Research Tools: Google Scholar

(This article originally appeared as “The Research Paper” Sept. 2012)

Getting Started with Research

Your instructor has assigned a research paper which will require ten credible sources. You begin your search where everyone does – online. You Google your search term, “Lower Drinking Age,” to find over five million hits. You make it more specific: “Lower Drinking Age to 18,” and get 4 million hits. You pull out your assignment guidelines for some direction, and notice it states, “Ten credible sources, only 3 of which can be websites.”

You’re doomed.

You are at home or work and can’t get to the library. How can you ever find enough sources for your paper if you are not allowed to use all websites? And what does “credible” mean anyway?

Sound familiar?

Finding reliable sources is the single most time-consuming task of writing a research paper. It takes time and patience to locate effective sources that support your argument. So where to start?

Google Scholar

In the initial stages of gathering research, the internet can be a useful tool if used wisely. As you are just beginning to gather information, you want to cast a wide net to understand all the angles of your topic. One great online site to begin is Google Scholar.

Google Scholar can give you access to research across a wide range of disciplines. You’ll find all types of print and web sources: books, journal articles, court documents, dissertations, and even university websites, which are generally the most credible type of web-based source (should always be “edu”).





If you search “Lower Drinking Age,” you’ll see a sidebar on the left that offers you a way to narrow the results by type, year, and relevance. On the right is a “My Citations,” link where you can track a researcher’s work (you have to have a Google account for this). The advantage of this tool is if you find a particular researcher who is publishing work in your topic of interest, you can find other relevant publications by the same author.

Once you find some intriguing articles, you can click on the link to read the abstract (description of the article). If you scan over to the right of the link, you may see links to the printed version in a PDF file with the full text. At the bottom of the annotated link, you’ll see a horizontal list of further help, including “Cited,” which shows many times the article has been cited; html, if this type of version is offered, other related articles (which is a good info to have for further research; other versions of the article (which may include more current research), and other types of information related to the article.

Advanced Search

Advanced Search


If you are on a campus computer, you may also see a link under the link that says, “find at MCC,” (or your local college or university). This means your campus will have that source in one of its libraries or have access to it.



Take some time in this stage to tweak your search terms and scan the research to find the perfect support for your paper. Take careful notes of the articles and authors you might to use, or if you are able, print out the full link so you’ll have it when you go back to read the full text later. Slowing down and taking these steps will save you time later.




Breaking Down the Narrative Essay Assignment


One of the most common writing assignments in introductory English Composition classes is the narrative essay. Students are often very familiar with writing an academic essay, such as a classical argument, but when asked to compose a narrative story, many students are flummoxed. It’s true that narrative writing is a different kind of writing than academic prose, but it’s still writing. Once you understand the parts that make up the whole, composing a winning narrative will be a piece of cake. For our purposes, we’ll focus on a typical Comp I assignment for a short 4-6 page narrative essay.

The Event

Most writing assignments ask that you focus on a very small moment in time to make the essay manageable. Trying to write about your entire high school career, a four-year span of time, is too large to cover thoroughly in 4-6 pages. So pick a specific moment in time when something happened that affected you deeply or changed you in some way. As with any narrative, be it a book-length narrative or a short essay, the main character (in this case, you) should go through some kind of change or transformation. This should be a specific event that you can recall easily and describe effortlessly.

An example of a moment in time might be the championship football game when you missed the field goal in the final seconds. This remembered event might have taken a span of a just 2 or 3 hours, which is the time you would write about in your essay. Another moment in time might be related to family, such as the wedding of your sister when you realized she was leaving home, or when you realized you wanted to be a veterinarian after entering your pet rabbit in the fair, even though you didn’t win a blue ribbon.

Troubleshooting Topics

Many writing instructors try to steer students away from writing about births, deaths, or other very emotional experiences. These are often the first topics to come to mind, but they don’t always make the best narratives. Why? Because, one, we are often too emotionally close to the event to write about it objectively without getting overly sentimental, or to communicate anything other than joy or sorrow. And two, if your instructor requires peer reviews (your classmates will read your essay and offer constructive criticism), it may be extremely uncomfortable to hear feedback on your writing on a very emotional topic. When I teach the narrative essay, my guidelines actually say, please no births or deaths. Don’t judge me.

Also, don’t think the “event” has to be a big, grand experience. It can be something extremely simple, like the afternoon your grandma taught you how to make kolaches, or the year your family had Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Think small, but meaningful.

