How to Research Your Topic

INTRODUCTION

A research paper is an essay that presents the results of a writer’s investigation of a topic in print, electronic, or multimedia format. The skills involved—finding, evaluating, and assimilating the ideas of other writers—are essential in any field of study. They will also be useful to you in your career. Much of the writing you do on the job, especially if you are in management, requires you to express in your own words the facts, opinions, and ideas of others.
     Writing a research paper follows the same process as other kinds of writing, from planning through drafting to revising. The difference is that instead of relying exclusively on what you already know about a topic, you include source material—facts, data, knowledge, or opinions of other writers—to support your thesis. This section explains the different kinds of source material you can choose from and tells you the strengths and weaknesses of each. See How to Summarize, Paraphrase, and Quote from Sources on this Web site for information on how to integrate into your paper the information you have found.

A research paper is not simply a collection of what other people have said about a subject. It is your responsibility to shape and control the discussion, to make sure that what you include from your sources is interesting and relevant to your thesis, and to comment on its validity or significance. It is your paper, your thesis, your key ideas. Ideas from other writers should be included as support for your topic sentences.
     One of the challenges of writing a research paper is differentiating between your ideas and those you took from sources. Readers cannot hear the different “speakers,” so you have to indicate who said what. To separate your sources from your own ideas, research papers require documentation—a system of acknowledging source materials. Format and Documentation on this Web site will show you how to provide your readers with a guide to the information contained in your paper—a play by play of who is “speaking.”
     Research papers are usually longer than essays, and the planning process is more complex. For these reasons, the time you are given to complete a research assignment is usually longer than the time allowed for an essay. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can put the assignment off for a few weeks. You will need all the time you’ve been given to find the sources you need, decide what you want to say, and then draft, revise, and polish your paper. Instructors assign research papers so that they can assess not only your research skills but also your writing skills.

 

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TIPS ON WRITING A RESEARCH PAPER

  1. Even though your instructor may be your only reader, think of your potential audience as the other students who are taking the course with you, those who took it in recent years, and those who will take it in the near future. This way, you can count on a certain amount of shared knowledge. For a course in economics, for example, you can assume your audience knows what the Phillips curve relationship is; a definition would be superfluous. For a course in literature, you won’t need to inform your readers that Jonathan Swift was an 18th-century satirist. Think of your readers as colleagues who want to see what conclusions you have reached and what evidence you have used to support them.
  2. Manage your time carefully. Divide the work into a number of tasks, develop a schedule that leaves lots of time for revision, and stick to your schedule.
  3. Choose a topic that interests you. Define it as precisely as you can before beginning your research, but be prepared to modify, adapt, and revise it as you research and write your paper.
  4. If you cannot find appropriate sources, ask a reference librarian for help.
  5. When making notes, always record the author, title, publication data, and page numbers of the source. For electronic sources, note also the URL, the name of the database or site, the name of the institution or organization sponsoring the site, either the date of publication or the date the source was last revised, and the date you accessed the site.
  6. Use your source material to support your own ideas, not the other way around.
  7. Document your sources according to whatever style your instructor prefers.
  8. Revise, edit, and proofread carefully. If you omit this step, the hours and weeks you have spent on your assignment will be wasted, not rewarded.

 

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RESEARCHING YOUR SUBJECT

Your first step in writing a research paper is the same as your first step in any writing task: select a suitable subject, preferably one you are curious about. Whether you are assigned a topic or choose your own, don’t rush off to the library or log onto the Internet right away. A little preparation up front will save you a lot of time and possibly much grief later on.
     First of all, if you’re not sure what your instructor expects, clarify what is required of you. Next, consider what approach you might take in presenting your topic. Does it lend itself to a comparison? Process? Cause or effect? If the topic is assigned, often the wording of the assignment will suggest how your instructor wants you to develop it. Deciding up front what kind of paper you are going to write will save you hours of work, both in the library and at your desk.
     When you’ve decided, at least tentatively, on the approach you’re going to take, you are ready to focus on the kind of information you need to look for in your research. For example, if you’ve been asked to evaluate a contemporary Canadian novel, you won’t waste time discussing the history of the novel or its development since 1950. You can restrict your investigation to sources that contain information relevant to your specific subject.
     Once you have an idea of the kind of information you need in order to develop your topic, it’s time to find the best sources you can. But how will you know if what you’ve found is “good” information?

