In some institutions the level of study of a student will determine the number of sources that should be cited. For example some colleges require B.sc degree students to only use 10 sources when citing their research paper. Some other institutions require more. Most of the times the institutions may not have a specific number of sources that the students are expected to cite. In this case, it is left for the student to decide how many sources he wants to use for his research paper.
Most research paper demands that a student uses his best initiatives to determine the number of works to be cited. This requires that the students make a thorough compilation of all the works used during the preparation stages of his research paper. For example, if a student consulted 5 books, 4 journals, and 3 news paper articles during the preparatory stages of his research paper, he is expected to state all these sources in his reference list. His reference list should include 12 sources cited. His in-text reference should be divided between these 12 sources. If the student is to include only ten sources in his reference list, it will be deemed to be a case of plagiarism. That means the student may be penalized for borrowing sources and not acknowledging his use of them. Plagiarism is a serious offence and should be avoided at all cost.
TYPE OF RESEARCH PAPER
The type of research paper that a college student writes will to a large extent determine the number of sources he is going to cite. For example a lengthy essay like a dissertation or even a case study should have many references. This is because it is expected that the student must have read widely to prepare for the essay. For a lengthy essay, there is no way 5 sources are going to suffice for the research purposes. A reference list of at least 15 is considered ideal for in this case. Again, if the student is to write a very short research paper of say about 1000-1500 words, and he cites 30 sources in his work, it will be considered an over kill. Just the mere thought of 30 sources for a 1500 words research paper is enough to get the student penalized. In text citation of 30 sources is enough to take up 1500 words. The rule of thumb here is to go for a small reference list of about 5 to 7.
Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.
An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:
- Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
- Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
- Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
- Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles
Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:
If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation
Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)
Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review.
A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.
If your literature review is a stand-alone document
Minimum number of sources = 3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)
Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.
These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.
Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review.
When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)
Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.
Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:
University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review
U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274
University of Leicester – http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review
Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp
Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm
Related posts: Why APA formatting mattershttp://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc
This post had had over 52,000 views since I wrote it. Why not share it?: How many sources do you need in a literature review?http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hu
Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!
Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 at 12:54 pm and is filed under education, research. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.