5 Websites to avoid referencing in your research papers

October 27, 2014

In one of the graduate-level research courses I teach, we guide students through an action research project. Each student choses the topic, shares a problem of practice and crafts a research question before starting the research topic. The projects include a substantive review of the literature on whatever topic they’ve chosen. Here are 5 websites I advise them to avoid (and why):


If you need to define a term for a research paper, look to published research, not a dictionary. Why? Because you’re a university student who is a novice researcher and part of your job entails going beyond simple dictionary definitions to understand the deeper, more complex meaning of terms, particularly in the context of research.


If you want to quote someone, for heaven’s sake, don’t use this — or any other — quotation website. Referencing websites like this sends a clear message to your prof: “I am too lazy to find the original source myself.” You’re a university student! You have the ability and resources to find the original source material yourself and cite that instead.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you can’t easily access the original source because it is an ancient text in a foreign language (like the work of Plato or Socrates). You can still find modern translations of the work of the ancient philosophers and quite honestly, if you do then you are well on your way to developing your own skills as a scholar.


Who doesn’t love Oprah? She’s inspiring and magnetic. But she’s not a scholar. She doesn’t publish academic papers and she doesn’t conduct research. Feel free to talk about Oprah’s views and visions for a better world at the dinner table or with your friends when you are out for a latte, but when you put on your researcher hat, seek out the “big names” in the field of research you’re interested in. Chances are, they won’t have a TV show, but they’ll probably have one hell of a publication list.

Dr. Phil

Let’s get one thing straight. Just because someone carries the title of “Dr.”, that doesn’t mean you should cite them in your research papers. Even if your research topic is about relationships, coping, resilience or some other topic related to psychology, unless you can find a research article published by Dr. Phil McGraw in a peer-reviewed academic journal, then don’t cite him. Learn to distinguish between TV personalities who are experts in a given field and scholarly authorities whose work is peer-reviewed and academic. For research, always opt for academic sources over mass media.

Dr. Oz

Are you getting the picture here? Like Oprah and Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz is a well-known TV personality who is a credentialed  physician in the United States. But that doesn’t mean you should take his views on medical issues as evidence for your research papers.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of these websites. They’re meant for popular consumption. But as a researcher, you want to dig deeper and be relentless in your quest for using quality scholarly sources in your research papers. Don’t settle for sources that are not deeply credible and obviously academic.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

An open letter to graduate students seeking “information” and help

June 3, 2013

If you haven’t read Carl Zimmer’s “Open letter to science students and science teachers” on the National Geographic blog, drop everything and go read it right now. It is as fascinating as it is infuriating.

In it, Zimmer describes a phenomenon in which he receives multiple requests a week from science students asking him to do their homework for them.

As I read Zimmer’s post, I thought to myself, “I get the exact same kinds of e-mails!” Only mine are related to my field of study, principally education and language learning. The requests often come from people who have read an article or a book I have written.

Unlike Zimmer, the people who write to me are not junior high school or high school students, but rather they are Master’s or Ph.D. students essentially asking me to do their research for them.

It is one thing to write to a scholar to request a copy of an article that he or she has written, or to ask where you can get your hands on such an article. It is quite another to write to someone and say, “This is my research topic. Could you tell me what theoretical framework I should use and maybe write a few lines of my first chapter to get me started?”

I answered the first few dozen e-mails that I received asking for “information”. Then I thought to myself, “What the heck am I doing?” Learning to do research is part of being a graduate student. A big part.

From then on I developed a standard reply that goes something like this:

Dear ___________:

Thank you for your e-mail requesting information on __________________. Your research topic sounds interesting and engaging. I would be happy to help you delve further into your research topic and guide you as you learn more about the finer points of your topic. To get the process rolling, what you need to do is have your research supervisor contact me in writing with a formal invitation to become a member of your thesis committee as an external advisor. That way, I will be able to engage more fully with you, your supervisor and the other scholars who have committed to help you throughout your journey as a graduate student. This is an exciting time for you and I look forward to receiving the formal invitation from your university.

I never hear from them again.

What is happening with our education system (at all levels) where students entitled to ask others to do their work for them?

Zimmer hits the nail on the head… The practice is being touted by other adults (e.g. teachers and parents) as being a “communicative” activity.

Learning how to research and do homework is just as important as learning what the information is– if not more so.

I learned to research for myself. It’s hard work to learn those skills. And it’s something you can only learn by doing. It’s kind of like driving a car… If you only ever learn how to ask others to do it for you, you’ll never really learn the basics, the finer points and the tricks along the way.

It’s your bus. Learn to drive it.


If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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