 

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Selecting Your Sources

Not all sources are created equal. There’s no point in wasting time making notes on a source unless the information is relevant, current, and reliable. Evaluating the quality of source material before you use it is a key step in the research process.
     To evaluate a print source, first check it over closely. Scan the table of contents, the headings, and chapters or articles to ensure the book or periodical contains information relevant to your topic. (Periodicals are publications that are produced at regular periods, such as daily newspapers or monthly magazines.) Then check to see where the information comes from: its author, the date it was published, and the organization or company that published it. Most traditional print sources—newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals—have fact-checkers and editorial boards to ensure that the information they publish is reliable.
     Print sources are easier to assess for reliability than electronic sources. Yet the Internet and the World Wide Web have vastly increased the amount of potential research material, and it is essential to learn how to evaluate it. For example, if you are doing a report on a recently published work, the most current information will be online. How do you decide, given the millions of pieces of information out there in cyberspace, what is useful for your specific purpose? Of course, when you use online editions of traditional print sources (e.g., electronic versions of newspapers, magazines, and books), you can assume the same standards of credibility and reliability. The CD-ROM full-text versions of The Globe and Mail or The New York Times Review of Books are no less (and no more) accurate than the printed versions.
     With electronic sources that have no hard-copy equivalent, the domain name is one place to begin your evaluation. Does the source’s URL end with .com (commercial), .gov (government), or .edu (educational institution)? Sites from these different sources will present data on a topic in different ways. A commercial site will probably attempt to influence consumers as well as to inform them. A “.edu” suffix suggests the credibility of a recognized college or university, but offbeat student Web pages or the informal musings of faculty members at the institution may share the suffix as well.
     Another difference between print and electronic sources is authorship. There is seldom any doubt about who wrote a particular book or article. In online material, however, often no author (or date) is identified. Sometimes the person who compiles (“comp”) or maintains (“maint”) the Web site is the only one named. For academic research, it’s wise to be cautious of “no-name” sources. If you wish to use information from one of these sources, be sure the organization or institution where it originated is reliable. You wouldn’t want to be researching the history of discrimination in Canada, for example, and find yourself quoting from the disguised Web site of a hate organization.
     Recognizing that much online work is collaborative and that several writers may have contributed to a potential source, it is a good idea to check out the people who are involved in producing it. Powerful online search engines such as Google make checking an author’s reliability easier for electronic sources than it is for print sources. Simply key the author’s name into the search engine and then evaluate the results to see if he or she is a credible person in the field. Often you’ll be able to check the author’s biography, credentials, other publications, and business or academic affiliation. If no author’s name is given, you can check out the company, organization, or institution in the same way. Cyber-sleuthing is a useful skill to learn!
     In the end, however, with both print and electronic sources, you must apply your own critical intelligence. Is the information timely, accurate, and reliable? Is there evidence of any inherent bias? How can you best make use of the findings to support and enhance your own ideas? The answers to these questions are critical to producing a good research paper.

 

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Taking Good Research Notes

Once you’ve found a useful source, record the information you need. You’ll save time and money by taking notes directly from your sources rather than photocopying everything. Most often, you will need a summary of the information. (See How to Summarize, Paraphrase, and Quote from Sources on this Web site.) Alternatively, you can paraphrase. When writing an analysis of a literary work, quotations are often appropriate; when this is the case, it’s wise to make a copy of the quotation in addition to the publication information. Whenever you take notes—in any form—from a source, be sure to record the information you will need about the source itself. For each published source that you use in your paper, you should write down the following information.

