The History Research Process


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Referencing Scholarship

When deciding what to quote, what to cite, etc., it is important to remember two points:

  1. Some sources consulted during research will not be referenced in your final writing product.
    This is just a part of the research and writing process. You will read many things, gather information, then cull through everything you have found and select the parts you need. Do not try to "stuff" every fact, opinion, or source into your final product simply because you read it during your research.
    If you buy a sack of twenty apples, you are still allowed to throw away the wormy brown apple at the bottom of the bag. You do not have to use everything just because you have it.
  2. Some sources may be referenced in footnotes, though not directly discussed within the narrative.
    Referencing a selection of sources in footnotes, even when you are not engaging with them in your narrative, is an important way to demonstrate your familiarity with the field of work--and to direct your reader to that same body of work--but without using the time and space to discuss every source separately. This technique of relegating sources to a footnote, perhaps introduced by "See also..." or "See, for example,..." is especially useful for acknowledging multiple sources which all support a similar argument or conclusion.
    This topic is discussed in more detail on the next tab of this guide, "Scholarship in Footnotes."

Understand When to Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize

Your paper should be exactly that: yours. Your ideas, expressed in your words. The sources you reference are used as evidence to validate your own statements.

Your ideas might not seem credible enough on their own without evidence to justify them, so sources are essential; but, at the same time, it is not your goal to simply "glue" together a series of quotes from other people without original ideas in between.


When to Quote?


I.W. Mabbett, Reader in History at Monash University and Professor Emeritus at Aichi Bunkyo University, Nagoya, Japan, asserts:

"You should not want to quote something just because it is important, or even because it is well-expressed... There is no need to quote anything, generally, unless you wish to discuss the actual sentences you quote" (70).

Given that assertion, in what context might a quote be justified?

  1. Primary sources, because the words and sentences in a primary document ARE evidence in themselves.
  2. Words in secondary sources that are debatable (in a way relevant to your argument), for instance, comparing the different viewpoints of two authors.

William Kelleher Storey agrees with using direct quotes only occasionally, but he provides a slightly different perspective on when to employ them:

"Use a direct quotation when the language of your source is vivid and you cannot possibly do justice to it by summarizing or paraphrasing it. Also quote a source directly when key points of interpretation depend on the exact wording in the source" (36).

If you do quote directly, always use quotation marks to signal the reader that the exact words are someone else's and, of course, include a citation to the source being quoted.


If you aren't quoting, what do you do instead?


  1. Summarize: to restate another writer's idea in a more concise number of words. Include a citation to the source being summarized.
  2. Paraphrase: to restate another writer's idea in about the same number of words, perhaps to be more clear, to update archaic language, etc. When paraphrasing, be sure the words are distinct: just changing "the" to "a" is not a significant enough restatement to avoid plagiarism. You need to paraphrase an idea using distinctly different words, or else you might be better off sticking with a direct quotation. Include a citation to the source being paraphrased.
  3. Plagiarize: to use someone else's exact word (or someone else's unique argument, viewpoint, idea, insight, etc.) without acknowledging it. This is immoral, illegal, and could get you expelled. Don't use this approach!


Common Facts, Uncommon Facts, & Opinions: When to Cite?


Common facts (or common knowledge):

  • Facts commonly known and accepted.
  • Do not need to be quoted or cited from a specific source.
  • Example: Columbus sailed to North America in 1492.
  • Uncertain whether a fact is common knowledge? Safer to treat as an uncommon fact (see below).

Uncommon facts:

  • Provable but not commonly known.
  • Factual statements, made by authorities, which you have no reason to doubt.
  • State in your own words, then cite an authoritative source in a footnote as evidence.


  • Statements which seem potentially questionable or which you may have a reason to doubt as fact.
  • Statements made by one historian, but with which one or more other historians disagree (the statements do not necessarily have to be out-and-out false, simply debatable).
  • Whether quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing, cite the source of the opinion in a footnote.
  • Explicitly identify statements of opinion in your narrative with verbal cues such as: "Johnson argues that...," "Johnson asserts...," "According to Johnson..."


Sources Consulted:

I. W. Mabbett, Writing History Essays: A Student's Guide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 33, 45-47, 69-70.

William Kelleher Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 34-36, 41-44.

Careful Paraphrasing

The following brief example has been borrowed from I. W. Mabbett’s Writing History Essays: A Student’s Guide page 91 (italicized passages are quoted from Mabbett). Mabbett also provides a longer, more in depth example of good versus poor paraphrasing on pages 92-94, which you should consider referencing for a deeper understanding of the difference between paraphrasing and original thought.


What you read in a source:

The city workers did not go into revolt, but their rallies and near-riots had the effect of changing the rules of the political game – no longer could people sustain the old notion that the wealthy oligarchs had a divine right to rule.

What you wrote in your paper:

The urban poor did not stage a rebellion, but their demonstrations and noisy protests effectively changed the old rules by which people believed the rich ruling class governed by divine right.


Mabbett explains: “…the original is being paraphrased. But what sort of false impression is being given? The author of the original has an idea to express…. But if you paraphrase it without saying that the idea is the original author’s, you are in effect pretending that it is your own idea. That is different from summing it up in your own words and saying it is his idea (which is what you should do).”


