top 10 pet peeves when grading scholarly papers

In no particular order:

  1. Poor Proof-reading: Bad spelling and typos come across as sloppy scholarship. Poor writing skills also reflect poorly. Things that particularly grate on us as graders are lack of subject-verb agreement, inconsistent use of tense, and incomplete sentences. Proof-read carefully. Don't rely on spell-check. Have another set of eyes review your paper for spelling errors, typos, and grammar, if at all possible.

  2. No Topic Sentences: We read many papers that have paragraphs that run on for 1-3 pages, and which cover multiple topics. The basic rule for paragraph construction is one topic, and one topic sentence, for each paragraph. If you eliminated all the text in your paper except for the topic sentence in each paragraph, what is left should be a functional outline of the paper that conveys the key points and themes of your topic to the reader.

  3. Inconsistent Citation Style: We don't care whether you use the Bluebook, Maroon Book, ALWD, etc. All we care is that you use one style or system consistently. Even more importantly, provide enough information for us to find the referenced material in your source. If you are contemplating publication, you should consider using the citation style used by that publication to save yourself time and effort later.

  4. Improper Use of Footnotes (or Endnotes): Footnotes should be used to provide references to explanatory information or source information in support of attributed text. They should be used when needed, but not excessively. One problem area is the failure to footnote attributed text (e.g., quotes without footnotes, specific data or referrals to specific sources without footnoting the source information).

    Another footnote faux pas is to include substantive topical discussion in the footnotes. If it is important and relevant to your topic, put it in the text. If it is not important or relevant enough to be in the body of your paper, ask yourself why you are including it. Don't use footnotes to pad out papers for length. If you honestly feel the side issue may be of interest or value to your reader, footnote it, but keep it concise.

    Don't cite to a secondary source when a primary source is available. You can provide both a primary source cite and a secondary source cite as a convenience to your readers, but always point the reader to the original or official source material whenever possible.

    P.S., either footnotes or endnotes are fine, but don't use both.

    P.P.S., if the ratio of body text to footnotes is less than 2:1, then you are probably over-footnoting.

  5. Lack of Pinpoint Cites: This goes hand-in-hand with proper use of footnotes. If you are quoting someone or referring to a particular article or chapter in a source in your footnote, make sure you include a pinpoint cite with the page number or paragraph number so that the reader may find it.

  6. Not Using Block Quotes: When quoting lengthy passages of text from another source, the text should be indented (both left and right) and single-spaced. Style manuals differ on when to block quote (APA says 40 words, Chicago says 100 words or 8 lines, the Bluebook says 50 words or more, etc. For our purposes, follow the Bluebook and use 50 words or more as your cut-off.

  7. Too Much History, Not Enough Legal Analysis: It is easier to recite the history of a situation or issue than it is to do a thorough legal analysis of it. As a result, scholarly legal papers oft times read like history papers with little or no relevant legal analysis (which is often captured in a 1-2 page section near the end of the paper or in the conclusion). If the point of the paper is about legal analysis of an issue or situation, then the bulk of the paper should reflect legal analysis. A lengthy introductory section (or sections) reciting the history is often unnecessary and diminishes the scholarly value of the paper. Note: If you are approved to write a history of a particular topic, then it is okay to write it as a history-style paper.

  8. Lack of a Thesis: Every paper should have a point, or what scholars call a "thesis." A thesis may be defined as "a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved." We don't care what your thesis is, just that you have one and the at you adequately support it in your paper with reasoning, analysis, and sources.

  9. Manipulation of Paper Length: In order to reach a page limit, students (and attorneys as well ... a cautionary tale [read from the last paragraph on page 2 until the end of the order]) will occasionally resort to tactics such as triple-spacing, adjusting margins, and/or adjusting font size to "make it fit." Adjusting to fit is okay as long as it isn't too noticeable. But turning a 20-page paper into a 30-page paper is noticeable and distracting to the grader. If it's a good paper but a couple of pages short, that will be okay.

  10. Plagiarism: The ultimate scholarly sin, punishable by a failing grade and honor code proceedings. Defined most simply as "the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own." Proper use of footnotes or endnotes will eliminate most plagiarism. See our course policy on plagiarism or talk to us if you have any questions. Remember, in the age of Google, it is very easy for professors to spot plagiarism.