Research Guide for College Papers

The ability to skillfully find, evaluate, and incorporate research is called “information literacy” and it is the cornerstone of academic study. Online search engines have reinforced some bad habits in students and in a lot of ways have made students think that research is easy and simple. Whether the paper you’re writing is for a Social Science or Humanities or even a Natural Science class, cunning research skills will make your results much better. Whether you are an excellent, fair, or poor writer, you can boost your overall performance on papers by presenting the best information possible. And the thinking skills you develop in this way will help you for the rest of your life. Here, then, are some pointers for all steps of the research process.

Hunting and Gathering Information

1. Brainstorming and Exploring

It’s important to think of research as a long and satisfying hunt rather than as a quick stop at the local butcher’s. Be proud to stalk your quarry for a long time before bringing home a bountiful feast.
Solid research depends on looking high and low, being patient, looking repeatedly. Many students feel they can shoot directly to quotes or statistics online, and they certainly can. But that doesn’t mean this is the best information available, a concept I’ll discuss later. Getting the best information involves being creative about deciding what you’re looking for.

Let’s say you are writing a paper on the Jamestown Colony, one of the first American settlements. It may seem that finding a computer and typing “Jamestown Colony” into a search box in a library database or an online search engine is all you need to do. But let’s take a closer look and make a list of possible keywords. First of all, think of synonyms. A database might have an article about the Jamestown Colony in which that phrase is never used. It may be called, instead the “Jamestown Settlement.” So this should go on your list of phrases or terms to be prepared to type into databases. Then, there are the issues involved in the topic. We’ll assume you’ve already narrowed the focus from “Jamestown Colony” to the colonist’s relations with Indians. This now gives you a fresh cornucopia of new search terms. Later I will go into greater detail on the logistics of the database search itself. Suffice to say for now that the following terms should be used in conjunction with “Jamestown Colony” or “Jamestown Settlement.” “Indian relations,” “Indian conflict” “conflict” and “battle” will all be good phrases to get you started. You probably would also know that Captain James Smith and Pocahontas are two key figures and could search for them either alone or in combination with “Jamestown Colony.” At any rate, the idea is to develop lists of concepts and ideas that relate to your topic, rather than searching for just the “name” of the topic itself. As you search further, you will find more and more terms.

2. Hitting the Library

First, let me say that as a long-time instructor, I am familiar with the idea that some students try to pull off the amazing feat of researching for a paper without ever entering the library. Often you can access your school library’s collections from home via the internet, and of course there are online search engines. But those methods don’t really begin to get into a solid research approach. Again, research is about taking the time and feeling satisfaction in finding the best information, not just the first information you see. Only by going to your school’s library will you get the full range of resources available to you-books, periodical articles, articles on microfiche, newspapers, video recordings or DVD’s, and other special collections your library may have. But going to the library also allows you to get the help of library staff who should be very knowledgeable and quite helpful in pointing out search strategies and identifying library services, as well as helping you think about approaching your topic.

Libraries are becoming ever more service oriented, and offer features to students such as interlibrary loan, delivery of materials from other campus libraries, online assistance via e-mail or real-time chat. It is key for you, as early in your academic career as possible, to look at your institution’s library home page and discover the services they can offer you. Note that if you are to request books to be inter-loaned from other libraries, it will take several days, so you will need to plan ahead.

3. Performing the Search

Now that you’ve considered what you are looking for and have familiarized yourself with the library, it is time to actually begin the long and satisfying process of searching. Find a computer at the library and open a web browser if it isn’t already open. You should be at the library’s homepage. From there, if you’d like to begin by searching for books, click on the “library catalog” or similar link. If you would like to begin by searching for articles in magazines, journals, or newspapers, click on the link for “library databases” or a similar link. If it is not clear how to get into these databases, ask a librarian. Say you’ve gone into the databases page. You should see a wide array of databases provided by your library. Each contains listings of articles in a particular area. Common and useful databases are First Search and Expanded Academic ASAP. First Search actually contains many databases in areas such as Economics, Social Sciences, Humanities, etc. It is a good idea to move as quickly as possible into an advanced search in these databases, so that, as in the example above, you may type in combinations of keywords. Be curious as you search, and experiment with the features of the databases. Be sure to find features that allow you to limit searches by date, type of materials, publication, etc. This will make your searches more manageable. Dozens of pages could be written on this phase of the process alone. Experiment as much as you can and ask librarians for help. At some point in your college career, you will almost certainly attend a library orientation where you will be shown some search techniques. Pay attention, take notes, and be willing to explore.

Organizing and Evaluating Information

1. Harvesting and storing after the hunt

As you have success finding information, refining your sense of what you’d like to find, developing your focus, etc., you will amass a large amount of material. To fight against overwhelm, it will be a good idea to try to print out or photocopy only those articles that seem likely to help you. Sure, a good research process involves hitting and missing, but it’s best not to print full-text articles from computers or photocopy entire periodical articles without reading the first page or two and skimming some of the division headings. You will evaluate the sources in more detail later, but there’s no need to cause yourself clutter and confusion by taking home too many materials.

