January 24, 2022

Journal Article: “It’s What’s on the Inside That Counts: Analyzing Student Use of Sources in Composition Research Papers”

The following article was recently published by Evidence Based Library and Information Practice.


It’s What’s on the Inside That Counts: Analyzing Student Use of Sources in Composition Research Papers


James W Rosenzweig
Eastern Washington University

Frank Lambert
Middle Tennessee State University

Mary C. Thill
Northeastern Illinois University


Evidence Based Library and Information Practice
Vol. 16 No. 4 (2021)
DOI: 10.18438/eblip30026


Objective – This study is designed to discover what kinds of sources are cited by composition students in the text of their papers and to determine what types of sources are used most frequently. It also examines the relationship of bibliographies to in-text citations to determine whether students “pad” their bibliographies with traditional academic sources not used in the text of their papers.

Methods – The study employs a novel method grounded in multidisciplinary research, which the authors used to tally 1,652 in-text citations from a sample of 71 student papers gathered from English Composition II courses at three universities in the United States. These data were then compared against the papers’ bibliographic references, which had previously been categorized using the WHY Method. 

Results – The results indicate that students rely primarily on traditional academic and journalistic sources in their writing, but also incorporate a significant and diverse array of other kinds of source material. The findings identify a strong institutional effect on student source use, as well as the average number and type of in-text citations, which demographic characteristics do not explain. Additionally, the study demonstrates that student bibliographies are highly predictive of in-text source selection, and that students do not exhibit a pattern of “padding” bibliographies with academic sources.

Conclusion – The data warrant the conclusions that an understanding of one’s own institution is vitally important for effective work with students regarding their source selection, and that close analysis of student bibliographies gives an unexpectedly reliable picture of the types and proportions of sources cited in student writing.

Direct to Full Text Article

Direct to Full Text Article
21 pages; PDF.

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.