For Books

  1. Full name(s) of author(s) or editor(s)
  2. Full title plus edition number (if any)
  3. City of publication
  4. Name of publisher
  5. Year of publication
(You will find all of the above information on the copyright page at the front of the book.)
  6. Page(s) from which you took notes

 

For Journal Articles

  1. Full name(s) of author(s)
  2. Title of the article
  3. Name of the journal
  4. Volume number of the journal
  5. Year of publication
  6. Inclusive page numbers of the article
  7. Page(s) from which you took notes

 

For Internet Sources

  1. Full name(s) of author(s)
  2. Title of the document
  3. Name of the database, periodical, or site
  4. Name of the institution or organization sponsoring the site (if any)
  5. Name of the editor (if any)
  6. Date of publication or date of last update/revision
  7. Date you accessed the source
  8. URL

 

For Newspaper or Magazine Articles

  1. Full name(s) of author(s)
  2. Title of the article
  3. Title of the newspaper or magazine
  4. Date of publication
  5. Inclusive page numbers of the article
  6. Page(s) from which you took notes

 

     Some researchers record each piece of information on a separate index card. Others write their notes on sheets of paper, being careful to keep their own ideas separate from the ideas and words taken from sources. (Using a highlighter or a different colour of ink will help you to tell at a glance which ideas you have taken from a source.) Use the technology available to help you record, sort, and file your notes. You can record and file information by creating a database, and you can use a photocopier (usually available in the library) to copy relevant pages of sources for later use. Whatever system you use, be sure to keep a separate record for each source and to include the documentation information. If you don’t, you’ll easily get your sources confused. The result of this confusion could be inaccurate documentation, which could lead your reader to suspect you of plagiarizing.

 

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AVOIDING PLAGIARISM

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s ideas as your own. It’s a form of stealing (the word comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means “kidnapper”). There have been famous cases of respected journalists and academics who have been accused of plagiarizing the articles or books they have written. Suspected plagiarists who are found guilty often lose their jobs. Sometimes the accusation alone is enough to compromise an author’s reputation and thus prevent him or her from continuing to work as a scholar or writer.
     Students who copy essays or parts of essays from source material, download them from the Internet, or pay someone else to write them are cheating. And, in so doing, they commit a serious academic offence. Sometimes, however, academic plagiarism is accidental. It can result from careless note-taking or an incomplete understanding of the conventions of documentation. It is not necessary to identify the sources of common knowledge (e.g., Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s best-known authors; British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province) or proverbial sayings (e.g., Love is blind), but when you are not sure whether to cite a source, it’s wise to err on the side of caution and provide documentation. Statistics should always be cited because the meaning of numbers tends to change, depending on who is using them and for what purpose.
     If, after you have finished your first draft, you are not sure which ideas need documenting and which don’t, take your research notes and your outline to your instructor and ask. It’s better to ask before submitting a paper than to try to explain a problem afterward. Asking saves you potential embarrassment as well as time.

 

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USING THE LIBRARY

The electronic age has transformed the library—traditionally a warehouse of information contained within print sources—into a Learning Resource Centre: a portal to sources of information such as databases, e-books, e-journals, and the Internet, together with the traditional print and audiovisual resources. With new technology, information retrieval is faster, easier, and more efficient than ever before. However, this fact does not make the library any less intimidating to inexperienced users. Many students are overwhelmed by what at first appears to be a vast and confusing array of collections. Using the library becomes a less daunting prospect when you realize that all of its contents are organized and classified in such a way that finding information is easy, if not simple. First, you need to know the organizational system used by your library. Following is a description of the collections found in most academic libraries, tips on how to access these collections, and a summary of their strengths and weaknesses as sources. We also decode some of the terminology used by library staff to describe and arrange collections.

