Documentation is a practice and principle in academic writing (also in policy, legal, and technical writing) whereby an author indicates the sources of information and ideas that authorize, support, or challenge his or her thesis.
Like language and writing, the particular rules of documentation evolve—some principles and practices remain the same because they continue to serve their original purpose or adapt to new purposes, but
Documentation may seem bewilderingly complicated, but it's like any system that has its own internal logic. The more you're familiar with the system and its logic--that is, the more you've practiced documentation and seen others practicing it--the more it appears sensible and as good a system as imaginable within its traditional and practical limits as long as it remains adaptable to change.
Purposes: Documentation . . .
gives or shares credit for information or ideas according to principles of "lending and sharing" in a world of research, affirming a "community of scholarship" dedicated to cooperative development and testing of truths.
grants authority to what you write, depending on the identity, time, and purposes of your source relative to your own sources.
provides location information so that your reader, if one of your sources is what is needed, can find that source in the same way you found it.
Ideally, the practices or rules of documentation work as unobtrusively and efficiently as possible. The continual updates in rules generally follow this principle of efficiency, so that the documentation process disrupts the reading process as little as possible.
Techniques or "schools" of documentation:
The particular rules of documentation are evolving rapidly due to the accelerating transition from print to electronic publishing, but a few recognizable "schools" or styles of documentation continue from the print world of the twentieth century
"External documentation": Footnotes or endnotes with bibliography at end: usually called the "Chicago style" or "Turabian style" after one of the editors of the A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, published by the University of Chicago. This style is still used by some History programs and maybe by others.
Footnotes or endnotes are called "external documentation" because, to see the documentation, readers have to leave the text and move their eyes, turn the page, or click to somewhere external to the text to see documentation.
"Internal documentation": Parenthetical references to page numbers with Works Cited at end: either MLA or APA style. This style is called "internal documentation" because, in contrast to footnotes or endnotes where the reader has to leave the text, the reader can process essential documentation in the text or accompanying parentheses.
Electronic publication is reconciling the two. In Wikipedia, for instance, moving the cursor to a footnote will bring up a window with the footnote's information.
Challenges & responses:
Challenge: Documentation styles, like all language, continually evolve: most principles and practices while changing others to meet new needs or respond to new environments.
Response: One way and another (in text, parentheses, footnote / endnote, and/or Works Cited), provide enough information so that a reader feels confident that you're not just making things up and that the reader could find your source if s/he went looking for it.
Challenge: High school and community college instructors often teach precise rules of documentation—e.g. where you use commas or colons instead of periods, or vice versa—and base their grading on how successfully these rules are followed. Intellectually adventurous or inventive students may feel that more time is being spent on following rules than on learning, and attention-deficit students may feel as though the deck is stacked against them yet again.
Response: Compared to teaching critical thinking and research methods, teaching the practice of precise rules is much more systematic and quantifiable. With adequate motivation, even dull students can learn to document precisely according to current guidelines. Further, such practices are more easily graded than critical thinking in cooperation with research sources.
Some instructors use exact forms as a way to grade writing because doing so is easier and faster than criticizing organization and content. In such a situation, sweat the documentation details. Different source situations create so many variations, however, that satisfying the principles above may indicate the student has done the work required for an initial submission. Most students' submissions will never be considered for publication, where precisely detailed documentation becomes necessary. If possibilities develop for publication of your submission, documentation can be worked out more painstakingly, often with editors' assistance.
Are students justified in seeing proper documentation as jump-through-the-hoops busywork?
Maybe, especially if teachers emphasize the minutiae over more important issues like learning, critical thinking, and expression.
Colleges' justification for teaching research may be somewhat self-justifying. Teaching research methods and documentation trains future scholars and researchers, but maybe 90% of college students have no interest in doing advanced scholarship. (Reasons for non-scholars attending college include advancement in socio-economic status, courtship, and networks of friends and colleagues.)
College teachers, however, come from the 10% or fewer who attend college for the reasons that colleges and universities exist, i.e. as centers of study and learning.
Conservative states including Texas are re-orienting state universities toward vocational training and away from Liberal Arts and associated skills of critical thinking and academic freedom. The 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party states, "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills . . . , critical thinking skills and similar programs that . . . have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."
Problems created by electronic research:
Ease of duplication means errors are often multiplied and disseminated widely before truth can intervene.
Though print publications are harder to get in your hands and harder to search, they are often more carefully prepared and edited, and as actual reality they remain stable and more or less permanent. In contrast, web resources (virtual reality) often disappear or change. (For reference works like encyclopedias and handbooks, the ability of electronic media to add and update information has led many old print-based reference works and periodicals to shift to the web.)
Notes for further development
x-too many long, set-off quotes
cheating > documentation