Do you consider “research” the “R-word?” Is it an unwanted, necessary evil? Did you have a bad experience with a high school research paper? Well, we don’t blame you. Research is awful. No, it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.
Research is a great opportunity to open yourself up to new worlds. One of the ways students, particularly in their first year or two of college, learn a lot of great concepts is through research projects. The material they learn that way is often much more meaningful than that from textbooks. That’s because a research project allows them to work independently.
The research paper is the most common research project, so we’ll look at research in this context. We’ll start with tools you’ll be using for your research.
Tools for College-level research
For college papers, one must use high-quality sources, which we’ll explore at some length in a minute. Finding these appropriate sources doesn’t happen by accident.
That brings us to the first tool you’ll need.
1. Library Databases
Your college or university’s library will subscribe to databases that organize high-quality articles (we’ll break the articles down below). These are like search engines in the way you’ll use them, but the material they index (organize) is a bit different from what you’ll find on the world wide web.
The databases are usually dedicated to specific fields such as natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc. They give you a wide range of capabilities to limit and to tailor your searches. Because they’re a bit different from searching with google, an instructor in a class that requires a lot of research might schedule an instruction session in the library for you to get used to using the databases.
2. Librarian or your Instructor
Here’s something that will give you an edge and also keep the stress down. Librarians are paid expressly to help with research, and this includes helping you navigate the databases and library catalog, find and harvest your sources, and even evaluate them.
Another resource is your instructor. He or she will always be more than happy you came for help. He or she is particularly valuable once you’ve begun finding and reading your research and are starting to shape some of the main points of your paper. That’s when it can start to get a bit overwhelming, and a bit of ironing out can really be important.
3. Folders and Thumb Drives
The search for information can be so intense that sometimes students think less about what to do with great sources once they find them. It’s important to set up some folders on your hard drive (or in the cloud, etc.) to organize what you find. Many of the databases themselves have folders they can set up for you once you establish a log-in.
4. Highlighter or Digital Highlighter
Though it may seem like a lot of work, you absolutely do have to be ready to hunker down with your research and understand it. Only then can you plan your paper. Writing first and just trying to plug gaps with research won’t produce a very good end product.
So be ready to take notes and/or do some highlighting. Of course, these days, you can obtain software that will allow you to mark up online material you’ve saved. Some examples are WebNotes and scrible.
Handling the Research You Find
It’s not something a lot of people think about, but it’s probably important to consider the various types of sources you will find.
1. Peer-reviewed articles
Peer review is a process of running proposed articles through a committee that checks that facts and the methods, often recommending changes that are made before publication. This is the gold standard of academic journals in every discipline.
Peer-reviewed academic articles come in several varieties. Many of them report the results of original research performed by their authors. Some apply academic theories to events or phenomena, while some analyze works of literature, etc. All of these are valuable, and will usually form the backbone of your research.
2. Trade Journals
Trade journals span a great range and can apply to such fields as journalism, a particular specialty within nursing, waste management, etc. While these publications are usually not peer-reviewed, they can be beneficial because the audience of the journals is members of a particular field. That means a high level of detail.
3. High-quality publications
Outside of peer-reviewed publications, many results from database searches will come from high-quality publications in various fields. To give examples, these may include Science, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Economist, etc. These publications feature detailed articles written by acknowledged experts. They won’t qualify as peer-reviewed, so if your instructor has a quota of peer-reviewed sources you must use, be sure to meet that requirement before using these high-end sources.
4. Popular Sources
While most material indexed by these databases is very suitable for college-level academic research, the databases also index “popular” magazines such as Time, Rolling Stone, etc. You may discuss the possible use of these with your instructor.
You now have a pile of sources! Congratulations. You’ve saved them and have backed them up. As you read through them with your highlighter pen and with your ink pen for making summaries, it’s important to understand what sorts of texts you’re working with, as described above. Once you’ve determined that, you can start to evaluate which of them will work best. Even though you’ve gotten most of them through library databases or from the library catalog, they still must be evaluated by certain criteria:
· Objectivity—Some sources you can find are editorials, which are not meant to be objective at all. Because their stated objective is to promote a particular viewpoint, the way they use their facts might be a bit selective. Databases allow you to filter these out.
· Currency-Particularly if you are writing on a current event or on a technological topic, you must have current information. Check the numbers and other ideas to make sure they haven’t been superseded. Depending on the topic at hand, if the information is anywhere from six months to two years old, it may be inappropriate.
· Relevance– Just because the article has to do with your topic in some way, which is why it came up in your search, doesn’t mean it clearly fits in with the points you are making. Be sure not to use partially-irrelevant information in your paper.
The last point having to do with working with your research is actually using it in the paper. Here are some guidelines.
· Avoid plagiarism. If you use exact words and phrases from your sources, you must enclose this in quotations. Even if you are giving credit to the author in general, if you don’t put quotation marks around colorful or exacting language, you are technically making it seem as though these were your words.
· Don’t quote excessively. You can summarize or paraphrase the information from sources, thus using your own words, which you’re graded on. With this approach, choose just short snippets of exact words from your text to enclose in quotation marks.
· Introduce quotations. It’s very important for you to set up your quotations by saying that they are on the way. This can include naming the author and/or the article of book from which the material comes. It can also mean giving the reader the credentials of the author. If you just “drop” a quotation in, you’ve made an error.
· Cite properly. The rules of citing sources, both in text and in your works cited page, will be listed in a book you’ll buy for class and online. Be sure to follow these guidelines closely.
Research is nothing to be intimidated by. Don’t think of it as a strange code of behavior or a bunch of hoops through which you have to jump. Instead, make the process your own. You’ll be working with the material on an ongoing basis, and will make it yours. Before long, you’ll be perfectly comfortable with the research process, and will use it as a powerful tool.