Department of Political Science, Queens College

Writing Political Science Papers: Some Useful Guidelines
Peter Liberman, Dept. of Political Science, Queens College, October 2006

A good paper informs and persuades; to do this it must be logically organized, clearly argued, and well documented. Good writing is hard work, but following the rules of thumb below will help you to write better papers and to do so more efficiently.

1. Almost all papers in political science involve making an argument. It need not be an extreme or all-or-nothing argument; you should qualify your bottom line as you see fit. Make sure that your claims and support for them are clear in your own mind, and articulate them clearly to the reader. You must provide factual evidence and logical reasons for your claims, rather than simply giving opinions, yours or anybody else’s. Explain why the evidence and reasons you present support your thesis, and do this for your sub-claims as well.

2. If the paper is supposed to answer an assigned question, answer the question. Even if you are uncertain about the answer, it is better to argue that the available information is too thin or too contradictory to justify taking a position than to duck the question altogether.  This is not to say that there is always a single right answer to every political-science question.  But even when intelligent, informed people disagree, they must focus on the question at hand in order to advance the debate.

3. Address counter-arguments and counter-examples.  Put yourself in the shoes of a skeptical reader and ask yourself how they might object to your argument and evidence.  If these objections can be refuted, do so; otherwise qualify your position (e.g., “X is usually true” or “X is more true than Y”).

4. Provide evidence and logic to support your arguments, rather than “arguments from authority”. An “argument from authority” is a claim that something is true because a particular expert says so. A variation on this is relying on your own undefended opinions: “X is true because I believe X.” How do we know that the expert is right, or if your opinion is well-founded?  Sometimes we have to rely on experts' opinions on esoteric matters, but it is always better to provide supporting evidence and logic yourself.

5. You should always cite the sources of ideas, arguments, or facts to which your paper explicitly refers.  These citations should always include an unambiguous source reference and page number (or numbers), unless you are referring to the general findings of an entire book or article.  Often, a single citation at the end of a paragraph is sufficient, if the material from that paragraph can be traced to a single source.  Do not waste space in the text on article or book titles. Citing your sources demonstrates the work you have put into researching your paper, distinguishes your ideas from those of others, helps readers where to go to find out more about particular points, and strengthens your argument by providing authoritative sources for your factual claims. You should always cite only the sources you consult. Citing the source of your source, as if you had consulted it yourself, is misleading and deceptive, unless you explicitly acknowledge it (e.g., source X, as quoted in source Y, p. Z). For further suggestions on citations, including formatting tips and a discussion of plagiarism, see the Dartmouth website on sources.

6. Avoid plagiarism like the plague. Submitting other people’s ideas or language (i.e., more than a few consecutive words) without appropriate acknowledgement implies they are your own, which is intellectual theft and cheating. You must put in quotes, or in indented single-spaced format, any text found in other sources, and the text must be followed immediately by a citation to the source. Of course, you may not submit all or part of a paper written by someone else as if it were your own work. You also may not turn in a paper for one class that you wrote for another, without the explicit permission of the instructor.

To avoid plagiarism, be careful in your note taking and writing to mark all ideas, detailed facts, and exact wording taken from other sources, so that you can properly cite them in your paper. For a useful discussion of plagiarism, with examples, see Northwestern University’s “How to Avoid Plagiarism” website.

Political Science Dept. policy is that any student found to have plagiarized blatantly will automatically fail the course and the case will be referred to the Dean of Undergraduate Studies. In some cases, plagiarism and other forms of cheating is punishable by dismissal from the college; on college policy, see:

7. Assume your reader already has some basic knowledge on the subject, and do not waste space by presenting basic definitions or background details that are not needed to support your argument.