Friday, June 26, 2015

APA Basics, Part Two

     Some of you may have read our May 29 blog post, APA Basics, Part One. Today’s post is APA Basics, Part Two. This post focuses on wording practices according the APA Publication Manual. In both posts, I tried to follow APA guidelines for style and formatting. Questions or comments are welcome!

A Quick Note About Periods
     First, let’s dispense with the debate over how many spaces appear at the end of a sentence. Though the APA Publication Manual (2010) has stated, “Spacing twice after punctuation marks at the end of a sentence aids readers of draft manuscripts” (p. 88), the organization does not specifically require two spaces at the close of a sentence. According to Carolyn Law, Thesis and Dissertation Advisor at NIU, “The standard practice in all publishing is now one space after a period. Period.” For those interested in this practice’s development, Dave Bricker’s blog, The World’s Greatest Book, offers a quick look at its history. For now, though, let’s cover language guidelines.

“Writing Clearly and Concisely”
     “Writing Clearly and Concisely” is the third chapter in the Publication Manual. This chapter delineates many guidelines for APA style. Aside from the overarching goal of communication via the fewest words necessary (“Say only what needs to be said,” APA, 2010, p. 67), APA finds headings (and subheadings) necessary for organization of material. APA also promotes divisions of material into parallel bits, such as bulleted or numbered lists. While writers should emphasize the research and not the researchers, writers still should construct active voice sentences whenever possible, except for in the abstract. Oh, and “we” writers should NOT use the editorial “we”; a writer should use “we” only when the writer is part of a research team referenced.

Verb Tense and “Noun Strings”
     APA instructs writers to use only past tense and/or present perfect verbs in literature reviews and in descriptions of procedures done in the past (e.g., “Juarez found” or “The researchers have discovered”). Past tense must also be used to describe study results, while the present tense is utilized only to “discuss implications of the results and to present the conclusions” (APA, 2010, p. 66). For instance, a statement beginning with the words, “The findings point to a need for …” would be appropriate.

     APA also tells writers to untangle, or to rearrange, “noun strings” (66). These strings happen when several nouns accrue “to modify a final noun” (APA, 2010, p. 66). I found the following example of a noun string from Wikipedia helpful: “Underground Mine Worker Safety Protection Procedures”; see Wikipedia’s Noun string entry for more ideas here. Moreover, APA discourages wordiness of any type, such as the use of a phrase when only one word is needed For example, avoid the ubiquitous expression “due to the fact that”; instead say, “because.” Other redundant words or expressions should also be expunged. Writers should avoid phrases like “summarize briefly…” when a summary, by definition, is brief. So proofread carefully!

See section 3.09 of the Publication Manual for more tips for clarity.

No Bias
     Finally, APA is committed to reducing bias in language. As stated in the Publication Manual (2010), “Scientific writing must be free of implied or irrelevant evaluation of the group or groups being studied” (p. 70). The general guidelines for doing so are good for any type of writing: be specific and be deliberate in word choice. APA writers must acknowledge study participants and describe them with sensitivity for, and understanding of, the social construction of identity. An example statement that acknowledges participants while specifying the exact group would read: “Of the tenth-graders who completed the survey …” as opposed to the following: “Of the students who were given the study to complete …” When naming groups, use the identifying terms that each group prefers, and avoid language that “objectifies a person,” such as “wheelchair bound” (APA, 2010, p. 76). Here, rather state, “People who require wheelchairs” instead. Most biases are cleared up by being as precise as possible in description.

Concluding Thought
     Simply, APA style calls for clear, concise, and specific writing, with some arbitrary rules for certain sections of a document. As mentioned in our previous APA post, the best source for information is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th edition) as well as the APA Style website.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Should Social Media Be Used as Secondary Sources?

Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr. YouTube. Pinterest. It can be argued that these social networking sites have made life entertaining, simpler, and, in some cases, informative. Individuals, researchers, businesses, and academic institutes venture onto one or more of these sites for a variety of reasons. However, a question has come up in the Thesis and Dissertation Office: Should information found on social media be used in a thesis/dissertation?

If you were to consult the new-ish page on our office website labeled Documentation Styles, you would come across the how-to-cite-social-media link. This is a graphic that explains how to properly document social media in your thesis/dissertation. Providing said graphic might imply that the NIU Thesis and Dissertation Office endorses the use of social media as a form of credible secondary research. But it's not that simple.

According to a survey conducted in 2014, the Pew Research Center reports that 52% of adults who go online have accounts with two or more social media sites, Facebook being the most popular. Seventy percent of Facebook users and 36% of Twitter users check their accounts daily (click here to review data).  In 2015 it was reported that thanks to the ubiquity of Smartphones, 92% of teens go online daily while 24% report being online “almost constantly” (click here to review data). Earlier this week, it was discovered that 61% of the Millenial generation go to Facebook for news as opposed to watching local news programs on television (click here to review study).

You may be wondering, What does any of this have to do with me or with my field of research? For those of you pursuing degrees in the sciences, it’s been reported that 47% of scientists affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) “use social media to talk about science or read about scientific developments.” Further, 19% of AAAS scientists follow the blogs and 12% follow the tweets of various experts in their fields (click here to review report). In other words, the professional community relies on information that is disseminated digitally. As reported in the science journal Nature, there are even sites like ResearchGate and that are exclusively for researchers and whose goal is to promote collaboration, peer review, and to share advances in respective fields (click here to read article). 

All of this begs the question: If relying on social media is good enough for the professional community, why is there is a stigma associated with citing a piece of research from Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, or Twitter on one’s thesis/dissertation?

Here is the (tentative) conclusion that we arrived at in the office: Is the information found via social media reliable? Has the author taken the time to assess the content in order to determine its legitimacy and overall value to the thesis/dissertation? In the end, this is what matters most. 

Given the amount of time people spend on, the individuals using, and the motivation behind relying on social media, it can be argued that future generations of graduate students may come to depend more and more on social media when searching for secondary materials. In time, these sites will accrue so much information that they will become general studies databases or even subject-specific databases in their own right, thereby eliminating any stigma an author might experience when identifying a source on his or her references page as having come from social media.

Then again, in spite of my beliefs concerning social media, all of the research that I have used in my dissertation thus far has been copies from professional journals or tracked down in the stacks in Founders Library. I don’t know why, but I just can’t bring myself to cite a blog or rely on a Facebook post for research even though I know that they exist. Maybe the stigma regarding the use of social media in my dissertation is all in my head.

Please feel free to share any comments you might have about this topic on our blog or Facebook page. 

By the way, if you’re interested in a laugh, try reading a series of ridiculous tweets about possible humanities dissertations on The New Yorker website (click here).