 

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The Online Catalogue (OPAC)

All but the smallest libraries today use automated catalogue systems to access collections. These online catalogues are commonly called OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues). They may be on stand-alone computer terminals in the library itself or accessible via the library’s Web site. OPAC search options usually include title, author, subject, or key word. How you search the catalogue will depend on what you are looking for and on what you already know.
     Along with books, the OPAC may list other resources available in the library, such as periodical titles. If a periodical title is available in full-text format from one of the library’s subscription databases, there may be a link to the title and, possibly, the text from the OPAC. Many of today’s OPACs allow the library to link to several useful online sources of information. Your library’s OPAC should be the first place you check for resources when beginning your research paper.

 

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Books

Book collections are represented in the online catalogue and may be searched in a variety of ways: by author, title, subject, key word, and sometimes call number. If you know of a particular book by title, choose that option and enter the titleEnglish Online, for example. If your search is successful, write down the call number of the book. Alternatively, if you know that Eric Crump wrote a book on using the Internet but you aren’t sure of the title, do an author search, using the last name first: Crump, Eric. If you don’t know of any books or authors in your field of research, begin by doing a subject or subject key word search, such as “online English composition instruction.” Most systems will respond by identifying relevant holdings and listing access instructions at the bottom of the computer screen. One of the biggest advantages of automated systems is that they identify the status of the book, letting you know if the book is in or when it is due back. Many systems allow you to place a hold on a book that is out. This means that when the book is returned to the library, it will be set aside for a period of time to allow you to go in and pick it up.
     In order to find a book on the shelves, you must match the call number as it appears on the screen or catalogue card with the number taped on the spine of the book. Every book has a unique call number, and books are arranged on the shelves according to their call numbers. Guide signs are usually posted on the ends of shelving units (sometimes called stacks). Most colleges and universities use the Library of Congress (LC) system of classification, which uses a letter or combination of letters to begin the call number. The LC system is generally more suitable to academic collections than the Dewey decimal system used by public and smaller libraries.
     A title key word search is often the fastest way of retrieving books on your topic. If the library carries a book on your research subject, chances are the topic will appear somewhere in the title.

Strengths

Weaknesses

 

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Periodicals

Your library’s collection of periodicals—publications that are issued at regular intervals, such as magazines, newspapers, and scholarly or technical journals—may contain useful articles on the subject you are researching.
     To locate specific articles, you need to use one or more of the databases and periodicals indexes available at your library. Before you begin, read the description of the database to determine if it includes periodicals on your topic. Each database has specific strengths and will allow you to search a subject in a wide variety of periodicals. From the selection offered by your library, you may be able to search databases such as EBSCOhost, ProQuest, LexisNexis, or InfoTrac. These databases are delivered using the Internet, but are paid for by the library; their use is limited by licence agreements to students and staff of the institution that pays for them. It may be possible to access them from home, but you will need a log-in or other means of identifying yourself as a student. Check with the library staff at your institution to find out more about possible access from your own Internet service provider.
     Databases have been created with users in mind; they have search interfaces that make finding information relatively simple. Once you have found the database you wish to use, you will be presented with a search box similar to those found on Internet search engines. Here you type in a word or phrase that relates to your research topic. For example, if you were researching the art movement known as Impressionism, you would enter this word in the text box. The search mechanism of the database would look for this term, and all articles containing the word “Impressionism” would be displayed on the screen. From the list, you would select those you think may be useful to you.
     Most databases allow you to e-mail the results of your search. If you are pressed for time, do a quick search, e-mail the results to yourself, and check them later for relevancy. You can always delete them and start over.
     Increasingly, full-text articles are included with each new release of these databases. This means you can print or download the text of an article without having to retrieve the actual magazine or journal. If you find a reference to a magazine article for which the full text is not available, be sure to note the title and date of the periodical in which it appeared; then check to see if your library subscribes to this periodical.

