7. Step Five: Research

Now our work really begins. Our outline gives us some ideas of where we are heading. Yours may well be quite different to mine. For example, I have said that I am unsure as to whether we know anything about the death of Amos. You might know the answer to this already and have shaped your outline accordingly. So if you are happy with your outline, use it. If you would rather change to mine then do so (but please include your own attempted outline in with your assignment pack).

What you do next depends very much on what tools you have available to you. What you must not do is rush straight to a Bible dictionary and copy out the article on Amos. If you have a Bible dictionary praise the Lord and use it correctly. A Bible dictionary is not there for you to copy out an article and submit it as your own work. Passing off the work of someone else as your own is cheating or, if you prefer a longer word, plagiarism. Do not do it.

A few words on plagiarism

Firstly, it is morally wrong, In a way, you are stealing someone else’s work. Indeed, plagiarism is sometimes described as intellectual theft. Christians should not steal. If you take a book from a shop without paying you are a thief and will be punished if caught. If you take an article from a website or out of a book you are a thief and will be punished if caught.

Here is a top tip from a teacher: if your work sounds so good that it deserves to be in a reference book we, your teachers, are going to be suspicious. Why is someone so clever that she, or he, can write so well that we think the essay deserves to be published, writing an assignment for a distance learning programme? I have a suspicious mind. If I read an article that is so good I think it could have been written by a professional I start to look at it in a suspicious way. I have lots of reference books on my shelves and access to many more in the British Bible School library and my local reference libraries. Chances are, if you have found a good article in a reference book or on-line, I can find it too. And this is the second reason why you must not plagiarise: you will get found out. You might get away with it this time – I am not infallible and you may be able to fool me – but you cannot fool all of your teachers all of the time. Sooner or later you will copy something that a teacher has read himself and we will be on to you. Then we might want to re-read all your earlier essays much more carefully (and there are even search techniques on the Internet that help to catch copiers). Your marks will be taken from you and you will not achieve any sort of award. But just suppose you do manage to get away with plagiarising on a regular basis. What does it prove? That you are better at cheating than your teachers are at catching you? What satisfaction is there from gaining an award that is not deserved?

Giving credit where due

The final reason you should not plagiarise is because it is unnecessary. If you want to use someone else’s ideas you may do so – providing you give credit where credit is due. If you want to paraphrase the work of a scholar by putting his ideas into your own words just say so:

Joe Bloggs, in his comments on this passage, argues that . . .

And you have made it clear that you are reporting what Bloggs thinks and not giving your own opinion (which should follow soon after):

Joe Bloggs, in his comments on this passage, argues that [and you summarise what Bloggs has said]. However he is wrong because [and you give your reasons why].

If the expert to whom you are referring says something so memorably that you want to use his exact words you do so by using speech marks and giving full details in a foot-note or end-note.1

It may come as a shock to realise that some commentators doubt the very existence of the prophet Amos. Professor Josephus Bloggs of the University of Sceptica says this:

“Amos did not exist; I have no doubts about this at all and hope to demonstrate this in what follows.”2

Your foot- / end note and bibliography will document this by giving the page number and bibliographic details. These are the full title of the book, the author’s name as given in the book, the date and place of publication, and the name of the publishing company:

Bloggs, Joe, An Idiot’s Guide to Amos (London: University of Sceptica Press, 2001).

Note that Professor Josephus Iolanthe Bloggs prefers to be known as Joe Bloggs and that the University of Sceptica is in London and all this is made up for illustrative purposes. There will be more on referencing and bibliographies later.

So, to summarise:

Plagiarism is wrong because it is a form of theft, because sooner or later you will get found out, and because there is no need to do it as there is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas from others – so long as you give appropriate credit.

Interlude: Take a break

Do not try to research and write an essay in one long session. There may be times when a residential student has to burn the midnight oil and “do an all-nighter” but this is usually down to bad planning or getting distracted earlier in the term. As a distance learning student your workload and deadlines are different to residential students so it is less likely that you will ever have to put in an all-night shift to get work finished on time. If you are writing a short essay on a subject with which you are very familiar you may be able to get it done in one go. However a longer piece cannot possibly be researched and written in a single sitting so do not even try.

Break down your assignment into manageable portions with sensible deadlines and try and plan in time to catch up if your research is not as quick as you had hoped. Much of this is personal. If you read rapidly and can type quickly you have an advantage over those of us whose lips move as we read and who type with one finger. So do your best at your own speed. Taking a break can sometimes help you to see where you are and where you might have gone wrong. I often found that after an evening studying I was too tired to make much sense of what I had done but sleeping on it often brought clarification. Those of us who believe in a loving and active God may ‘hear the Holy Spirit whisper to us while we sleep’ and wake up refreshed and with some of the answers to what was troubling us. The sceptic may talk about how the human sub-conscious works, even when we are thinking about something completely different. But the end result is the same: take a break and see what happens. It is also sound advice, after your break, to pray again and to then read through your assignment instructions once more so you know exactly what you are meant to be doing.

< Step Four: Outline   Step Five (cont.): Research > 


  1. Technical point: foot-notes appear at the foot or bottom of the page (just like this) and end-notes come at the end of the chapter.
  2. Bloggs, An Idiot’s Guide to Amos, 2001:2