How to write a research paper (general guidance)

  1. Introduction

Learning to write an engaging and persuasive research paper that makes a sustained argument is one of the chief skills that studying history will teach you. Writing good research paper involves work: inspiration and enthusiasm for a particular subject must be backed up by diligent research, careful organization and thoughtful contemplation of the ideas at stake. At the same time, essay writing is also something of an art, in which your style and ability matures with practice and experience. In a history research paper, you are expected to present a well-constructed and clearly expressed argument based on evidence and analysis, usually as an answer to a specific question. History essays are thus more than simple narrative accounts of the past; they should seek to persuade the reader. The guidelines presented here hopefully will be of some assistance as you set about that task.

This guide is intended for all students taking History at B.H.S., though it will offer different things to different students depending upon their background and previous experience. Though there are obviously significant differences in expectations for Global History I, Global History II, Honors, Academic, and Prep students in History, the essential principles of good historical writing are the same for everyone.

Researching your essay

Getting started

Where to begin is often the single most difficult and anxiety-provoking issue for students when they are confronted by a history research paper, whether it is a short paper of 1,000 words or an Honors of 3,000 words. However, some simple steps can swiftly make the task seem less daunting.

Selecting an essay topic

1.1       This is perhaps the most important step of all, for it will affect almost every other step you take in your research.

First and foremost, you should seek an essay topic that is interesting to you. A topic that genuinely engages your interest ought to be fun to read and write about, and will likely result in a better essay. You may be assigned a research paper topic by your teacher within the unit of study under your class is investigating.

Second, make sure your topic is manageable in size. Subjects such as ‘The fall of the Roman Empire’ and ‘The origins of the Second World War’ are the stuff of books by professional historians, who take years to write them. You should aim at a more limited and sharply focused essay topic.

Third, your essay topic should (at least in the first instance) preferably be phrased in the form of a clearly defined question. For instance: ‘To what extent was the fall of the Roman Empire caused by pressure from “barbarians” on the frontiers?’ or ‘Why did the Second World War break out in 1939 rather than 1938?’ Your essay’s argument thus naturally becomes the answer to this question.

Starting your research

1.2       Your first step should be a visit to the library to search the catalogue for books, journal articles, book reviews, documentary collections, etc., on your topic. In particular, do not be afraid to go on the trail of relevant primary sources. If you are having trouble, or want to expand your search, speak to a B.H.S. librarian—it is their main aim in life to help people use their library as effectively as possible!

1.3       Evaluate your sources before you start taking notes from them. Examine their bibliographies for additional sources you might consult. For books, the table of contents and the index will help you to pinpoint relevant information, while the preface and introduction often contain quick and easily accessible summaries of the main argument. You may discover very quickly that a source with a title that appeared extremely relevant to your topic is in fact not useful at all.

1.4       Getting an early start is vital for any research essay, and particularly for history essays which require real research. You will need enough time to locate the necessary sources for your research, to read them carefully and take detailed notes, and only then to write and revise your essay. As the end of term approaches, the demand for various books will increase and this could leave you without access to the most useful sources for your essay topic. Don’t be caught out!

Taking good notes…Cornell Notes!!

1.5       Good Cornell note-taking is a focused and systematic process. From the very start of your research, you should concentrate on answering the specific question contained in your essay topic and not become bogged down in digressions or generalities. In consequence, you should be sparing in the time-consuming process of recording direct quotations in your notes, for they ought to be used sparingly in your essay. Instead, for each source summarise the argument being made as you understand it in your own words, along with the evidence that the author presents to support it. Be selective in what you photocopy and be sure to read and annotate your copies as soon as possible after making them: large piles of photocopied pages tend to remain undigested and unused.

1.6       A good essay cannot be written from scrappy and unsystematic notes. Be diligent in organizing your research (by headings, marginal notes, color codes or a simple filing system) and indicating the exact source of each piece of information. Being able to give accurate and informative references in your essay is part of avoiding the problem of plagiarism and depends upon your having clear and accurate notes—with any source the very first step is thus to note its full bibliographic details and thereafter constantly to keep track of the page numbers from which you are gathering information.