Figuring out the Main Purpose or Theme

Once you decide on a topic and before you begin writing, you’ll want to consider what the main purpose or theme of the essay is. Instructors often refer to this as the autobiographical significance.  Ask yourself, what is the point of this essay? What am I trying to say? If you are an ace with academic essays, think in terms of the thesis statement; what is the thesis of the narrative? (For more help with this, read this great essay from Brevity Magazine, “So What’s Your Point?”).

Figuring out your narrative’s purpose takes some thinking, and it’s not always so clear. Some writers believe you should first write the story, and the main purpose will organically come. Other writers feel they must have an idea what the main purpose is before they can even begin writing. Both are a means to the same end, and you’ll have to do what works best for you. Just note that instructors often ask that you know exactly what the main purpose or autobiographical significance is before you begin.


In the introduction, you’ll want to set up the story, and to do this, the reader will need to know the 5 Ws, or the Who? What? When? Where? Why? of the narrative.

Avoid the mistake of holding back essential info to surprise the reader. This isn’t a mystery; it’s a narrative essay, so the reader needs to know who the players are, where and when the setting takes place, what is happening, and why things are happening.


The body, the majority of the narrative, will guide the reader through the event. This will include exposition or rising action when you are building tension in the story, or introducing a complication that sets you on a trajectory of sorts.


This is when the tension built in the exposition is at its height, when the conflict culminates in a peak of excitement, tragedy, or epiphany. This naturally leads to the resolution.


In the conclusion, the reader should see the narrator has changed in some way. What lessons have you learned from this event? How has the event itself changed your way of thinking, or how you live your life? This is known as the autobiographical significance; the reader will come to understand the autobiographical significance. For specific ways to conclude, see our previous post on conclusions here.

Final Thoughts

Careful consideration of a manageable topic in the early stages is the first step in composing a winning narrative. Of course, you should always let your assignment directives guide you. And don’t think it’s going to be perfect in the first draft. Narrative essays take a few drafts to work out the kinks. Take your time and write on!

The Case of Capitalization


Capitalization can be confounding to beginning writers. Some words are easy to remember, like proper names and places. But what about ages and time periods? Regions and geographical areas? And diseases – are all diseases capitalized, or just some, and what’s the difference?

The answer to some of these questions is it depends on the documentation style you are using. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to MLA style unless otherwise noted.

Titles in Names

When a proper name is preceded with a title, like judge or professor, the titles will be capitalized.

  • I took British Literature from Professor Kennedy.
  • We were married at the courthouse by Judge Baker.
  • Boys Town was started by Father Flanagan.

However, do not capitalize titles when they stand alone.

  • When I grow up, I hope to be a professor.
  • My uncle is a judge.

When referencing family names, only capitalize the relationship when they are part of the person’s title.

  • Her Aunt Cindy is a lawyer in New York.
  • Her aunt is an expert quilter.
  • My mother has a huge record collection.

 Time Periods

If the time period is referred to by a specific name, it is capitalized.

  • the Middle Ages
  • Paleozoic Era
  • the Dark Ages
  • Age of Enlightenment

When used as a descriptive, no capitalization is necessary.

  • The antebellum period
  • classical Greece
  • ancient Egypt


North, South, East, and West are capitalized when indicating geographical regions. Regions such as the Mid Atlantic, Silicon Valley, and Midwest are capitalized. Usually if “the” can go in front of the word, it is capitalized.

  • American West
  • Atlantic
  • The Northeast
  • The South

North, south, northwest, etc. are not capitalized when indicating a direction or used as an adjective.

  • The western United States
  • eastern Europe
  • southern France
  • She drove south through Atlanta.


Diseases named after regions and people are capitalized. Ebola and West Nile are capitalized, as both are named from the regions where they originated (Ebola is a river in Zaire, and West Nile is a region in Uganda). Alzheimer’s disease, Asperger’s syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are named after the doctors who discovered the diseases. However, there are differences between style guides as to whether they are possessive. If in doubt, follow the style used in your field of study or your textbook.

Most disease names are not capitalized, as the names are derived from some hallmark of the condition, according to Grammar Girl. Diabetes, autism, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis would not be capitalized.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the capitalization iceberg. Always refer to the style guide in your specific field, as many vary on their formatting. For instance, according to the Grammar Girl, the directional terms that describe people differ, depending on the style book. Associated Press, used for magazines and newspapers, prefers “Southerner,” whereas Chicago Manual of Style prefers “southerner.”

It’s most important to stay consistent, regardless of the style you use.

For more help with capitalization questions, visit The Grammar Book or Grammar Girl.