Graduate Learning Specialist: Organizing Sources for When You Need Them

Article Abstract

Creative Commons photo via Flickr user Blue Square Thing.

Writing papers in the American academic context requires more than brilliant ideas. In fact, brilliant ideas that have not been linked to ideas or theories already established in the field often will not find an audience. For this reason, almost every written assignment in grad school puts a great deal of emphasis on the sources–both the quantity and quality thereof. In a previous posting, I talked about how to read sources to glean all you can from a given article or text. Now let’s talk about what you can do to put that information to use, or at least keep the information safe until you need it (this second point is crucial, especially if the culmination of your grad work includes a thesis or a cumulative exam that requires you to pull citations out of thin air).

One effective technique–a bit old school–is what I like to call Abstract Archiving. Print up the abstract of the article you’ve read or might read, and color code the elements that are most likely to be of interest: red for conclusion or hypothesis, green for methodology or population, yellow for theory or underlying premises, blue for results. You might also underline the article’s purpose or significance to the field. When you’re writing a paper, you can flip through your abstracts for the kind of information you need, scanning for the color, and pull out the abstracts/articles that will best fit your own writing’s needs. This is an effective way to winnow down the number of possible sources while upping the efficiency of what you do read.

Another useful technique involving abstracts is related to creating annotated bibliographies. Read the abstract and create a two to three sentence summary–no longer!–of the content. The first sentence should contain the author, the article’s title, and the overarching focus or main idea of the article. The next sentence or two should touch on the major support that shows this main idea. An example might be:

The story “The Fox and the Crow” attributed to Aesop shows the consequences of vanity. By flattering the crow, the fox is able to “steal” the crow’s food, a feat that would have been impossible if the crow hadn’t succumbed to vain demonstration.

If in trying to create the summary you notice some vagueness or ambiguity in the abstract, read the article carefully to establish what might not have been expressed well in the abstract, and be sure to note what you find as part of the summary (In this way you are also capturing possible limitations that might need to be discussed in your own work when you cite this article). Creating the summary based on the abstract is NOT a substitute for reading the article! Using the abstract will help you be sure you concentrated on the article’s main idea and purpose since that’s the function of an abstract, but before using it or your summary, you need to read the article carefully as discussed in the previous posting.

In the end, your summary can be referred to for refreshing your memory for comps, it can help you build lit reviews, and it’s a chance to practice paraphrasing, the constant struggle for all academics of putting another’s ideas in your own words and structures both accurately and read-ably. It’s a wonderful way to practice the skill that helps you support your own ideas by putting the source’s ideas in relation to your own.

Next up: Synthesizing Sources!

Creative Commons-licensed photo via Flickr user Blue Square Thing.

Leave a Comment, Question, or Suggestion!