A history research paper can only be as strong as the historical sources on which it is based. There are two main types of sources that you will draw on as you conduct the research for your essay: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary sources

2.1       Primary sources are best defined as original documents or artifacts which date from the time period of the topic on which you are writing. Thus, for an essay on the origins of the First World War, primary sources might include: official government documents from the major belligerent powers; personal diaries or letters, written at the time by both political and military leaders and ordinary people; the descriptions of events recorded in contemporary newspapers; photographs, maps, coins and stamps; and even popular books or patriotic songs. While it is not always possible for undergraduates to gain access to such sources, it is often much easier than students believe. Government documents, for instance, are frequently available in official published documentary collections: the Murdoch library holds the twelve volumes of the series British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914—a vast range of official papers on British foreign policy. Additionally, in the Internet age it is becoming constantly easier to find documentary and visual sources on the web.


2.2       Primary sources form the basic building blocks of all historical writing. Because the discipline of history is based upon interpretation, however, historians do not take the evidence provided by primary sources at face value. They read and assess each source critically—with the result that different historians often arrive at very different conclusions about the meaning of the same source. You must be careful about assuming that primary sources are somehow ‘true’ because they were created by people of the time. People of any time have their own agendas, prejudices and biases—whether overt or secret, conscious or unconscious—and these can shape or distort the content and meaning of a source. As you evaluate any piece of evidence, consider who created it and why, who was the intended audience, and what was the historical context in which it was created and received.

Secondary sources

2.3       Secondary sources usually form the main or sole basis for the majority of research papers. Secondary sources are best defined as books, articles and other commentaries written later in time about a particular subject, most often by professional and amateur historians or journalists, which interpret the nature and significance of the primary sources. Secondary sources on the origins of the First World War would include the vast number of books studying the events leading up to August 1914; biographies of the major political and military figures of the time; studies of popular opinion and attitudes towards war in the main European states; more focused articles on specific questions published in journals such the English Historical Review or War in History; modern maps detailing the movement of armies during the build-up to war; book reviews which provide overviews and critiques of the main developments in the study of the subject; and so on.

2.4       There are good and bad secondary sources for research papers. Good secondary works are firmly based upon a large range of relevant primary sources and have been subjected to careful review before being published by reputable presses; bad ones tend not to have been subjected to processes of scrutiny or are supported by only a weak base of primary research. Thus, you should critically evaluate the usefulness of each source as you proceed with your research. Who was the author and who was the publisher? When was it published and who was the intended audience? Does it have extensive footnotes and a relevant bibliography? What sorts of sources has the author used to support their argument? What sorts of unspoken assumptions, or detectable biases, might be at work? Is the argument still relevant? For example, you would read an American book published in 1999 about relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Second World War quite differently from a book on the same subject published in Moscow in 1957.

2.5       Textbooks and encyclopedias should not serve as the main sources for your research paper. They are generally too basic, not well-referenced and provide only facts without analysis. (On-line encyclopedias are no more acceptable as sources for research essays than are standard printed encyclopedias—especially the worst example of all, Wikipedia!) So, too, with works of ‘popular history’: though often fun to read, they are not usually a good source for further research. Finally, neither should your lecture notes serve as the foundation for your research—certainly never quote from them in your essays!—for any important point made in a lecture should be tracked down and explored in proper detail by you in published sources.

Internet sources

2.6       The Internet in general is not a reliable or acceptable source for researching history essays. The web is an unregulated medium and anybody, anywhere, can post material that looks impressive and sounds authoritative. Just because the opinions expressed on websites are ‘in print’ does not make them either true or reliable. At most, on-line sources can provide thought-provoking or unexpected perspectives on historical topics which must then be investigated further through reputable published sources. At worst, however, and far more common, on-line sources are wildly inaccurate, heavily distorted, biased or misleading, and unverifiable. Internet sources are thus not acceptable as the basis of your research for any of your essays. As a general rule, do not spend time on the web at the expense of the readings listed in your unit guide.

2.7        Nevertheless, the Internet does have some potential value for history students in providing access to certain kinds of primary sources. Previously unobtainable sources can now be found on the web, including: maps and technical plans; visual sources such as photographs, cartoons and propaganda posters; original oral testimony and witness statements; newspaper articles; and especially copies of original government documents. It is worth noting that these sources are mostly available through the web sites of credible institutions, usually universities, governments, international organisations and museums, which allows for greater confidence in their reliability and accuracy. For example, the official website of the United Nations is a treasure trove of valuable primary material for students of post-1945 world history and politics. Students are encouraged to investigate the possibilities provided by such reputable sources and to put them to use in their research essays.

