How do Writing 150 Students Cite Research?

Students enrolled in BYU’s freshman composition course, WRTG 150, write a research-based argument as a major assignment. But what does their research look like on a macro scale? What types of sources are students using to back their arguments? How many sources are they citing per paper? How old are the sources that students cite in their papers? Who knows? Nobody. This research project is an attempt to answer those questions.


To uncover the shape of freshman research at BYU, we conducted a citation analysis on 200 papers and 2048 citations from students enrolled in a 2019 semester of WRTG-150. Because we had many questions, we broke data analysis into 4 passes. The purpose and methodology for each pass is outlined below:

Pass 1: Organize and clean data

Pass 2: Perform citation analysis

Pass 3: Assess accuracy of sources (superficial “correctness”)

Pass 4: Label publisher for each source

Results + Initial Discussion

What types of sources are students citing?

This graph on the right shows that students are overwhelmingly citing peer-reviewed, academic sources. Their next go-to source types are popular and self-published sources.

This is just another way to look at what types of sources students are using. Maybe it’s easier for you contextualize this data when it is seen as a percentage of a whole instead of just as a bar.

How accurately are students citing sources?

While these categories are rather broad, they do help inform us that students are generally able to mimic the forms of MLA convention. 

How old are student sources?

Not old. In fact, very, very young. I broke this data down into discrete sections to see how old popular sources were, how old books were, how old academic articles were, but there is not much difference. 

std dev12.84746128


How many sources are students using?

Students are using ~10 sources per paper on average. I’m pretty sure that the template assignment page that the new GSIs get every August says 8-10, so that is about as expected. But now we know.



std dev4.402192236

What sources are students citing the most?

The most popular sources are almost all popular news outlets. In fact, the first non-popular source that appears “PLoS ONE” is a database similar to EEBSCO rather than an individual magazine or publisher.

There is a huge spread. The most popular source is only 1.4% of the total citations. Of the 1037 citations coded in pass 4, there 837 sources used only once.

For a full list of the most popular sources, click the tab below labeled “Open full list.”