Introduction: Writing IR Research Papers at UNT

My upper-division undergraduate International Relations courses generally require at least one advanced research paper. For my "International Conflict" course (PSCI 4821), this paper requirement involves in-depth research on a particular international crisis or war; for my "Geography, History, and International Relations" course (PSCI 4820), the paper requirement involves in-depth research on a particular territorial claim. The full details of each assignment can be found in the syllabus for the course in question, but this web page is meant to provide additional assistance for students trying to research their topics. Most of the resources discussed on this page will be relevant for either paper topic; many wars have been related to territorial claims, many territorial claims have been related to wars, and many history resources cover both topics equally well.

Number of Sources

It can be dangerous to list a specific number of sources that are expected for an advanced college research paper, as there is so much variation across topics and across sources. A good rule of thumb, though, is that I expect you to use at least five serious scholarly sources (particularly books but also including academic journal articles) as long as this many sources are available in the library. For cases that are more obscure or cases that are too recent to have generated many books/articles, obviously, I can't expect you to use sources that don't exist. If you don't plan on using at least five sources, though, I highly recommend talking to me about your topic; I can often point you in the direction of additional sources that you hadn't thought of.

Also note that this rule of thumb refers to using five different serious scholarly sources. This does not mean listing five sources in your bibliography, but only using one or two in the writeup of your paper. I expect to see evidence that you have used all five sources in researching this paper, including appropriate citations wherever each one was used.

Acceptable Sources

This web page lists a variety of sources that are acceptable for use in advanced college research papers such as those required in my courses. In particular, I strongly encourage the use of academic books and journal articles, as well as the use of new sources such as newspapers or news wires.

Please be aware that most Internet sources, CD-ROMs, and encyclopedias are not appropriate for an upper-division college research paper such as these, and as such may not be used without my explicit permission. If you plan to use electronic sources, you must read and follow the guidelines presented at; note in particular that you must fill out a one-page request (and receive my written permission) before the source can be used, and that even then you must add a paragraph in the bibliography evaluating each electronic source used in your paper.

With the exception of online newspapers and journal articles (see below), the use of other electronic sources without following this procedure will be penalized by a deduction of up to five letter grades, depending on the severity of the problem (with a higher penalty generally being assessed when more unapproved sources are used, when the unapproved sources constitute the majority of the student's research, and so on).

What about online newspapers or JSTOR?

This requirement does not apply to online versions of traditional library sources such as journal articles (obtainable through JSTOR or similar online databases) or newspapers (obtainable through Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, the Historical New York Times Online, the newspapers' own web sites, or similar sources). Because these are the same stories that you would otherwise get by xeroxing from the printed journal or by printing from the newspaper's microfilm archive, these sources are fine and do not require either my permission or a paragraph justifying and evaluating the source.

What about Wikipedia?

To many students, Wikipedia seems to be the ultimate research source -- it covers almost every topic imaginable, in many cases it provides lots of detail, it comes up at the top of nearly every Google search you run, and it has been edited by millions of users, maybe even including some of the foremost experts in the field. So why don't I allow Wikipedia to be used in my courses' research papers, except with my explicit written permission (as described above?

The reason is that nobody can be sure of the qualifications of those who have edited the particular Wikipedia entry you want to use. There have been several scandals where politicians (or their supporters), corporate employees, or other people with a specific interest in mind have created or edited Wikipedia articles with the goal of exaggerating their credentials or accomplishments or removing negative information (and these are only the few scandals that have made the headlines; there may well have been many more undiscovered efforts to do the same thing). This is a particular problem for many of the paper topics that are assigned for my courses. In any given semester, there are probably a dozen or more articles related to my students' papers that Wikipedia has flagged as controversial, often showing waves of repeated editing by partisans of each country's view. There is little way to be sure that at the exact moment you consult the article, it reflects a neutral and unbiased perspective rather than one or the other of the two sides' propaganda.

So while Wikipedia is perfectly fine as a starting point for discovering basic information about a topic to help you figure out where to look in more trustworthy scholarly sources, it is not an acceptable source for upper-division college research papers on controversial topics such as wars, territorial claims, or the like. This view is echoed in an interview with Andrew Lih, a Wikipedia editor/administrator and the author of the book Wikipedia Revolution:

Wikipedia should be the starting point of research, not the ending point.

To the prospective journalist [Note from Dr. Hensel: this is just as true for students]: there is no better place to start researching a story than Wikipedia, and probably no worse place to stop and use as a final word. In short, don't do it. Wikipedia has helped you get your research started faster; don't ruin your experience by using it incorrectly.

Citations and Plagiarism

Furthermore, you must properly footnote and cite all sources that you use. Guidelines are available at Failure to follow these guidelines on citing one's sources properly will be penalized by a deduction of up to five letter grades.

Writing Help

Many students make the same writing mistakes over and over again, either because they do not know that they are making a mistake or because they do not know how to fix it. With these students in mind, I have created several web pages listing common mistakes and describing how to fix the problems. If you have any doubt, please check out these web pages! Even if an instructor does not explicitly grade papers based on spelling, style, grammar, and so on, it is quite common for a poorly written and poorly organized paper to be less successful simply because it could not make its point effectively and because all of the mistakes in the paper distract the reader.

Please note that while I generally do not directly penalize students for spelling or grammatical errors, I will indicate many such mistakes with a red pen when grading. For example, one semester I had a student who went to all the trouble to get his paper specially bound at Kinko's, yet I counted (and circled in red ink) more than ten spelling or grammatical errors on each of the first three pages of the paper. Furthermore, sloppy writing often indicates sloppy research, and I will not spend extra time trying to figure out what the student's point is if it's not clear; I see no reason to spend additional time and effort grading a paper when the paper's author did not put much time or effort into writing it in the first place.

