How to write a Term Paper: Using Encyclopedias

From high school onward, instructors have likely stressed to you that encyclopedias aren’t viable sources for your term papers and research projects. In fact, most instructors go so far as to completely forbid the use of encyclopedias as sources for writing term papers. Don’t turn your back on them just yet, however. There’s one great strategy for making use of encyclopedia entries in term paper writing that won’t get you in trouble with your professor.

Don’t use them AS sources—use them to find sources.

In a very real sense, an encyclopedia entry on your topic is a sort of mini-term paper. This is why instructors don’t want you to use them—they compile information from second and third hand sources and often don’t outline the biases of the author. Depending upon the encyclopedia, they’re frequently poorly edited or don’t follow stringent guidelines, as well. So if the reasons not to use them are so justifiable, what are we suggesting you do with them? It’s true that encyclopedia entries themselves fall well short of being reliable enough to use a primary source. However, quality encyclopedias, whether online or in print, use detailed citations in their entries. A well-researched encyclopedia entry can provide you with an exceptional list of sources that are completely acceptable to your instructor. In fact, you may compile most of your reference list simply by checking the bibliographies used by a few high quality encyclopedia entries.

Encyclopedia Entries as a Stepping Stone

In addition to providing you with some excellent points of reference for beginning your own list of sources, detailed encyclopedia entries can help guide you in structuring your paper. With complex topics, deciding how to separate the paper into sections can be a challenge. Encyclopedia entries are typically divided into small, logical sections for easy reading. By paying attention to the manner in which the subtopics have been categorized, you may find some inspiration for your own paper’s method of organization. Also, pay attention to small details in the entry that point to information you were unaware of. These details can provide you with a place to begin searching for more in depth information on your topic.

Avoiding Problems

In order to avoid getting in trouble for using encyclopedias to write your term paper, be certain to find an alternate source for any information from the entry you intend to include in your paper.


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