I see a lot of candidates referring to articles they have (or maybe haven’t read) in their IELTS WritingTask 2, and I know that many websites recommend this as a strategy to sound more convincing, authoritative and academic.
I would argue that you will sound MORE convincing, authoritative and academic if you don’t refer to random fake articles that you just made up!
I will outline my reasons below.
After a week of marking Task 2 essays where candidates kept referring to articles they had (or maybe hadn’t?!) read, I posted this piece of advice on Instagram (see picture below).
I wanted to keep it short and sweet, so I didn’t really explain my reasons for giving this advice.
Then one of my lovely learners asked me this very sensible question:
‘You say it seems unreliable if the article says the name or date of some research. But why does the information WITHOUT references sound more trustworthy?’
So I thought it would be helpful if I explained my reasons in more detail.
Why do we use references?
When you go to university and write assignments, you have to refer to research that you’ve read. Why?
- to show that you have read widely around the subject
- to show your understanding and awareness of previous research
- to add support to your own ideas
- to show how your own ideas might differ from the research you have read
- to avoid being accused of ‘plagiarism’ (copying other people’s ideas)
When you refer to someone else’s writing, you have to give details of what you’ve read in your Bibliography. You have to be very specific, giving the name of the author, the name of the article, the date is was published, the name of the publisher and the exact page numbers, depending on how you’ve used the research in your assignment.
All of this is quite a skill, and when I spend many hours marking my Academic Skills Students’ assignments, it is probably the thing that I correct the most, and I am constantly asking the same questions in the margin – ref? date? page? first name? etc.
Being able to use referencing accurately and appropriately is an essential aspect of academic studies and there are whole classes devoted to helping students learn how and why we reference other sources. Indeed, whole books have been written on the subject.
This is all well and good.
So what’s different about IELTS?
Well, think about it. Your university assignment can be anything from a 2000 word assignment to a 10,000 word thesis. It will probably take you weeks if not months, because you are specialising in your subject area and need time to read and select the most appropriate materials to include in your assignment.
Now, compare this to IELTS. You have 40 minutes to write your opinion on a random topic in 250 words. There is a world of a difference. How can the examiners expect you to have research ready to quote on absolutely any topic? They don’t. They just want you to show some awareness of the issues. That’s all.
So if you suddenly start talking about research that you’ve read in the Oxford/Cambridge/London Journal of Economics, I immediately start to think ”Really? Did you really read that?”
It’s almost as if you think I’m not intelligent enough to know that you made it up! I somehow feel like you’re trying to trick me.
Would you make up information to support your argument in a discussion?
I know people who do. Lots of people say ‘Well I read an article the other day which said….’ and I think ‘Really? Let me see the article. Who wrote it?’
They usually start to panic. Google’s great for that. But we all know that unless the source is RELIABLE (another whole lesson on this – I love the CRAAP* Test to help you work out if something is reliable) then we can’t trust it.
So how can I trust what you’ve written if you can’t give me the full details?
My teacher said I should make it up!
Yes, I’ve seen lots of websites that recommend this too, sadly. Anything that you make up will sound false. Much better to sound authentic.
But I really did read an article!
If you have memorised all the details of the article you’ve read and it happens to be relevant to the question (and if you have, you deserve a 9!) then go ahead and write it all down. Though it still seems to be wasting words and time. And it’s not really showing me much of your English writing ability.
You’d be much better off saving yourself the stress by saying something a lot more general, like ‘Research has shown that…’. I am much more likely to listen to you and trust you.
And because I’m an intelligent person too, I will probably have heard of this research and therefore will know what you’re talking about and empathise with you. I might even be thinking ‘Hmm that’s a good point’!
Other expressions you can use:
- As has been frequently shown…
- According to a study published recently…
- According to recent research… (NB ‘research‘ is uncountable, so no plural form and no ‘a’)
- A recent report has revealed/shown/indicated (NB Present Perfect is a good tense to choose, though Present Simple is fine)
- Research findings reveal/show/indicate that…
- A survey/study was carried out/conducted which proved that…
- In a recent report, it emerged that…
Have a look at this great explanation and download a copy from the place where it was apparently invented!
And how do I know it was invented by them? Well, when I googled ‘CRAAP Test’ I first got this website, and like all good academics, they properly referenced their sources!
Why should you believe me?!
I teach Academic Skills at my local University, and do a lot of my own research, some of which has been published, so I have to get it right!
Read all about my ‘Blue Book’ research project about how students can improve their grammar through correction.
See how I reference REAL articles that I HAVE actually READ in this article: Have you hit an IELTS plateau?’