Research papers are not difficult if you start early and work systematically. In this type of assignment you gather and interpret facts, ideas, theories, and opinions from articles written by others. As you do the research, your knowledge and expertise about your topic grows. In the finished paper, you use the information you gather for your own arguments and purposes. This handout contains the following sections:
The topic should be something that you feel is important, interesting and worth exploring. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you think about the topic at the beginning of the process. Even if you have an opinion, it is better to start with an open mind, ready to see the issues from other perspectives. As the research progresses and you learn more about the issues, the topic will become more focused and your position may solidify.
It is useful to formulate your topic as a question you are trying to answer. Some samples:
Before you start a subject or keyword search on any of the on-line databases, you should work up a list of terms that may be relevant to your particular research project. The wrong keyword (or a misspelled one) can frustrate any project. As the research process goes on, you will find new terms to search for, and your searches should become more specific.
The Cal Poly Pomona Library provides excellent on-line access to the library catalog and hundreds of on-line databases. Although search engines such as Yahoo, Google, Metacrawler and others are very useful in searching the World Wide Web, many of the sites you will find in this way will not be relevant to your paper, or will be of doubtful credibility. The University Library web page offers links to the library catalog, searchable databases, research tutorials, and other useful resources. Journalists, lawyers, businesses and corporations pay thousands of dollars to use some of the databases you can access for free as a Cal Poly Pomona student. One of the most important selections on this page is called “Internet Reference,” a page that links to on-line resources that have been specially selected by the librarians as high quality sites that relate to the Cal Poly Pomona curriculum.
More and more of these databases and websites offer the full text of articles from journals, magazines and newspapers. This means that you may not even have to physically go to the library to complete your research. However, although on-line searches are getting easier and more powerful, don’t forget traditional research techniques such as using the bibliography at the end of a book or article, especially one that is “right-on” in terms of relevance to the research topic, as a guide to other possible sources of information.Creating a Working Bibliography
As sources of various kinds accumulate in downloaded lists, e-mail messages, and scribbles on paper, they need to be evaluated. First, use the On-line Public Access Catalog (OPAC) to find out if the source is available in the library. When you get your hands on it, skim the table of contents, the subject headings, the charts and illustrations, and the index to find out if the source is useful or relevant to your project. Many sources that look promising because of the title or the author turn out to be irrelevant to your purpose when you actually see them. If the source is not useful, remove it from the working bibliography. If a small part is relevant, write the useful information down in a note, making sure to record the source and the page number and then go on to another source. If an entire article seems useful, you may want to photocopy it, but don’t make the common mistake of photocopying everything you find. Eventually you have to read it and write down the information you need.
In a longer paper it is useful to use 3 by 5 note cards to keep track of sources. This allows you to add and subtract sources from your working bibliography easily, and to alphabetize them at the end of the process. You can also keep an electronic list in your wordprocessor.Taking Notes
Even in a short paper, it is useful to put information on cards or half sheets of paper. This is so that the information can be sorted and reorganized later. Another method is to take notes on regular paper and cut individual entries apart later. Notes can also be typed into a computer and then the cut and paste function can be used to put the material in the appropriate places. There are three basic types of notes:
You may also want to make “idea cards” which record your own ideas and reactions to the material from the sources. Whenever you make a note, you must invariably record the source and the page number from which you got the information. Most last-minute anxiety about research papers derives from not remembering the source for important information.
One advantage of using note cards is that you can easily sort then into categories by creating a pile for each section of your paper and dealing them out like you are playing a card game. If you have your notes in a word processor you can use the cut and paste functions to sort them.
Many research paper assignments require you to write a “review of the literature.” Before you begin your review of the literature, it is probably best to write a rough introduction for your paper. Your introduction should state what the paper is about, why this topic is important, and what your position or stance will be. Your ideas may change after you have written the Literature Review and the Discussion sections, but you can always go back and rewrite it later.What is a “Literature Review?”
The Literature Review should give the reader the sense that you have examined some of the material on your topic and are familiar with contrasting perspectives and viewpoints. In this sense it builds your authority to speak about the issues you are dealing with. It also gives the reader an overview of the issues and problems, and what people from various backgrounds generally think about them. In this section, you quote, summarize, and paraphrase what other people say about your topic. Save your own opinions and arguments for the Discussion Section.
