Instructors often ask students to create a bibliography that reflects their deep understanding of sources in addition to course content and skills. But what makes a good bibliography? How can you build and use stronger bibliographies for your assignments?
Characteristics of a Bibliography
Let’s start by understanding what a bibliography is and its characteristics. A bibliography is a list of sources that have been cited or referenced within a particular piece of written work. Typically, bibliographies include information such as:
- The title of each source
- The author’s name
- The publication date.
- Detailed descriptions of each source, including relevant keywords and a brief summary of its contents.
The first place to check for what makes a good bibliography for a given assignment is your assignment instructions. Note the following information and keep it in mind as you develop your work and finalize your bibliography:
- Number of outside sources needed
- Types of outside sources needed, such as peer-reviewed scholarly articles, trade publications, newspapers, Web sources, social media posts, etc.
- Citation format, such as MLA or APA
- Purpose of sources
- Why do you need to incorporate outside sources?
- How can outside sources support, inform, or complicate the claims you make in your assignment?
- Do all sources do the same amount and type of work for your assignment? If so, is that appropriate for your specific topic and the content of your sources? If not, is that a reflection of their value to your work?
Connects to Coursework
When turning in an assignment for a course, many students omit resources shared by their instructor and/or included in the course readings. Incorporating course materials shows that you have read/watched/listened to and understood those materials. Using them effectively in your work indicates you have learned the content and have the communication skills to make course materials useful to you.
It may not be appropriate for you to directly cite course materials every time, depending on the assignment. However, you incorporate key aspects of your course into your assignments. Does your course focus on a specific type of analysis? Your sources should help you accomplish that, either by providing the information you need or exemplifying that analysis. (You might also find sources that help you critique that analysis!) Does your course focus on a specific movement or historical period, such as U.S. History after the Civil War? Your sources should engage with the same period. This allows you to demonstrate your understanding of major concepts, even if you don’t need to use course materials for your work.
Variety in a bibliography can signal that you have engaged thoughtfully with ideas in multiple forms, including books, films, speeches, and more. It might also demonstrate that you looked at a wide range of sources for your information, across time, genre, field, etc.; this can build credibility and show off your skills as a researcher. However, variety can also impede your success if it is not implemented carefully.
For example, in many scientific fields (including the social sciences), new research is often prized over older research. This is because new research builds on older research, often adding new information. If you use outdated research to discuss current trends, you will need to explain why and how the source is still relevant. Searching for an older source in order to cover a range of dates might harm your work more than it helps.
Because of the particularities of academic writing, like the above example, academic writers often discourage variety for variety’s sake. Like most things involving academic writing, choices should be made carefully, considering your audience, purpose, message, and assignment. When looking for a variety of sources, ask yourself if the sources are relevant, supportive of your main claims, and appropriate for the assignment’s parameters.
For student help and even more tips and strategies, please the Student Writing Support website.