Rajesh Kumar

Things to say, things to think

Citing vs. Paraphrasing

10 Feb 2007

Sometimes I wonder whether I have really learned anything from studying History for two years. Obviously, I don't remember any of the plethora of tiny little factoids about Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler. I certainly don't remember anything about the Korean war, the Crimean war, the Vietnam war, or even the Gulf war for that matter. Personally, it raises no concern. But it makes me wonder because I'm always used to taking something concrete out of the courses I take. I was able to take something concrete from two years of IB Physics. I was able to take something concrete from two years of IB Chemistry.

I have written elsewhere that the study of History and Astronomy serves, if nothing else, to expand our intellect in the z-dimension. I say this because even if we remember nothing from these courses, they make us enormously humble when it comes to considering how little an impact we have on the things that surround us.

So even if history itself did not teach me anything memorable, it taught me what I really needed for the rest of my life: exceptionally good reading and exceptionally good writing skills. In academic writing especially, I find most of my colleagues struggle when it comes to citing and paraphrasing. We don't really know or understand the difference between the two. Or maybe we just don't care. But we should. Because good writing means defensive writing. And defensive writing means you somehow show that other smart people in your field are also thinking the same way you are.

Here has been my observation so far on matters pertaining to citing and paraphrasing:

Citations, when you're anywhere near the expert range of the writing spectrum, are far better than paraphrases. They preserve the pristine nature of the quotation, and allow very little room to morph the meaning or the original intention of the author being cited. How many times have we seen paraphrases that selectively choose only those words that are in support of our argument, and too cleverly leave out the rest because you're sure your reader is not actually going to take the pain of looking up the citation. And who is to say that our interpretation of a quotation is correct? Paraphrasing inherently comes packaged with bias, and bias—according to our high-school History teacher—is certainly bad, right?

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