Department of Political Science, Queens College
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.