In the Literature Review section you should describe the sources and the information you found in your research. Organize the material by topic, by perspective, or in some other coherent way. Don’t just dump the information in randomly in a “this one says this, that one says that” fashion. By grouping and organizing your information, identifying different issues and positions and establishing connections and differences between your sources, you provide the reader with an overview of the issue or topic you are writing about.How do I put other people’s ideas in my paper?
You may want to begin your Literature Review with a statement such as “There are several different perspectives on the issue of __________,” or “Experts disagree on what to do about ______.” You can use phrases such as “John Q. Professor argues that . . .” or “states that,” or “believes,” to introduce quotes or paraphrases. Another useful phrase is “According to ______.” Words such as “however,” and phrases such as “on the other hand,” are useful to indicate contrasting points of view.
Use paraphrases, short summaries, and selected quotes to present your material. Avoid using lots of long, undigested block quotes. Remember to tell the reader what the article says about the topic, not just what the article is about. Facts, opinions, positions, and perspectives are all important. Whenever you use information or ideas from a source, document it appropriately using an appropriate format such as APA or MLA (Your instructor should specify what format you should use for documentation.)
In the Literature Review section you related what other people think about your issue or topic. Now in the Discussion section you are going to use the information you found in your research to develop and defend your own position. Here you will discuss the perspectives and opinions you agree with, and those you disagree with, and explain why.What does the Discussion Section do?
The Literature Review gives an overview of the current state of knowledge and opinion on your topic; the Discussion section advances your own well-informed argument. As you present your case, you should test and analyze your arguments from multiple perspectives, presenting both sides as fairly as possible. As you write, make sure that your argument is coherent and logical. Help the reader understand your points and see how they connect. Try to provide enough evidence to persuade the reader that each of your points is valid. You can refer to the materials you cited in the Literature Review section, but don’t simply restate the same information.
In order to write the Literature Review, you had to organize your research and think seriously about the main issues in your topic area. You know a lot about your topic now. In fact, you may know just enough to make you confused. Your original position on this topic may have changed. You may not think the same thing any more. Don’t worry if you have changed your point of view; this is all part of the learning process.How do I get started?
To help you get started on the Discussion section, and to clear your mind a bit, think about the following questions:
There are many ways to focus and develop your discussion. If none of these questions are quite appropriate, feel free to come up with your own in consultation with your instructor.
The question you are answering, or the position you are taking, will end up being the thesis statement or main idea in your introduction. However, as noted above, as you write the Discussion section your ideas may still change, so it is best to write the final introduction later. It might be easier to think of the Discussion section as the body of the essay, with the Literature Review as an extended extra section that establishes the academic context for your discussion.
If your point of view changes as you work, make sure you revise as necessary to insure that your final draft present a consistent, coherent perspective.
With the Literature Review and Discussion sections finished, the research paper is almost done. The hardest part of the intellectual work is over. What remains is to prepare the reader for the topic and your ideas with a good introduction, to summarize your position and your arguments in the conclusion, and to document your sources in the References section.The Introduction
The introduction prepares the reader for what is to come. However, with a research paper, or any long complex paper, you are often not sure about exactly what is to come until you have written it. The rough introduction you wrote at the beginning of the process probably doesn’t fit the paper anymore. In fact, as you learned more about your topic, you may have completely changed your views!
The introduction should clearly state the problem or the major issue you intend to address. This statement should be quite specific, because the statement of the problem defines the scope of your project. Explain what it is you want to discover, what problem you want to solve, or what topic you want to learn more about. The introduction should also establish a context for the issue and show why your problem is significant and of great interest to you and your reader. Tell what kinds of sources are you looking at, and why. The introduction can be one or two paragraphs and should lead the reader right to the issues discussed in the Literature Review and the Discussion sections.The Conclusion
The arguments and evidence in your Discussion section should connect directly with your conclusion. After reading six or seven sources about your topic, you are not an expert. However, after your reading and research, and after working through the ideas in the Literature Review and Discussion sections, you are better informed than most people on this topic, and you should not be afraid to strongly state your opinion. In this section you should summarize your reasons and state what you believe to be true about this topic or issue. You may also want to speculate on what will happen if your solution or idea is not adopted. Whatever you do, don’t bring up new points in the conclusion, and don’t undermine the authority to speak you have built up in the rest of the paper by saying something like “This is what I think, but I don’t really know.”References
Alphabetize your bibliography cards, and type up your list of sources. Include only those sources that you actually quoted, paraphrased, or used for information. Make sure your sources are documented properly according to the appropriate style sheet. You have to give people credit for their work, and your reader may want to look up your sources for more information, as you did with some of the articles you used for this paper.