When teaching undergraduate students, I find freshmen students to be mostly unaware with the idea of including evidence to support the author's opinion. That is, they write something like:

Leaders should be friendly and support those in lower positions in the organization. Being friendly makes others like you and that makes them work harder.

Where it should be more like:

Goleman (2000) wrote about affiliative leadership in which the leader focuses on the emotional connection with the followers. In the ABC case, the leader is likely to be well served by using affiliative leadership due to the fact that workers who feel a strong emotional connection with their manager are known to push themselves harder in order to gain the approval of the manager (Jones, 2008). This implies that the leader should not only be affiliative but should also withhold compliments from the subordinates in order to maximize output.

I remember my teachers telling me the guidelines was 80/20. 80% of the writing should be from the student and 20% should be from external sources, which support the student's opinion.

Meanwhile, I have read quite a few papers from students where they basically have a citation for every sentence. This makes me wonder if they actually know much. After all, if 80% of the writing is from academic sources, it shows that the authors of those papers understand, not that the student understands. However, I also consider that the fact that the student knew which text to include should count for something.

Then I start thinking about plagiarism. If the student has simply quoted their way through a paper (with proper citations) then someone else could submit the same paper and it would not count as plagiarism because everything is cited.

Is there any generally accepted guideline on the percentage of writing in a student's written assignment which should be from the student and what percentage should be from other (hopefully academic) sources?

I realize that this might vary by field. My field is business management.

  • Nice question but I fear it would greatly vary from field to field. I don't think it would be easy to pinpoint an optimal ratio that would be applicable in all scenarios
    – posdef
    May 9, 2014 at 10:32
  • @posdef I suspected as much, that is why I included my field, though I wonder if there is a guideline that spans fields.
    – earthling
    May 9, 2014 at 10:43

1 Answer 1


Context: my Bachelors degree was in Management and Electrical Engineering (double major). Though it was several decades ago, I think I understand your field and setting. My current PhD field is Computational Social Science and it includes some Organization Science.

I agree with your general intuitions, and the 80/20 ratio seems reasonable but I would definitely not be presenting that as a rule or even as a guideline. Instead, I would say that the nature of the paper and the arguments should dictate the use of evidence and citations.

Papers that analyze foundational ideas might only have one or two citations -- the original seminal papers. But there might be so many ideas in those papers that the student should devote considerable space to examining them.

In contrast, papers that summarize or survey a sub-field will have a very high number of citations and quotes from the research literature. The students task is to present the survey as a cohesive whole (if it is one) and to show how the various lines of research tie together or diverge.

Rather than focus on citations, I think its better to focus students on the principles of argumentation -- with analogies to legal arguments and formal debates. Too often students will believe that their points are "obvious" and "common sense", or maybe "best practice", and thus requires no justification or support from evidence. Disabuse them of those notions through Socratic questioning: "How do you know that? Why do you believe that? How would you persuade someone who holds the opposite view?" and so on.

Once their argument has a structure, they can begin assembling evidence to support it and defend it from criticisms. That evidence might come from published research or other sources. But they shouldn't include any citations where they do not need support. They also need to consider the credibility and relevance of the evidence. No matter how authoritative a citation might be, it shouldn't be included if it is not highly relevant to the student's argument.

Here's a test that students can apply after they have written their paper, in a final edit pass:

  • For each citation or piece of evidence, ask:
    • Would my argument be weakened if I removed this?
    • Can I replace this with stronger evidence?
  • For each point in the argument or assertion, ask:
    • Is this adequately supported with evidence or citations from the literature?
    • Is the evidence and support both credible and relevant?
  • Have I, as author, fulfilled my role in this paper, given the nature and goals of the assignment?

Hope this helps!

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