Books and Journal Articles

The most useful reference source for papers such as these is the university library, which includes a wide variety of books with information on crises, wars, and territorial claims. This section of the web page discusses some of the most useful search strategies for information in Strozier.

Territorial Claims

For a great place to start, the Strozier library includes a number of sources that cover territorial claims around the world, at least several of which will cover most of your topics. The following sources are especially useful for topics that have been active in the later twentieth century (and for selected earlier topics), and most of these are useful for both territorial claims and crises/wars (even if they focus only on one or the other):


Gazetteers can be another useful source for most topics in these courses. Essentially geographic dictionaries, good gazetteers include hundreds of thousands of entries, describing the history and geography of different geographic features, territories, countries, cities, and so on. These sources generally are not good enough to be the main source for a paper of this type, but they can be quite useful as a starting point (often listing several sentences up to several paragraphs on the history of a disputed territory, giving alternative names or spellings of names for the territory, and so on). They can also be very useful when trying to identify the details of a claimed territory, such as its area, population, and any valuable resources or other benefits present in the territory.

Crises and Wars

The following sources offer at least a paragraph or two on most wars in the topic list (Kohn) and on most crises or wars since World War II (Bercovitch and Ciment). As with the general territorial claims sources described above, these are likely to be of use for researching both crises/wars (for PSCI 4821) and territorial claims (for PSCI 4820), since so many territorial claims have produced at least one militarized dispute, crisis, or war:

War Fatalities Data

Information on the specific dates, participants, and fatalities for each war is also available online from the Correlates of War project, the leading data collection project for the study of world politics. Unfortunately, this information is only available (in a more or less easy-to-use format) for full-scale wars, and is not available for any of the sub-war crises in the topic list.

For older wars, this information is available in a printed volume that was published in 1982:

UNT Libraries - Online Catalog

Beyond the general sources listed above, which include information on a number of territorial claims or conflicts from around the world, you also need to look up books and articles that deal with your claim specifically (or at least with the countries involved in your claim).

One of the first things you should do is search UNT's online catalog, using the online search interface.

It is essential to search for histories of each involved country as well, though; many of the topics covered in these classes may have generated few or no entire books in our library. Some important headings to search (using the fictitious example of a claim between Bolivia and Botswana) include:

Academic Journal Articles

Some territorial claims, crises, and wars will be covered better by journals than by books, so you should also be sure to check for articles about your claim that our library might have.

News Sources

You should also expect to find a great deal of information in newspapers or other printed news sources, even for claims that haven't generated any/many books. Some of the sources that I have found most useful for studying territorial claims include:

Printed News Sources

Online News Archives - Historical

Online News Sources - Current

There are many useful sources for current world news; these are a few of the more useful mainstream sources:

Newspapers and Global News Sites

News Agencies

Other News-Related Links on My Web Site

Web Sources

I am aware that with today's technology -- Ethernet or WiFi in every dorm room, inexpensive computers that are more powerful than top-of-the-line commercial computers from a few years ago, etc. -- there is a temptation to research papers entirely from one's bedroom without setting foot in the library. Unfortunately, though, this is a very dangerous research strategy that almost always produces poor results (and that is guaranteed to do so in my courses). For example, I have had several past students write horrible papers based exclusively on Internet sources. One of them wrote an entire upper-division college paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis based on a single web page (from the U.S. government, no less!), and another wrote an entire paper on one of the Arab-Israeli wars using only two web pages (one from the Israeli government and one from the Israeli military). I would hope that I do not need to explain the ridiculous nature of these papers -- whether this means the number of sources used, the one-sided and official nature of these sources, or the utter laziness that led the students in question to skip the dozens of books in our library that would be relevant for either of these topics.

You shouldn't even bother wasting your time with Internet resources until after you have finished taking advantage of the books, journals, and newspapers available in our library. You are very unlikely to be able to find the amount of detail that you need for a paper like this on the Web (and much of the detail that you are likely to find may be of questionable validity, owing to the non-refereed nature of Internet publication). As a result, a paper that relies on Internet sources rather than appropriate printed materials such as books and journals will not receive a very good grade. (and if you plan to submit such a paper, be aware that I will most certainly look through LUIS and other resources to verify your complaint that "there is nothing on this claim in the library"; if I can find useful resources using the online catalog and the other resources listed on this page, then I will not be likely to reward your sloppy and halfhearted research effort with a good grade on the paper) Bearing this in mind, the following on-line resources can be useful for limited purposes, even if not for the bulk of one's research. Remember, though, that on-line sources (as well as CD-ROM encyclopedias and similar electronic resources) can only be used as a supplement to more conventional library resources, and only if specifically approved by me in writing after you make a written request. Reliance on Internet sources where appropriate library sources exist, overreliance on Internet sources in any situation, or use of Internet sources without my approval will be penalized by up to five letter grades.

There are very few situations for which I will approve the use of Internet sources. One is the use of a government's official web site to identify that government's official position on an ongoing (or recent) territorial claim -- although in this case you must be very careful to point out the likely one-sided nature of the source. Another is the use of reports from international organizations or institutions such as the United Nations or the World Court. A third is the use of general reference sources to produce maps of the involved countries and the claimed territory; a variety of historical maps may be found online. Outside of these three situations, though, it will probably be quite difficult to convince me to approve an Internet source for your paper. Also note that before approving any requested Internet sources, I will ask you which legitimate library sources you have consulted, and which specific information you found on the Internet that you could not find in any more legitimate source; I will probably attempt to verify these claims before deciding whether or not to approve your request, so don't even try to request Web sources before you've tried serious scholarly research.

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Last updated: 9 September 2016
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