ENGLISH 101.  ACADEMIC WRITING
 Reading for Lesson 12



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Illustrative "Scholarly Journal" Articles on Socrates
:
be prepared for your research to take longer than you think!

 

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As we begin our first significant college research project, we may imagine that, almost instantly, we will find all kinds of high quality information that will answer whatever question we have. Searching the databases with a critical eye, however, we may soon discover that we are finding few articles with much research value for us. Searches are likely to turn up more newspaper stories and movie reviews than thorough professional and academic reports.

Even researching a seemingly academic subject like Socrates, using a reputable college library database like ProQuest, search results turn up lots of popular writing like the Chicago Tribune article, The remarkable tale of the priest turned terrorist turned philosopher that I discussed in connection with the first library assignment. That article appeared in ProQuest among 359 search results when I asked simply for "Socrates" AND "Plato," but when I restricted the ProQuest search only to "scholarly journals, including peer reviewed," the number of search results was cut to 166. So most of the initial search results were NOT academic sources. And not all of these remaining on the list from the more restricted search were academic, either. A number were from high end popular magazines like The Times Literary Supplement and History Today, but ProQuest decided to flatter them with the description of "scholarly."

ProQuest, InfoTrac and other databases do not screen for research quality. They subscribe to a wide variety of publications and scan everything in. The result is a stew of the good, the bad and the ugly. It's up to us, as users, to screen for quality, to judge which articles (if any) to accept in our research. This task is difficult for beginning researchers, so it's advisable to start by getting help from an expert in the field of the research or from a professional librarian. Get help online from TC3 Library's home page by clicking on "Ask a Librarian."

What's published in scholarly journals by academics is not always useful, of course. To pick one example from many candidates, see "Quentin P. Taylor's "The Last Days of Socrates" (and Dr. G's critical remarks). Taylor is an academic writer publishing in a scholarly journal, but the overall argument in his article is not coherent. It is self-contradictory. If you did not know much about Socrates before you found this article, how would you realize that its quality is poor? Maybe you wouldn't. You might simply assume that the article must be valid, simply because it is published in a scholarly journal. By exercising common sense and good judgment, however, you can sometimes recognize when the arguments in an article are weak or flawed. In academic research, we must always read with critical detachment, weighing the evidence that authors produce against the claims that they make. In the search for truth at the academy, all conclusions are provisional. They are always open to question.

ProQuest classifies all of the sources in its database as "Newspapers," "Magazines," "Trade Publications," and "Scholarly Articles." In a ProQuest advanced search, the results can be divided into these four classifications by clicking on the gray tabs at the top of the column of search results. ProQuest's classifications can be helpful, but sometimes they can be misleading. In a search for Socrates AND Plato, one "Scholarly Article," according to ProQuest, is Melissa Lane's "Was Socrates a Democrat?" (and Dr. G's critical remarks). It's true that Lane is an academic from a great world-class university, but she's not publishing here in an academic journal. This article appears in a popular magazine, History Today. The magazine's editors have gutted the citations from her work and have trimmed her text to keep her story moving along with a minimum of complications and pauses for facts. As a result, the article may be very satisfactory for the magazine's casual readers, who read for pleasure, but it is not especially helpful to academic researchers who are trying to pursue their own investigation of Socrates' politics. When we hunt for quality sources, the publication can matter more than the author. The publishing game generally is controlled by editors, not authors.

Lane's article is dummed down, but many other academic pieces about Socrates in ProQuest and InfoTrac pose an opposite kind of problem, specialization. A scholarly article on Socrates may assume that its readers are thoroughly familiar with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, or the historical account of the Peloponnesian War by Socrates' contemporary Thucydides. It is very likely to assume readers' familiarity with prior research on Socrates. In many cases, student researchers will be in the dark when trying to understand articles that have been written by specialists for specialists.

What's a student to do? Where can good sources be found? Plan on spending a lot of search time looking for sources that are just right for your research project. (return to Lesson 12)


 

 

 

 


gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary Gutchess 2003