Using Outside Sources in Fantasy & Science Fiction

When is is appropriate to use outside sources?

A student (Melanie Croos-Debrera, 10 Sep 2011) asked this:
For this upcoming paper (and subsequent papers) that will be due in the class, are we allowed to use outside sources in order to emphasize and support our thesis? I have an idea for my Grimm paper about "[T]he Juniper Tree" that would require some knowledge of the physical characteristics of the tree. May I use sources for this then?

Her discussion leader (Emily Lind, 11 Sep 2011) replied:
If you need to bring in outside sources to support your argument, I should think that would be just fine. However, I would advise you to do so strategically so as to spend as much time with our texts and your ideas as possible in such a short paper.

I agree completely with that advice and would like to add four comments.

(1) What is "strategic" in citation? The outside source might be able to provide one or more of a number of benefits.
(A) Contemporary Knowledge: The outside source, as in this case, might be able to show that the audience contemporary to the publication of the narrative, an audience more widely knowledgeable than we tend to be about the details of plant life, would have been expected to know something that we modern readers would not. This might be key information and since, by definition, it isn't widely known to modern readers, the essay writer may need this outside authority to support his/her claim about that knowledge. In such a case, I advise using that source but, as Emily implied, don't spend more of your allotted words than you must to do so. This is only a brick in your argument; it is the argument that counts.
(B) Uncommon Knowledge: There is other knowledge that you may have that bears on your essay but you may believe that your reader doesn't have that knowledge or at least can't be expected to have it. For example, I often use etymology in my analyses. Most people, including both modern readers and the Grimms' contemporaries, will not have conscious knowledge about most etymologies. If I aimed to publish one of my comments that involved etymology, I would cite and perhaps quote an appropriate source, like the Oxford English Dictionary or Shipley's The Origin of English Words. We need never waste a reader's time and an essayist's words with a reference asserting the truth of common knowledge. We all know "2+2=4" and should know the source of "To be or not to be." However, if your argument needs uncommon knowledge, you build your authority by citing a source for it.
(C) Modesty: The outside source can, by being referenced knowledgably, demonstrate your own expertise. While demonstrating expertise does help make an essayist more persuasive, it is better to do so by demonstrating one's expert understanding of the text at hand because that will be more palpably and gratefully received by one's readers as educating the reader him/herself. To cite outside sources just to show you could find them is showing off and wastes your reader's time, thus diminishing your authority, so don’t cite for citation's sake alone. There is no inherent conflict between demonstrating expertise and intellectual modesty.

(2) How should you cite sources for our essays? The key point is that citation should allow your reader as efficiently as possible to find your source should s/he wish to do so for any reason, for example, to see its larger context. This point about efficiency guides the advice about Notes given in our page on Essay Formats and Notes.

3) What about plagiarism? Plagiarism is the representation, explicit or implicit, that work—including a basic idea—is yours when, in fact, you know, or should know, that it is not. So called unconscious plagiarism is still plagiarism. Citation of the source of your knowledge or idea avoids charges of plagiarism and, more importantly, demonstrates your commitment as a scholar which builds your authority at the same time that it offers your reader a path s/he may find worth following. Our syllabus has a section on plagiarism which contains a link to the English Department's online discussion of plagiarism. If in doubt about whether or not you are plagiarizing, cite your source. You never undercut your authority by demonstrating scrupulous attention to detail and honesty. However, since you don't want to litter your essay with unnecessary citations, if you are in genuine doubt about whether or not you need a particular citation in order to avoid a charge of plagiarism, feel free to consult your discussion leader, the writing center, or me.

Copyright © 2011 Eric S. Rabkin