2.8        You should take the same critical approach to any Internet source that you would with any published source: be cautious, sceptical and thorough. Websites which present a façade of respectability and impartiality may, under closer investigation, be revealed as clandestine attempts to spread political-propaganda messages. Please seek out guidance from your teacher if you have any concerns or questions about a website.

Some guidelines for assessing the credibility of Internet sites

  • Is the site clearly identified?
  • Is it located at and administered by a governmental agency, university, or other scholarly institution?
  • Is the author of the web page or document identified? Are there details of the author’s qualifications and affiliations?
  • Is the posting process explained? Have items on this site been peer-reviewed?
  • Is there a date for when the information was created or last updated?
  • Is the item more opinion than information?
  • Is the item posted for potentially political, commercial or other reasons which would damage its objectivity?


Three kinds of essay question

1.1       A history research paper calls for an argument, especially essays where the topic is phrased in the subject of a question. As the first step in formulating your argument, you should begin by establishing in your own mind exactly what you are being asked to argue about. Read the question carefully to determine what is being asked, what sorts of assumptions and preconceptions it includes, what its terms mean, and what sorts of responses you can make (supporting, rejecting, revising, etc.). Most historical questions or problems are debatable, meaning that there is no single or simple answer to them. Take the time to decide in your own mind what you genuinely think about a subject, and what you genuinely believe to be the answer to a particular question or problem. One way to approach this process is to consider the distinction between descriptive, analytical and critical essays.

1.2       The descriptive essay is appropriate for cases where you have been asked to describe a particular event, problem, book, author, etc. You might be asked ‘What happened during the Stalinist Terror of the 1930s?’ or ‘What is Ian Kershaw’s view of the changes in German foreign policy during 1938-39?’ In the first case, you would structure your essay as a summary of the events of the Terror, based on various primary and secondary sources, reporting on its scale, events and mechanisms. In the second case, you would consult Kershaw’s books and in your essay summarize the various changes in German foreign policy that he outlines. The descriptive essay can be useful therefore, but it is limited. In both of these examples, while the summaries would provide accurate descriptions, they would not really advance our historical understanding of why the Stalinist Terror was so significant or of what Kershaw’s books have contributed to the scholarship on German foreign policy.
1.3       The analytical essay is perhaps the most common sort of essay confronted by students. Here you take on questions that require individual judgment and analysis in order to give an adequate answer. You might be asked ‘How central was Stalin’s role in the Terror of the 1930s?’ or ‘What are the most important features of Kershaw’s interpretation of Hitler’s foreign policy in the late 1930s?’ In the first case, you would need to make a reasoned judgment regarding the responsibility of a single individual (Stalin) for a massively complex and geographically widespread process of murder and repression. How do you define ‘terror’ and ‘responsibility’? What other factors might have been responsible for these horrific events? What sort of evidence is necessary to prove Stalin’s responsibility? For the second case, you might begin by considering how to select certain interpretations as more important than others. What criteria can you develop to discriminate between them? On which points does Kershaw himself lay the most stress? Which elements of his interpretation are accepted by other historians, and which are rejected? Where do you think Kershaw’s interpretation is strongest, and where is it weakest? Such analytical approaches produce essays that make arguments about how to assess historical events and interpretations; they require you to analyse the relevant material, to make judgments and to defend them.

1.4       The critical essay is less common and more challenging, but is perhaps the most interesting sort of essay. It asks you to critically evaluate a book, school of interpretation or approach to a problem from a historiographical point of view. You might be asked ‘Are the “intentionalist” school of historians right to blame Stalin alone for the 1930s Terror?’ or ‘Do you find Kershaw’s interpretation of Hitler’s command over German foreign policy convincing?’ These questions require you to master the relevant historical literature—the ‘intentionalist’ vs. ‘structuralist’ debate in Soviet history or the development of Kershaw’s portrayal of Hitler as Führer—and then to develop your own criteria of evaluation. The critical essay necessarily extends beyond the frame of reference of the subject or book you are considering and places it within the larger historiography of the topic. A critical reading seeks out omissions and contradictions, assesses the strengths and weaknesses in the use of evidence or argument, and makes an evaluation of the historical debate or the individual author’s approach. While students sometimes see this as an exercise only in identifying things that they can condemn, a true critical reading is really about evaluating an argument and can often result in an entirely positive assessment.

