Accurate Documentation

Accurate Documentation Handbook Image

In This Section

Instruction on conducting secondary research in engineering, referencing properly (using the two most common methods in engineering) and appropriate source usage (paraphrase, direct citation, and plagiarism).



Accurate Documentation involves much more than a list of references at the end of your document. In engineering, design ideas are always based in someone’s earlier work, so documenting sources is important to put your work in context. It serves two important purposes:

  1. Providing the authority to back up your ideas.
  2. Giving appropriate credit to someone else for their ideas.

Documentation involves two parts:

1) The Citation is a short code (in the middle of your document) that identifies an idea or fact as borrowed from somewhere. Whenever you refer to information, you must identify the source right then and there, so that your reader knows exactly what information comes from which source.

2) The Reference List provides the complete information on each source at the end of the document. This is sometimes called a bibliography, but unlike a formal bibliography, a reference list includes only works to which you refer.

Citations and reference lists are formatted differently based on the standard used. In engineering, the two most common referencing standards are 1) Author-Date(Based on Chicago Manual of Style and used in Civil, Chemical, Industrial and Mechanical Engineering; You can find out about these standards from multiple sources via a quick Google search) and 2) IEEE style (Standard numerical format and used in Electrical, Computer, and Mechanical Engineering).

This introduction to documentation answers three important questions about documentation:

  1. What do I gain from accurate documentation?
  2. What kinds of information must be documented?
  3. What is “common knowledge”?

1. What do I gain from accurate documentation?

As a reader, you gain all the information you need to prove or disprove the statements you are reading. As a writer, you demonstrate confidence and competence by empowering your readers in the same way. A single document, published without reference to other documents, has only limited value. It is like a web page with no hyperlinks, on a browser with no “go back” button.

The documentation of sources is the academic and professional writing practice of strengthening a scientific or intellectual argument by referring to work that other people have already produced. An author who wishes to prove a statement must demonstrate to the reader that the available evidence supports that statement. This evidence includes not only the data from the author’s own research, but also the data and conclusions from other people’s work. A well-documented paper is also more useful to a reader who wishes to investigate the subject more fully. For example, take the following passages:

Passage A:

Over 50% of the entering class of undergraduate engineering students at the University of Toronto will drop out of engineering within two years. One reason that they drop out is that they perform poorly in their technical writing class. Of that group of dropouts, 87% will transfer to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which will require them to write even more frequently.

Passage A (above) makes several shocking claims. Do they seem believable? Would you be comfortable making decisions about your own academic career based on this information?

Definitely not! Where do these figures come from? Are they from an article in a student paper? E-mail from a disgruntled former engineering student? A secret memo leaked by the Dean of Arts and Sciences? Or is this a fictional passage invented to make a point about documentation?

Passage B:

A droplet of liquid nitrogen falling on the concrete roof slab would behave like a drop of water falling onto a heated plate. It would be “supported by a layer of its own vapor approximately .09 millimeter thick. . . .[because] the bottom of a falling drop vaporizes almost immediately as it nears the plate, leaving a layer of vapor to support the remaining portion of the drop” (Walker 1977:126). The same phenomenon will allow the nitrogen drops to slide off the roof without dangerously cooling the concrete.

Passage B (above) is an example of properly documented writing. At the end of the document from which passage B was excerpted, the reader would expect to find a list of references. The entry for Walker in that list would look something like this:

Walker, Pearl. 1977. “Drops of water dance.” The American Scientist. 237: 126-131.

A reader could easily locate that source, read it, and decide whether the claims made by passage B are accurate.

The author of Passage A invites suspicion by neglecting to identify any sources. Without proper documentation of sources, a piece of writing may be considered an opinion, a guess, a fantasy, or a joke. The author of Passage B, on the other hand, demonstrates competence and confidence.

2. What and when must I document?

Somebody else’s exact words: If your textbook contains the statement, “Waste management is the least-valued occupation in engineering, but is the most effective way we can guarantee our children’s future,” and you want to use those exact words in a report, you must give credit to the original author. Your obligation would be the same if you wanted to use somebody else’s description of the way a nuclear reactor works, or an explanation of a concept such as thermodynamic availability or the theory of relativity. Putting your name on your paper is your pledge that you wrote everything in it — except for the parts you attribute to other writers. (See also Accurate Documentation / Using Sources, Paraphrase, and Plagiarism)

A fact that somebody else discovered: If Jane Smith performed an experiment to measure the harmonic frequency of Toronto’s C.N. Tower , and you later used her measurements to turn the tower into a giant seismograph, you must give Smith credit for her work. Of course, you cannot give credit to the discoverer of every single fact you encounter — somebody discovered the diameter of the earth, the gravitational constant, and every other fact or equation known by science. However, you should always identify how your work picks up from where a previous study leaves off.

A conclusion or opinion that somebody else voiced: Even if you don’t use the original author’s exact words, and even if you don’t actually use facts from the original author’s discoveries, you still have to document ideas that you take from another author’s work. For instance, if Victor Lee proposes a design for a new of kind space station, and you later publish your own plan, you should give Lee credit for making the suggestion in the first place — even if your conclusions are very different from his. Instead of a fact or a few words, we are talking about original, creative thought — which is far more important to an individual’s career.

3. What is “common knowledge”?

Common knowledge is a fact or concept that is so well known and so readily available that we can expect all of our readers to be familiar with it. Consequently, we do not have to document it. For instance, we do not have to give credit to Sir Isaac Newton after every reference to gravity. You must, however, ensure that your document does not give the impression (intentionally or unintentionally) that you are taking credit for this common knowledge. You must also remember to document your use of another author’s exact words, even if the other author is writing about common knowledge.

Common knowledge: no need to document these references
  • “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
  • “What goes up must come down.”
  • The statement that industry considers solar power too unreliable.
  • A general description of the Internet as a system of interconnected computers.
Not common knowledge: you should document references like these
  • “If Jane Smith performed an experiment to measure the harmonic frequency of Toronto’s C.N. Tower…”  [Exact wording must be referenced]
  • The statement that the efficiency of solar-powered generators will never exceed 43%.  [Such a claim invites debate]
  • “The internet, while chaotic, is surprisingly useful.”  [Original research and reflection supporting this opinion should be referenced]

Engineering Communication Centre Bibliography Builder:  This popular tool will actually format your bibliography entries for you, in either IEEE or Author-Date formats.
Using Sources, Paraphrase, and Plagiarism:  This page describes how to use sources appropriately through paraphrase or direct citation, and defines plagiarism and identifies ways to avoid it.
Conducting / Understanding Secondary Research in Engineering:  An introduction to finding and understanding engineering research articles.