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Back Up Your Dissertation Opinions with References and Quotes

When writing your dissertation, references can be used in a variety of different ways for assorted purposes. You should be careful how you refer to different quotations. It would be an error to present somebody's opinion as if it were a fact, for example. To avoid making these mistakes, you need to be absolutely clear about the nature of the quotation or idea before deciding to use it in your work.

Here are some useful questions you can ask yourself about your reading that help you clarify the nature of the evidence and ideas:

  • What is the viewpoint of this writer? Does it detract from his judgement?

  • Is it okay to accept this fact? Would other people agree with this point?

  • What evidence is this writer citing? How can the validity be assessed?

  • Why should I give this author any credence?

  • Is this writer using commonly accepted definitions?

Your use of this writer should be affected by your answers to these key questions. Here are some examples of how this works:

  • 'I was the political Beatle', says McCartney. The viewpoint here is likely to be biased in favour of supporting statement. It is unlikely to be objective since the person making the statement is talking about himself. In this case, McCartney is ‘identifying’, ‘describing’, ‘postulating’ or ‘classifying’ and any quotation is his perception or assumption (rather than a proven, universally agreed fact). This quote comes from an article by Gray, S. In The Independent, 14 December 2008.

  • Even “Harry Potter , the most profitable film franchise in film history” isn’t totally secure.’ This statement about the credit squeeze and the success of fantasy films is not a ‘fact’, but a prediction. You would need to decide if it’s okay to accept it and one way is to look at the source – it comes from The Independent, 28 December 2008. Consider whether other people would agree with this point and what evidence can support the collective view.

  • ‘Michael Jackson's 1982 album “Thriller” is the highest selling album in the world to date.’ In order to accept this information, you’d need to check the evidence that’s being cited. You'd also need to consider the validity of the claim and specify further detail about which measures are being used in this instance. It comes from Michael Jackson fan site and so it would really need to be verified.

  • ‘Madonna’s intentions and impact on Western culture have been even bigger [than the Beatles].’ In this instance, you need to decide whether this author has credence. Do they know what they're talking about? What experience and background do they have in the field? What measures would they be using for making such an assertion? It is from The Times, 22 April 2008.

  • ‘Ulysses, by James Joyce, is the 20th-century best novel in English.’ This statement makes use of a commonly used word (‘best’) that requires clarification. It's undoubtedly true that Ulysses is a brilliant novel, but ascribing it the label ‘best’ requires some very clear criteria. Many avid readers would dispute this choice, which comes from the New York Times 100 Best Books in English list, accessed March 2009). Many people, including some literary critics, would want to question the use of the adjective ‘best’ in this context.

A common error is to sprinkle quotations liberally throughout the text without showing how they link to the points that are being raised. Often this is due to lack of understanding for what is being quoted. Examiners can sometimes read between the lines to discern why a student has quoted as he has, but this is no good; it should be clear how the quotation connects to the student’s ideas.

It shows immediately in your writing if you’ve not understood the quotations you’re using. If you don't understand what you’re reading, leave it out.

Before you use a quotation, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the significance of this quotation to the point you're making?

  • How does this quotation link to what I’ve just said?

  • Why is it relevant to this aspect of my dissertation?

  • How can I avoid just repeating the quotation when I'm explaining how it connects to my argument?

  • In what way is this quotation going to enhance the point I'm making?

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