The thesis statement

1.5       Your ‘thesis statement’ is the central idea or argument that your essay is setting out to prove. It is the answer to the question that you have set for yourself in the essay. As such, it is the focus for the entire essay and all the relevant evidence that you have assembled during your research will be directed to supporting it. A poor thesis statement is one whose argument is obvious to the reader and does not stand in need of proof, or alternatively one which cannot be proved. A good thesis statement is one whose argument is interesting and even aggressive, sustainable by proof, and clearly and concisely focused. Consider the following examples:

The First World War was a conflict between European powers. This statement contains a weak, self-evident generality without an argument to be proven.

The First World War was the result of various international power struggles in Europe. This statement is slightly better, but still too broad and without an interesting or particularly meaningful argument.

Contrary to popular belief, the First World War was primarily caused by the imperial rivalries of the great powers as they clashed in their struggle to establish or protect their power outside of Europe. This statement contains a distinct argument, takes a strong position, stands in need of proof, and clearly lays out where its focus will be.

1.6       Formulating your thesis statement is thus a critical part of the writing process. Unfortunately, it also often seems rather intimidating. Student writers too frequently are stuck in the mindset that they have nothing important, insightful or original to say about a topic. But this is not so. If you have studied a subject closely, read about it across a range of sources and spent time genuinely thinking about it, it is almost impossible not to end up with a worthwhile set of opinions and conclusions. As you research your topic, you should jot down your thoughts, ideas and responses to the material you read; such active thinking about the material will steadily clarify your own opinion on the question being asked.

1.7       You can arrive at real insights from surprisingly modest beginnings. For example, ‘Stalin was a psycho’ is not much of a historical argument; it is merely an expression of an immature and lazy attitude. And yet, real research and reflection on Stalin’s personal cruelty and murderous policies can produce an excellent essay that makes a nuanced argument about whether he was indeed driven by a psychopathic personality disorder, as some historians have argued was the case, or in fact was motivated by a totalitarian ideology that placed the needs of state and party above the rights or happiness of individuals, as other historians have asserted. In doing so, you will have converted a first impression into a genuine piece of scholarship.

  1. Structure

Basic essay structure of the paper

2.1       Newspaper articles and even television reports, it seems, always abide by the famous ‘three rules of journalism’: (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them; (2) tell them; (3) tell them what you told them! While this is overstated, the traditional essay structure nevertheless also runs along the same general lines. It is classically divided into three parts: the introduction, the main body, and the conclusion.

2.2       In your introduction do not simply repeat or rephrase the question; give your answer to it! This means that it should include a clear and direct thesis statement. You should lay out how you intend to address the subject and what your main lines of argument will be. You should also establish the chronological or thematic parameters of your essay, and provide definitions of all critical terms or concepts. The best introductions, in fact, are often the last part of the essay to be written, when the essay is essentially complete. The reason is that it is only then, when your argument has been fully developed and clearly laid out, that you can present a precise and accurate introductory description of it. Even so, you should begin with a working draft of your introduction, which you can then revise in the light of your eventual conclusions.

2.3       The main body of your essay should be a systematic working through of the evidence you have compiled in support of your argument, usually arranged around three or four main points. (You might also need to take time to address evidence or arguments which appear to disprove your argument.) How you organise the main body of your essay ultimately will depend on the type of argument you are making and the nature of the evidence you are presenting. But in all cases, strive for a clear grouping of the different strands of your argument, even if it must be as blunt as writing: ‘first’ …, ‘second’ …, ‘third’ …, and so on. Use paragraphs intelligently to help structure your essay.

2.4       In writing your conclusion, it is usual to summarize (not simply repeat!) the key points and evidence that have been presented and to restate the essay’s argument. But an essay’s conclusion should also go beyond merely re-stating the points already made—rather, it should deal with genuine conclusions. Now that you have proved your case, what does it tell you? What wider ideas, insights or implications does your argument suggest? What lessons might we draw from the brilliant job of research and analysis that you have performed? Be honest: if some of your original ideas were not supported by the evidence, point this out; make clear where the evidence was too inconclusive to allow for absolute or firm conclusions; and so on.