A better approach to summarizing and citing another author’s idea:

Smith claims that, though this civil unrest did not amount to rebellion, it was severe enough to put an end to the old unthinking assumption that the rich had a ‘divine right’ to power.1

Or you could incorporate a direct quote into your paper instead.



Note that with a statement of fact, rather than an original idea, a paraphrase of the original source is not as detrimental, because you are not laying false claim to another person’s unique ideas. The source of the fact should still be cited in a footnote, however, unless it constitutes “common knowledge.”

For example, you read the fact:

The city workers staged a number of noisy rallies that went out of control.

And you might paraphrase it in your paper like this:

Various rather violent demonstrations were put on by the urban workers, and these became uncontrollable.1

The workers in the town were responsible for some turbulent protest rallies which became violent.1



Sources Consulted:

I. W. Mabbett, Writing History Essays: A Student's Guide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 91-92.


From these examples, you should recognize that it is essential to learn to distinguish between FACTS and OPINIONS/ideas/interpretations so that you can handle them each appropriately in your writing.

Try adding “The author claims…” on the front of a statement and see if it makes sense when you examine it critically. Do other authors disagree or make different claims? Is there reason to doubt the statement?

For example, it would not make sense to say “The author claims that: Columbus sailed to North America in 1492.” The date of Columbus’ voyage is a fact, not an original idea. Therefore, you can include this fact in your paper without worrying about using direct quotes and without concern that a paraphrase may come across as plagiarism. The decision of whether to include a citation for the source of a fact will depend on whether the fact is “common knowledge;” in this case, if you are writing to a predominately American audience, the date 1492 would constitute common knowledge and the source of the fact would not need to be cited.

But it WOULD make sense to say “The author claims that: Columbus was definitively the first explorer to land on North America.” That statement is definitely an opinion, and there are definitely plenty of authors who disagree and argue that other explorers (for instance, the Vikings) predate Columbus’ arrival in North America. Therefore, if you wish to include this idea in your paper, you need to either use a direct quote from the author (with a citation) or else summarize his idea in your own words (with a citation).

Direct Quotes

If you do use a direct quote, be sure to incorporate it into the flow of your narrative in a correct and natural way. There are two main methods to do this:

  1. Begin a sentence in your own words and include a quotation as part of that sentence.
    Example from I. W. Mabbett, page 36: At a time when the French bourgeoisie was growing, Proudhon was quite brave to declare that “property is theft.”

    Note that the exact words “property is theft” are a direct quote from Proudhon. But the words are built into the sentence of the essay so that the whole sentence reads naturally; if you were not quoting an author, you could remove the quotes, and it would simply flow as a totally normal sentence. This is preferable to creating choppy sentences which draw unnecessary attention to the quotation.

    DO NOT let a quotation stand alone as a sentence in your paper without your own words introducing or commenting on it to provide context. Do not simply quote an entire sentence from another author and have it stand in as an entire sentence in your paper while telling yourself, “There, he said it all, so I don’t have to.” That defeats the purpose: remember that the goal is to write an essay of YOUR ideas, in YOUR words, using quotes only to support your points, not to make your arguments for you.
  2. Quote longer passages (more than 3 lines) in a block quote.
    Be sure that the sentence before the block quotation introduces it. The sentences after the block quotation should comment on it, link it in to the subsequent text, explain its relevancy, or similar. Don’t just include a block quotation and then abruptly move on to another point. It should be “nested” between two passages in your own words that help to show why it is being included in the first place.


Sources Consulted:

I. W. Mabbett, Writing History Essays: A Student's Guide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 36-37.


When you incorporate a quote into your narrative, YES, the grammar matters. You need to construct sentences carefully so that your narrative flow, tense, etc. remain accurate but also so that the quote fits correctly with the tense, etc. of your sentence.

For example, if your sentence is in past tense and has a singular subject, but the original context of your quote uses present tense and a plural subject, you probably cannot just quote a chunk of the sentence and expect it all to fit together. THE PRESENCE OF QUOTATION MARKS DOES NOT CANCEL OUT THE FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF GRAMMAR.


This can usually be addressed by using one or more of the three techniques:

  • Use ellipses --  …   (dot, dot, dot)  -- to delete words from the quote that are unneeded or, in this case, that do not fit grammatically.
  • Use words in brackets –  [like this]  -- to insert words into a quote, often when you need to change the tense of a verb or the number of a subject, or when you need to replace a word like “he” with a specific name so that the quote remains clear when removed from its original context.
  • Rephrase your own portions of the sentence. Often you write your sentence first, then try to wedge the quote in; if it doesn’t fit well, you may start trying to use ellipses and brackets to reword the quote, but in reality it may be easier to simply redraft YOUR portion of the sentence to more naturally surround the quote.


In all cases, be honest and true to the original sense of the quotation. Do not delete or insert words that cause a distortion of the author’s original meaning.


Sources Consulted:

William Kelleher Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 38-40.

Chicago Style

Questions about quoting, citing, footnotes, etc. in Chicago Style? Refer to the SHSU guide to Chicago style or consult the complete official Chicago Manual of Style Online.


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