smith argues B [cite]. While there is no clear answer, the only verifiable evidence is the exponentially rising CO2 levels. Recent results [cite] have only strengthened this body of evidence. Given the extraordinary success of this prediction, Smith's position seems superior to that of Jones.

In the second and third sentences above, you are presenting your own, novel ideas or analysis, and there is no need to cite anyone. Again, you are very clearly agreeing with Smith, and you very clearly have an opinion, but you never use those words, and the citations take care of themselves.

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  • Thank you so much!! I see now how I can agree without clearly stating that I agree, this was extremely helpful!
    – ba_tog
    Dec 13, 2020 at 17:49

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