‘Open’ and ‘closed’ essay structures

2.5       As you consider how to structure your essay, it may be useful to think about the differences between two quite different approaches to structuring history essays, which can be called the closed argument and the open argument.

2.6       An essay with a closed argument moves from the general to the specific, as it steadily narrows the subject down to a specific answer. In structure, it begins with an introduction that lays out in general terms the problem being investigated; the main body of the essay then works through a chain of evidence dealing with the chief issues at stake; and finally, only in the conclusion, is a specific answer to the essay’s question arrived at. The closed argument is thus workmanlike, dependable, and sticks closely to the point.

2.7       An essay with an open argument, by contrast, moves from the specific to the general, as it begins with a direct answer to the essay’s question and steadily expands its discussion of the subject. In structure, it begins with a sharply-defined thesis statement that answers the exact question asked; the main body of the essay then systematically proceeds from point to point, presenting evidence to support its specific thesis; the conclusion, finally, goes beyond merely restating the thesis and instead considers the wider implications of the argument being made. The open argument is thus more ambitious, discursive and difficult to pull off.

  1. Writing and revising

Plan your research paper

3.1       The first thing to do is to prepare an outline of your research paper. You may find when you first sit down to do this that you are not yet exactly sure of what it is that you want to argue—in this case you are not ready to start writing! You should instead continue a bit longer with your research and, perhaps even more importantly, with your reflection on the topic. Unfortunately, too many students begin writing without any clear sense of what they actually want to say. The results are predictable. Their introduction is weak and vague, providing the reader with no clear thesis statement and instead wasting time simply rephrasing the question. The main body of their essay wanders aimlessly, repeating itself and not marshaling evidence in a systematic fashion to frame a coherent argument. Their conclusion, when they finally come to the end, is boringly repetitive and often the first and only place where the reader is confronted with an answer to the question being addressed. Don’t fall into this trap!

3.2       An outline is simply a road map that ensures your essay has a clear thesis statement, is coherently organized, and contains all the evidence necessary to prove your argument. Your outline can be simple or extremely detailed, but it should still be framed around the three essential components of all essays: the introduction, the main body and the conclusion. Draft a simple introduction (1 paragraph) that states your position as clearly and concisely (even bluntly!) as possible. Then set down as bullet points what your key assertions will be in support of your position and note the main pieces of evidence you plan to use to support each one. Finally, for the conclusion, consider (in preliminary terms at least) some of the possible implications and wider considerations that your essay’s argument addresses.

Revise your research paper

3.3       You should allow yourself time to write and then rewrite your essay. Real revision means not being afraid to take what you have written and genuinely tear it apart to make it better. If possible, once the first draft of your paper is complete, put it aside for a few days and then return to it with a fresh, analytical eye. You will quickly spot ways in which it needs revision.

3.4       Revision means asking yourself tough questions. Do you really know exactly what it is you are trying to argue? (If not, clarify this in your own mind and then make sure the essay expresses it clearly.) Do you repeat yourself in places? (You need to rework the structure and delete some material.) Do the particular parts of your essay work together to make a single coherent argument? (Consider how you can best structure your argument so that it hangs together systematically and logically.) Are there places where you fail to prove your point sufficiently well? (You will need to gather more evidence to strengthen your case.) Are the format and style of referencing clear and consistent throughout the essay? (Check the guidelines in Part II of the History Essay Handbook.) Are there any spelling, punctuation, grammar and other stylistic errors? (You need to proof read carefully: careless errors and sloppy presentation will always undermine how your essay is received, no matter how brilliant the argument might be.)

Write like a historian (synopticity)

3.5       Good writing style is an integral part of strong history essays. As a general rule, try to be direct, clear and engaging in your writing. Assume you are writing for an audience that is mature, intelligent and interested—exactly like yourself. Do not assume that your readers will know things without having to be told: if you or a fellow student would require a concept to be explained or term defined, then do so for your reader.

3.6       Don’t try to constantly hedge your bets—be decisive and take a stand. This means addressing the question that is being asked. Don’t wander off into irrelevancies but pose the question clearly and make your answer precise and persuasive.

