Dealing with Secondary Sources

“Nelle, remember how you hate people talking about you behind your back?”
“I can’t do that when you are in the room.”
Richard and Nelle in Ally McBeal: “Making Spirits Bright”

I received an interesting question via eMail regarding dealing with secondary sources:

… when reading a review or an introduction in paper (A) which is referencing an research article (B), which one should I include as a Keyword in the outline of “Circus Ponies” Notebook?

1) if I include A, then I will miss that reference and have to go back to paper (A) to look it up while writing (not favorable).

2) if I include B, then I don’t feel okay because i) I didn’t read that paper and ii) I am not confidence of paper A interpreted the results of paper B in an accurate manner.

Note: You find the necessary background on working with outliners to deal with literature in this posting here (The Detail View), there are also other relevant links in that posting.

My short answer is A as keyword and B in the cell text, due to 1) and 2).

You need to capture that A (the review/introduction in a paper) says this about B. There are multiple ways to do this while reading, for example:

  • also copying the source the review/introduction cites, for example:
    “A study by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson (Academe 6, 44–50; 2001) found no meaningful difference in academic performance between completers and non-completers.”
    Here you would copy the whole sentence, not only the “no meaningful …” part.
  • using different colors when you highlight text to be captured, if the author of the review/introduction cites whole paragraphs that are indented, for example:
    “In contrast with these two studies, Ede and Lunsford (1990) found […]. They used a broad definition of collaborative writing (which they called group writing to minimize confusion among their respondents):
    [indented paragraph] For the purposes of this survey, writing includes any of the activities that lead to a completed written document. These activities include written and spoken brainstorming, outlining, note-taking, organizational planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Written products include any piece of writing, from notes, directions and forms to reports and published materials. Group writing includes any writing done in collaboration with one or more persons. (emphases theirs; Ede and Lunsford, 1990, p. 14).”
    Here the second paragraph is a direct quotation from Ede and Lunsford, (1990) — which would be B. When I would want to capture the direct quotation in GoodReader on my iPad, I would highlight the first paragraph in yellow and the second (direct quotation of B) in green. When I look at the exported text, the green would remind me that this was not something the authors of the text said, but something they cited (B).

The important point here is that you always must capture that A says this about B, because the person who asked the question is right, it’s not okay “because i) I didn’t read that paper and ii) I am not confidence of paper A interpreted the results of paper B in an accurate manner”. These are two serious concerns.

Practically, when the text ends up in Circus Ponies Notebook (or where ever you store it), you tag the cell with the source of the text you have read — always (here: the review/introduction, i.e. A). But you make sure that the source information of B is in the cell text itself (in every cell if you break up the cited text):

  • In the first case this information (B) is already in the text itself (“A study by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson (Academe 6, 44–50; 2001) found …”).
  • In the second case, the authors also have added the source information (B) again after the direct quotation (“… more persons. (emphases theirs; Ede and Lunsford, 1990, p. 14)”. However, other authors do not include this information in the indented paragraphs itself, because they gave the source information in the paragraph prior to it. In these cases you would have to add this information manually, e.g., add [Ede & Lunsford, 1990, p. 14)] to the cell text.

In any case, the cell itself would be tagged with the source information of the review/introduction (A), because you are using the cells as building blocks and you need to know that this is — essentially hearsay — and even a direct citation could be wrong. The authors of the review/introduction could have made a mistake when copying or even deliberately misrepresented the issue (happens, these mistakes can be used to track who copied from whom — probably without even looking at the original literature).

Another reason is that when you look at the keywords (e.g., on the Circus Ponies Notebook multidex page), you should see only articles you actually have (read). If you would tag the cell with B, it would lead to confusion. You might make it easier by highlighting all your B sources in Circus Ponies Notebook with, e.g., green. One multidex page shows the highlighting, you could use this to quickly see which literature you should read. (Untested, but should work.)

So, whenever you find something in a review/introduction that you want to use, get that A says this about B, and depending on how you want to use it, make sure you also read the cited source (B). In some cases you can bypass this, e.g., if your point is that A did say this about B à la “Authors_A considered B to be xyz (Authors_A, Year)” — in that case you would cite A, not B (although your readers would probably want to know whether you think that Authors_A were right, which requires you to read B and make up your own mind). But if you want to use B for your own argument, then you would have to get B and read it. Citing B via A is not okay, due to the stated reasons — scientists want proof and you essentially tell them to simply trust that A got it right.

Note that when you are not only using B as a piece in your argument, but use the whole argument structure of A, that you would have to cite A’s argument structure itself (“A argues that … by referring to B’s work on …”). You would cite A here, never B. Otherwise, even if you would use different words, you would plagiarize A — not the text, but the argumentation.

The nice thing about Circus Ponies Notebook (or other outliners) is that you can start of with a cell that is tagged with A but includes the cited source B in the cell text, and then later (when you have read B) replace it with a cell that is tagged with B as long as it contains your own summary of B (it would not be okay to say, okay, A is right, B really is xyz, so I take A’s words and tag them with B, you would be plagiarizing A).

And yup, make sure that you know what B really did. It is sometimes surprising how studies get … misrepresented in the literature.

Okay, that was somewhat long-winded but I hope it answers this question. Thank you for the question, it was a good one. 🙂