2. Reading and Evaluating

Thoroughly reading your sources is important, first of all, to give you a solid understanding of the topic you are writing on. Your instructor will appreciate your not just regurgitating facts, but showing a holistic understanding of the issues at hand. But reading is also important as a way of making sure the material you’ve found is not only appropriate, but of high quality. Here are some ways to evaluate the quality of your sources.

First, look at the credentials of the author. Articles and books will usually list other publications the author has, and first-time authors should be treated a bit carefully. Affiliation with reputable universities, research agencies, publications or other professional credentials is key. People with titles such as “motivational speaker” “success consultant” or simply “expert” will be less likely to impress your instructor. This is something to be careful about when selecting books; however, your institution’s library probably won’t stock many books from questionable authors, and just about any article you select from the databases described above should be fine. But making sure the author has authority to write on the given subject is only the first step. You must also look at where the article is published and for what purpose-this is particularly taxing and crucial when dealing with any online sources. First, is the article a news story or an editorial or opinion piece? If it is an editorial, note that any quotes and numbers used in it will be selected carefully to make the author’s point. Be wary, because you may find in these pieces some skewed or deceptive information that your instructor may strongly question. Also, make you sure identify the occasion for the piece being written-was it prepared for a company newsletter or another sort of corporate sponsor? Was it a response to another article? A book review? You will incorporate your information into your paper better if you consider the context.

Finally, using skills you’ve learned in all your classes, do your best to evaluate the overall accuracy and logic of the material. No matter how much authority an author may seem to have, some of the information you find could be inaccurate, marred by bias, irrational, or poorly reasoned. Few instructors will excuse these flaws on the grounds that they come from quoted sources-it is your responsibility to find the best information.

Integrating Your Research

After finding and evaluating a wide variety of research materials, it is time to place them in your paper. If you have taken notes while reading, or have labeled pages of your research, you should have a good idea of where various sources will fit in the paper. Make yourself room to have the sources available as you write. As you make an assertion, or statement of opinion, in your paper, you are ready to select relevant resources to back up this assertion. When quoting your sources, keep some things in mind:

1. Avoid excessive quotation. While journalism is there to give a spotlight to the people quoted, academic writing is meant to showcase your original ideas and writing skills, with quotations used as support. Include just the meat of the quotation. For example, say you are quoting an article on the influence of the R.E.M. album, Murmur. A particular passage states, “Murmur was a shot heard ’round the alternative rock world, a touchstone for literally thousands of aspiring young musicians, who instantly traded their moussed haircuts and parachute pants for the more earthy, thrift store look that was one of R.E.M.’s hallmarks. These young musicians aped the jangly guitarsound, cryptic lyrics and slurred vocals and invented something called College Rock.” Say you would like to use this quote to support your assertion that R.E.M. was one of the pioneers of College Rock. Instead of quoting the above passage in its entirety, you may say, “Murmur was…a touchstone for literally thousands of aspiring young musicians,” who “aped the jangly guitar sound, cryptic lyrics and slurred vocals and invented something called College Rock.” Here, you are using ellipses (…) to show a break in a continuous quotation, and then breaking the quotation, inserting your own word, “who” and moving to a new part of the quotation. This gives us just what we need. If you’d like to use the quotation to support an assertion about R.E.M.’s influence on fashion, use that portion of the quotation.

2. Paraphrase at times, to save space and to show you have thought about the material you’ve found and what it means, rather than just plugging it into the paper. With the above example, you may paraphrase by saying “Murmur was a widely influential album, inspiring many young musicians to imitation.” Be sure, however, that if you are paraphrasing, you do not use colorful language, or any exact wording from your source. If you do so, you must enclose that material in quotations.

3. Be sure to introduce quotations. Do not begin a quotation without first telling us who is saying it. The first time an author comes up, introduce her or him thoroughly. In the above example, you may say, “In his essay, ‘Murmur: R.E.M.’s Magnum Opus’, rock journalist Galvin Carey explains that Murmur was….” If you follow up with the same author not much later in the paper, you may use a construction such as “Another mark of Murmur’s influence,” Carey continues, “is…”. In this case, you are not giving the author’s name before the quotation, but this is only because you’d recently introduced him.

4. Use correct format, MLA, ALA, or Chicago, as required by the assignment, for in-text citation, and for your works cited page. Refer to a reputable style guide, such as Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference or Ebest, Alred, Brusaw and Oliu’s Writing from A to Z for examples.

Finally, remember that research is a complex set of concepts that takes years and years to perfect. In this case, it truly is the journey, and not the destination, that is satisfying.

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