3.7       Strive for precision. This means resisting the impulse to descend into vague statements and sweeping generalizations. Impossibly broad statements—such as ‘The devastation on the Eastern Front was extreme and affected the lives of many people’—end up proving nothing in themselves. At the same time, definite assertions still require the support of specific detail as evidence: factual detail; statistics; quotations from individuals or documents of the time; and (least effective) quotations from historians. Here an example of how a general assertion might be backed up with specific detail as evidence:

Hitler was lazy. The most obvious example can be seen in his working habits when Führer. He never emerged from his private rooms before midday, took enormously lengthy meals, and generally stayed up until about 2 a.m. watching films before going to bed. As Alan Bullock notes, Hitler ‘hated systematic work, hated to submit to any discipline … and he habitually left as much as he could to others’.


3.8    Avoid ‘fluff’! Meaningless qualifications and ‘filler’ statements—such as ‘thus one can see that’ or ‘having shown this first point, next this second point will be discussed’—merely weaken your essay. Avoid weak phrases like “In my opinion’ or ‘It seems to me’: the reader knows already that ideas and assertions expressed in your essay are your own opinion, so drop the weak preface and be emphatic. For example: ‘In my opinion, Lenin was just as brutal a dictator as Stalin’ is weaker than ‘Lenin was just as brutal a dictator as Stalin’.

  1. Assessment of Research paper

It may be useful to you to have a clearer sense of the basic criteria by which history essays are evaluated and how the different grade levels are categorised. As you revise your research paper, you might consider the questions and the criteria listed below.

  1. Assessment criteria

1.1       Knowledge. This essentially covers the research you have done. Does the essay demonstrate adequate reading? Does it cover the topic with no major or obvious omissions? Does the essay support its argument with sufficient and appropriate evidence? Does it keep a clear focus on the most significant points and develop these in sufficient detail? Is there a good range of sources employed in the footnotes/endnotes and listed in the bibliography?

1.2       Analysis. This essentially deals with your essay’s argument. Do you understand and answer the question asked directly and fully? Have you grasped the key historical issues at stake? Do you show an understanding of the arguments and interpretations of other historians on this topic? Have you evaluated the evidence critically? Does your argument take objections and alternative views into account? In general, do you present a coherent and analytical argument?

1.3       Structure. This essentially deals with the way your essay is organised. Is your argument stated clearly in the introduction? Is there a clear and systematic sense of form of organization to your essay? Have you achieved a good balance between narrative and analysis? Have you successfully supported your general points with appropriate specific evidence? Are the points made in a clear order and effectively linked into a smoothly flowing essay? Does the essay avoid irrelevance or repetition?

1.4       Presentation. This essentially covers the style of your writing and the technical aspects of your submitted work. Have you written in clear and correct English, without too many small errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar? Have you included accurate and correctly formatted references throughout your essay? Have you used quotations correctly? Does it have a proper bibliography? Is the essay of the correct length?

  1. Grade level descriptions

2.1       Exceeds the Standard. Excellent work. The essay contains a clearly defined argument which not only answers the question but addresses its deeper implications. There is extensive evidence, drawn from a wide range of sources, which is used in interesting ways that demonstrate the author fully understands it. The essay shows an ability to question the authority of sources and to weigh their relative merits and value, where necessary identifying and discussing apparent contradictions. The essay is elegantly written, very well structured and shows original insight by the author. This level of attainment thus represents a piece of writing that is enjoyable to read, essentially difficult to fault and the best sort of effort that could be expected by a student at this level.

2.2       Meets the Standard. Very good work. The essay contains a clearly defined argument which displays an understanding of the question and deploys relevant evident to answer it, drawing upon a good range of sources. The analysis is strong and sustained, though it may in places fall short by employing inadequate evidence, failing to explore all the implications of the evidence cited or drawing less impressive conclusions. The essay is well-written, though it may still contain minor structural problems. This level of attainment thus represents a very strong piece of writing that is intelligent, informative and readable, though it will not have quite the polish of “Exceeds the Standard” work.

2.3       Partially Meets the Standard. Good work. The essay answers the question adequately, though the argument overlooks key points or is inadequately focused on the specific question under discussion. There may be a tendency to state ideas rather than to analyze them, or to have the argument rest on unsupported claims. The essay is likely to be based upon a modest range of sources. Though coherently written, it may contain stylistic or structural problems. This level of attainment thus represents ‘creditable’ work: a sound piece of writing that shows the student has clearly done the work required to an acceptable standard though there will be areas that require significant growth and improvement.

