When assigned a research paper, many students become anxious, as they may be unfamiliar with research basics. Even though your instructor may have given you guidelines to follow, it’s daunting to know where to begin. With the tremendous amount of online resources now available, a student can get lost for days scrolling through information and get bogged down to the point of drowning in TMI: too much information!
So where to begin?
1. First, consider your topic. Is it a current issue? Is it a more scientific topic? What field of interest is it? A current issue, say, the debate on the college bowl system, isn’t going to be found in peer-reviewed journals. A current issue will be written about in newspapers or magazines, and most likely on some websites. Your instructor may have strict guidelines that prohibit the use of these types of sources.
If you’ve picked a topic based more in the sciences, for instance, genetically modified food or organ transplantation, you’ll probably find research on these topics in peer-reviewed or academic journals, as well as books and respected websites. Current social or ethical topics, like cyberbullying or wind farms, would most likely be found in newspapers or magazines, as they are current issues, but might also be found in academic journals as well and even books.
Before you get too far into the research process, make certain your topic will work for the type of research your assignment requires. If peer-reviewed or academic research is required, debating the merits of a BCS playoff system might not work.
2. Think quality over quantity. If your assignment requires you to cite 8 sources, citing 16 isn’t going to double your chances of a better grade. Using too many sources may send up a red flag that you’ve relied too heavily on source material and not your own ideas. Quality sources are books, peer-reviewed journals, scholarly articles, most library databases, and some websites. I guide my students to only utilize “.edu” or “.gov,” as even some “.org” websites can be misrepresentative. Wikipedia is hit and miss. Most instructors oppose its use, though some permit limited use for only a bit of historical information. And please, oh please, avoid using a dictionary or encyclopedia definition as a source.
3. The best way to locate quality research comes from other quality research. If you’ve found one good source, look at that source’s citation page at the end. Who has your source referenced? These are often the best sources for your topic. Still having a love affair with Wikipedia? You might not be able to use Wiki in your paper, but it’s often not a bad starting point to find other research that you can use. Search your topic, then scroll down to Wikipedia’s references. They are often quite long. I searched “Wind Farm” in Wikipedia and 111 sources came up. They also have a “Further Reading” list at the bottom of most pages.
4. When searching library databases such as EBSCO or ERIC, I often see students repeatedly use the same keyword in different databases and getting the same poor result. Database searches are all about keywords, and your best results come from careful consideration of search terms. Brainstorm a list of possible keywords, either general topics or titles, even synonyms will bring up different results. You might also consult the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which contain the keywords that librarians use when they classify materials. A search of “wind farm” brought up “wind power plants,” and “wind power parks.” If in doubt, ask your librarian. That’s what they’re there for.
5. As you spend some time sifting through research, it’s important to keep careful records. You’ll save a lot of valuable time if you stay organized and maintain careful records so you don’t have to go back and try to find where all your sources came from. Keep research note cards, photocopy materials, or keep a detailed research journal.
Start early and schedule ample time for collecting research. This is often the most time consuming part of the essay process, but it’s also the most crucial. You can’t write a research paper without research. It’s also important to understand the research and show that you’ve developed insights into the problem or debate. You’re not just compiling data to dump in between your own paragraphs. You must synthesize the research and link this new information to what you already know.