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They Say, I Say: Reading Information with TSIS

Reading with They Say, I Say

Understanding the "They Say, I Say" structure can help you read and understand information and information sources. This is because "They Say, I Say" is built into the basic structure of information!

Some Perspectives on Reading with TSIS

It's tempting to say information is just facts, and facts are simply there in an obvious and immediate way. You read them, you understand them.

Even a moment's thought, however, shows that this isn't the whole truth. Think of any fact, and you can also think of some ways or some contexts in which it doesn't hold. If you now think about the fact you thought of originally, you'll find that you now recognize some of the limiting factors or contexts for it.

  • Fact: Donald Trump is President of the United States.
  • Limits: The President has to be elected in a certain manner. The President is limited at most to two 4-year terms.
  • Fact: If he was elected properly, Donald Trump is President for now.

The truth is that every fact has a context and a history, and facts "change" or become clarified through what others say in response, and so on, and so on!

Many academic journal articles begin by referring to what previous researchers have said. The authors of the article then refer to what their research is about, an example of "I [or We] Say."

  1. Academic authors often begin an essay or other written report with a quote from another writer or a summary of what others have written. This helps to establish the importance of the question as well as introduce readers to the context of the ideas and results in the essay.
  2. What others have said is so important to academic writing (it's a conversation) that all academic writers include in their research reports a distinct section where they summarize what others have written that is relevant to their own research
    1. As context. Qualified agreement or disagreement can help define the context of research.
    2. As previous results to be expanded. A writer might report that Smith found evidence of a certain mindset or behavior in context A, in order to expand the finding to contexts A and B.
    3. As an example and guide to the research method the researcher usd for her research. It's important to know what other experts have said about the method and how it works.
  3. As they present, interpret, and discuss their research findings, academic authors often refer to other relevant publications to contrast or compare, expand, or clarify their meanings.

You've undoubtedly seen TV reports that include interviews with eye-witnesses or spokespersons representing the Police or other authorities. These are good examples of one source (the report) using other sources (the spokesperson), the "They Say, I Say" structure in action.

In some fields, researchers work with "primary" and "secondary" sources. These are fields like literature, philosophy, and history, where new research consists of engaging with a primary source, such as a short story, or a philosophical dialog, or a historical document such as a letter or government report. In such research, the researcher analyzes the primary source or sources and presents an interpretation or reconstruction as the research result.

Secondary sources in such cases are what other researchers have said about the primary source or sources. (Secondary sources might also be about method or the context of the sources or the research.)

In terms of "They Say, I Say," you will see in research articles in these fields:

  • What the primary source writer said quoted or paraphrased (They Say);
  • What others have said about the primary source or writer (also They Say for the researcher); and
  • What the research article's author says in response to what "They Say" (the author's I Say).

As you write your own papers in these fields, you'll also tell your reader what the primary source says (They Say); what the secondary sources say (They Say); and what you say in response (I Say).

(Notice that it's perfectly OK to use more than one primary source and even expected that you'll use more than one secondary source in a paper.)

Primary and Secondary Sources
Primary Source Secondary Source
A short story, poem, novel or play An article or book that analyzes the story or the writer's work
A philosophical dialog, book, or article

An article or book that analyzes the dialog, book, or article or the work of the philosopher

A historical document or set of documents, such as letters, diaries, and contemporary newspaper accounts and documents, related to a historical person, event, or situation

An article or book that analyzes and interprets the same person, event, or situation


When you read or listen to a news report, you may have some difficulty identifying They Say, I Say in the report. 

If the report quotes sources or participants in an event (They Say), the reporter or writer's response may seem to be missing (no I Say).

I think the explanation for this has to do with the journalistic standards. Journalism in its reporting role aims to be objective. This often means that the reporter's views on the event or situation are purposely left out. (Editorials, on the other hand, are designed to emphasize the "I Say.")

However, because the "They Say, I Say" structure is so important for information, reporters usually employ a They Say, They Say structure: "Eyewitnesses said ... Authorities now say ...." You will also find They Say, They Say in other kinds of writing.

When a report that we expect to be objective isn't, we recognize that as bias, propaganda, or "fake news."

Seen through the lens of "They Say, I Say," these kinds of things have too much of the "I Say." We expect academic writers to give us reasons to believe the things they write. Such reasons incorporate evidence, arguments, and summaries from other sources (They Say). In an academic essay, what I say should be supported by what they say and my own objective observations.

In propaganda or fake news, however, the author's "I Say" overwhelms the reader because, first, the writer insists on a view; second, it doesn't seem believable; and third, we're not given any reason to believe it other than the author's insistence. A skilled writer can even make false claims seem believable, especially if the reader isn't careful to apply critical thinking standards.

Often, unfortunately, a writer will want so badly to make his case obvious that he'll purposely

  • Include information from weak secondary sources -- this is what They Say (but it happens to be wrong or misleading);
  • Exclude information that is relevant but harmful to his case -- effectively hiding what They Say;
  • Draw false conclusions from what They Say.

There are two lessons here. First, read and think critically. This is a skill you can develop.

Second, in your own writing,

  1. Evaluate your sources to use the best, most convincing ones (They Say);
  2. Include and respond to conflicting perspectives (They Say, They Say, I Say); and
  3. Be accurate when you report what They Say.


The Information Cycle

Understanding the Information Cycle will help you understand how "They Say, I Say" is built into the structure of information in all forms and media.

How to Read a Scholarly Journal Article

Scholarly (or academic) journal articles exhibit the They Say, I Say structure clearly. Usually the first sentences summarize what "they say."

Look for "I Say" moments in the article near the beginning

  • when the authors introduce their essay;
  • when the authors say what their study is about;
  • when the authors "survey" previous research;
  • when the authors define their method;
  • when the authors report their findings; and
  • when the authors say what they conclude based on the previously published research ("They Say") and their own research data ("We Say").

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