2.4       Does Not Meet the Standard. Inadequate or unacceptable work. The essay makes no attempt to develop a sustained argument in response to the question. There is little or no analysis and it makes unsupported assertions backed by vague, distorted or inaccurate evidence. The essay may be inadequate in terms of length, likely uses an insufficient number of sources, and is very poorly written. Work in this category may include: an essay which merely gives a chronicle of events without any analysis; an essay based entirely or substantially upon inadequate sources, including internet sources or unit lectures; an essay that is so structurally, stylistically or grammatically awkward as to be unreadable. This level thus represents work that does not meet the minimum standards expected of high school students.

  1. Plagiarism
  1. What is plagiarism?

1.1       ‘Plagiarism’ involves taking and using someone else’s work, thoughts or writings and representing them as your own. Using the work of another person without indicating by referencing (and by quotation marks when exact phrases or passages are borrowed) that the ideas expressed are not your own is a form of cheating: in effect, it is literary theft. Any use of ideas and information taken from other authors must be acknowledged.

1.2       Classic examples of plagiarism include: copying another student’s work; using an author’s exact words without putting them in quotation marks and citing the source; and using an author’s ideas without proper acknowledgement.

The first case, copying another student’s work, constitutes plain dishonesty for which there can be no acceptable defense.

The second case, using a passage from an author without clearly identifying the words as a quotation, essentially involves the careless error or deliberate deception of trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. There is very little defence for such actions either—as a university student you are expected to know how to take accurate notes, how to employ quotation marks, and how to properly reference all quotations. If you use a direct quotation, the passage must always appear in quotation marks, with the appropriate reference given.

The third case, using an author’s ideas without proper acknowledgement, is more problematic. Compiling the views of other people and passing them off as one’s own writing is not legitimate academic practice. All paraphrases of sources which go into your essays must be followed by a reference to the source that is as clear and precise as those provided for direct quotations.

  1. Plagiarism and Paraphrasing

2.1       Paraphrasing means rephrasing another author’s arguments or findings in your own words: as such, it is a common element of historical research. The obvious danger here is if a passage from a source is paraphrased too closely, such as with only a word changed here and there—this also constitutes plagiarism. When you paraphrase, be sure you are not just rearranging or replacing a few words. Instead, read over carefully the passage in the original that you want to paraphrase and then write out what you think it means, using your own words. If you feel that any phrases or sentences from the original are so precise and to the point that you cannot think of a better way to put the idea, consider using it as a quotation.

2.2       Correct paraphrasing is something which students often wonder about. Here is an example of an original source, followed by three versions of how it might be paraphrased in an essay: the first two constitute plagiarism, the third is acceptable paraphrasing.

Original source. J. M. Roberts, History of the World (New York, 1976), p. 845.

The joker in the European pack was Italy. For a time, hopes were entertained of her as a force against Germany, but these disappeared under Mussolini. In 1935 Italy made a belated attempt to participate in the scramble for Africa by invading Ethiopia. It was clearly a breach of the Covenant of the League of Nations for one of its members to attack another. France and Great Britain, the Mediterranean powers, and the African powers were bound to take the lead against Italy at the League. But they did so feebly and half-heartedly because they did not want to alienate a possible ally against Germany. The result was the worst possible: the League failed to check aggression, Ethiopia lost her independence, and Italy was alienated after all.

Version A. Plagiarism. Entire phrases are taken from the source without footnoting.

Italy, one might say, was the joker in the European deck. When she invaded Ethiopia, it was clearly a breach of the Covenant of the League of Nations, yet the efforts of England and France to take the lead against her were feeble and half-hearted. It appears that those great powers had no wish to alienate a possible ally against Hitler’s rearmed Germany.

Version B. Plagiarism. Exact words from the original are still not given as quotes.

Italy was the joker in the European deck. Under Mussolini in 1935, she made a belated attempt to participate in the scramble for Africa by invading Ethiopia. As J.M. Roberts points out, this violated the Covenant of the League of Nations.1 But France and Britain, not wanting to alienate a possible ally against Germany, put up only feeble and half-hearted opposition to the Ethiopian adventure. The outcome, Roberts observes, was the worst possible: ‘the League failed to check aggression, Ethiopia lost her independence, and Italy was alienated after all’.2

1 J. M. Roberts, History of the World (New York, 1976), p. 845.

2 Ibid.

Version C. Acceptable. Writer is incorporating elements from the source material as part of his/her own argument, not merely rephrasing the original. Direct quotes are footnoted.