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Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias are useful sources of general information and are often a good place to begin your research. There are many types of encyclopedias, and several are now available online or on CD-ROM. Information is easy to find, usually through a user-friendly search screen, and CD versions of encyclopedias often include sound or video clips to enhance the text. You might begin your search with a general encyclopedia such as Britannica, Colliers, or the World Book and then move on to a specialized encyclopedia related to your subject. Look in the reference collection for a call number area that matches the one in which you found books on your topic (for example, medical encyclopedias are in the R section), or ask the reference librarian if a specialized encyclopedia exists on your subject.

Strengths

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The Internet

Most students today have grown up with the Internet and are accustomed to using it to meet their information needs. When you are gathering material to write a research paper, however, you should keep in mind that the Internet is not necessarily a reliable source of information. (Some instructors will not accept Web sites as legitimate resources for research papers, so be sure you have permission to use them before you spend hours on Google or Yahoo.) Evaluating Internet information for reliability is not a simple matter. We’ve already mentioned checking the domain name as one place to begin.
     The number of results called up by a key word search can be overwhelming, but all search engines offer advice on effective searching on their home pages. Here are four ways you can limit and focus the results of an initial query:

  1. Use one or more of the shortcuts available on most search engines.
  2. Use an Advanced Search screen that allows you to combine concepts. For example, the Advanced Search screen at Google allows you to search for an exact phrase such as “breast cancer” and include the word “treatment” without the word “chemotherapy.” You can also limit the type of domain you’d like returned (e.g., .edu) or choose the language you’d like for your results and decide where you’d like the search engine to look for your terms (in the title only, for example).
  3. Put quotation marks around your search term(s). Doing so turns your key word search into a search for a phrase (“breast cancer treatment,” for example).
  4. Use the tilde sign (~) or plus and minus signs to add or eliminate concepts. Plus and minus signs add or subtract words from your search word or phrase (“breast cancer” + treatment – chemotherapy). Google interprets the tilde as a signal to search for variations of a word. For example, “~treatment” would include the plural, “treatments,” in your results list.

Get in the habit of using more than one search engine to vary results. A subject directory search engine, such as Yahoo, may be a better starting point for your topic than a general key word search.
     Librarians regularly scour the Internet for exceptional Web sites as good sources of information. Look for these recommendations on your library’s Web site, or look for links to government Web sites or sources such as the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org) from your library’s OPAC.

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Other Sources

Most libraries contain other collections that may help you in your research. Don’t overlook the possibility of finding useful information in the audiovisual collection, which normally includes videotapes, films, audiotapes, DVDs, and slide presentations.
     Government publications are another good source of information. The government, as one of the country’s largest publishers, may have produced documents related to your topic. Many of these documents are available on the Internet.
     Finally, the library is not the only source of information you can use. Interviews with people familiar with your subject are excellent sources because they provide a personal view, and they ensure that your paper will contain information not found in any other paper the instructor will read. It is perfectly acceptable to e-mail a question or set of questions to an expert in a field of study. Original research, such as surveys or questionnaires that you design, distribute, and analyze can also enhance your paper. Doing your own research is time-consuming and requires some knowledge of survey design and interpretation, but it has the advantage of being original and current.
     A good research paper will contain references to material from a variety of sources. Some instructors require a minimum number of references from several types of sources: books, periodicals, encyclopedias, interviews, etc. Most, but not all, institutions will allow you to use Internet sources, but use them with caution. Be mindful that anyone can place information, reliable or not, on any subject on a Web site. For this reason, it is best to use research gathered from reliable sources such as books, encyclopedias, scholarly journals, and reputable magazines.
     As you conduct your research and think about your paper, keep your reader in mind. Every teacher faced with a pile of papers hopes to find some that are not simply a rehash of known facts. Before anything else, teachers are learners; they like nothing better than discovering something new. If you cannot find new information about your subject, be sure to provide an original interpretation of the evidence you find.

 

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