Germany’s dominance within Europe during the 1930s was by no means a foregone conclusion, for the balance of power might just as easily have been tipped against Hitler if Fascist Italy had not gravitated towards an alliance with Berlin. Such an alliance was not inevitable; the British and French governments both muted their criticism of Mussolini’s Ethiopian invasion in the hope of remaining friends with Italy. They opposed the Italians in the League of Nations, as J.M. Roberts observes, ‘feebly and half-heartedly because they did not want to alienate a possible ally against Germany’.1 It is possible to imagine alternative circumstances where Italy, France, and Britain retained a common interest in preserving stability in Europe, despite ideological differences, and so jointly restrained Hitler from his diplomatic adventures of the later 1930s.

1 J. M. Roberts, History of the World (New York, 1976), p. 845.

Plagiarism in action: An actual case

This first passage comes from the introduction to Mark Raeff, The Decembrists, published in 1966:

December 14, 1825, was the day set for taking the oath of allegiance to the new Emperor, Nicholas I. Only a few days earlier, on November 27, when news of the death of Alexander I had reached the capital, an oath of allegiance had been taken to Nicholas’s older brother, Grand Duke Constantine, Viceroy of Poland. But in accordance with the act of renunciation he had made in 1819, Constantine had refused the crown. The virtual interregnum stirred society and produced uneasiness among the troops, and the government was apprehensive of disorders and disturbances. Police agents reported the existence of secret societies and rumours of a coup to be staged by regiments of the Guards. The new Emperor was anxious to have the oath taken as quickly and quietly as possible. The members of the central government institutions—Council of State, Senate, Ministries—took the oath without incident, early in the morning. In most regiments of the garrison the oath was also taken peaceably.

This second passage comes from the introduction to G.R.V. Barratt, The Decembrist Memoirs, published in 1974.

December 14, 1825, was the day on which the Guards’ regiments in Petersburg were to swear solemn allegiance to Nicholas I, the new Emperor. Less than three weeks before, when news of the death of Alexander I had reached the capital from Taganrog on the sea of Azov, an oath, no less solemn and binding, had been taken to Nicholas’s elder brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, Viceroy of Poland. Constantine, however, had declined to be emperor, in accordance with two separate acts of renunciation made in 1819 and, secretly, in 1822. The effective interregnum caused uneasiness both in society and in the army. The government feared undefined disorders—with some reason, since police agents reported the existence of various clandestine groups and rumours of a coup to be effected by guardsmen. Nicholas was anxious that the oath be sworn to him promptly and quietly. At first it would seem that he would have his way; senators, ministers, and members of the Council of State took the oath by 9 am. In most regiments of the garrison the oath was also taken peaceably.

It was not long before reviewers spotted the similarities! This is a classic case of paraphrasing as plagiarism: while Barratt changed, added and rearranged words, nevertheless he still drew directly from Raeff’s work throughout. Remember that it is not enough merely to change the order of a few words or sentences, or to add a few phrases or sentences of your own—such close borrowing is still plagiarism.

  1. How to avoid plagiarism

3.1       Give yourself enough time to do your essay. Very rarely do students start out deliberately intending to commit plagiarism. Instead, they fall into the trap because they are desperate to meet an impending deadline and become careless or make bad choices. You can avoid this by getting started early and giving yourself sufficient time to research and write your essays.

3.2       Take full and accurate notes. One of the most common explanations from students who have made improper use of sources is that they mixed up their notes and could not tell the difference between their own thoughts and those of their sources. You should always take notes in a way that lets you distinguish at a glance your own thoughts from ideas and words that you have copied from others. For a start, put everything that comes directly from another source in quotation marks. Always write down the full bibliographical and page information for the sources of such quotations, so that the information is handy when you compile the references for your essay.

3.3       Learn how to cite evidence correctly. In history essays it is not merely expected but essential that you should draw upon the research and interpretations of other historians as you put together your argument. What is required, however, is that properly acknowledge the source of this material, via a reference such as a footnote or endnote. The best place to start is by carefully reading the sections in Style Section of the Handbook on using quotations and on how and when to use footnotes and endnotes. If you have any doubts about how to refer to the work of others in your assignments, please consult your teacher for help.