Definition and Rationale: A research paper is a special kind of paper and one that is quite different from many other papers you have written in the past. In the past you may have written papers in which you summarized material that you read; critiqued material; wrote an essay expressing an opinion; wrote a paper that explained a concept or article; or, wrote a paper that argued for a point of view that you hold. A research paper, in contrast, involves posing a question that you would like answered and examining relevant evidence to answer the question. In much of your previous writing, you had an opinion or conclusion in mind from the outset. Your task was only to express it clearly and persuasively. In research writing you have the question but not the conclusion at the outset. After you pose the question, you gather relevant and accurate information; critically examine it; and, objectively draw a conclusion. The conclusion emerges out of your review of the evidence and may be quite different from what you expected when you started. That is the essence of research–discovering new knowledge.
Procedures: The following steps will help you prepare a research paper.
Choose a topic. To do this think of an area in which you have a question that you would like to have answered. For example, “Have people exaggerated the harmful effects of divorce on children?” or, “Is it likely that there is life on Mars?” One caution in choosing a topic is that you should choose a narrow topic that you can handle with a reasonable amount of time and effort. Students are often tempted to take on more than they can handle. Thus, instead of, “What are the effects of industrialization on the environment?”, a more manageable topic might be, “What impact has industrialization had on the rain forests of Brazil in the last fifty years?”
Identify suitable sources of information. It is important that you obtain information that is based on sound scholarship and valid scientific investigation. Not everything that appears in print (and certainly not everything you may find on the internet) is accurate, unbiased information. You must consider the quality and the source of the information. A good place to start is an article in an encyclopedia, a book chapter on the topic, or a general review article in a scholarly professional journal. Every area of scholarly endeavor has a number of journals (sometimes called archives, proceedings, annals or some similar term) in which the best information is published. Looking at the sources cited in the encyclopedia will give you a start on those. You may also ask a professor in the area for advice on where to look. In addition to professional journals, there are a number of scholarly magazines such as Scientific American, Psychology Today, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly and many others. Books also can be a source of useful information, but one must be careful of book sources. Many books are written by an author who has limited credentials and whose main goal is to persuade the reader to adopt the author’s point of view. The author’s view may be quite off target. Thus, you will have to determine the credentials of the author and establish that the material presented is accurate. Often, looking at reviews of the book by experts (these can be located on the internet) is very helpful.
Since there is a tendency for students to use the Internet to obtain sources for papers, a couple of comments must be made about this. Research papers should be based primarily on what are called archival sources. These are sources that contain material that has been reviewed by experts before it was published. It then becomes a permanent record that will be preserved for the future. There are many places on the Internet where one may obtain copies of archival material such as journal articles (see, for example, Academic Search Premier in the OU Library Databases and ask the librarian to help you find others in your field). It is fine to use these. However, it is not fine to base your paper entirely or primarily on individually maintained web sites where the owner presents his or her own thoughts without any outside review. Citing these sources is no different from stating that, “Someone I met at a party told me…..” Informal material of this sort should be corroborated by outside sources before it is used. So, do look for reliable sources such as journal articles, scholarly magazines, and authoritative books. Do not base your paper on informal web sites. Do not base it on one or two books that you found in a bookstore or library.
Locate the specific sources that you will use for your paper. Locating the sources should be done systematically, not haphazardly. The best way to do this is to use a standard database. Your professor or a reference librarian can help you decide on the appropriate database. The choice will be different for different topics. Databases systematically collect and organize information on various topics. You enter the database by typing the terms that interest you in the appropriate box (usually labeled as the “Search Box”) for the database. A list of relevant articles and books then appears on the screen. You can read the titles (and usually a brief summary of the material) and decide which ones you need to read completely in preparation for writing your paper. You then need to obtain copies of the articles and books you will use. Some of these will be available directly from the database. Others will need to be obtained from the library or inter-library loan. The librarian can advise you on how to do this. A rule of scholarship is that you quote only articles and books that you have personally read or examined. You only quote from a secondary source if the original is not available to you. There is a special form for listing a reference that you got from somewhere else (see pages 186-187, in the Concise Rules of APA Style). Thus, if it is impossible to get the text for an article or a copy of a book you need, you may quote what another author says about the one you are interested in, but that is clearly indicated in the way you list it in the reference section and you do this rarely.
By the time you complete Step 3 above, you should have a finite number of articles and books that you need to read as the background for your research paper. For a typical term paper for a class, you would probably have between ten and forty key items to read. Read the material carefully. Usually it is best to read the material in the order it was published. Read older articles and books first and work your way up to the present. This helps you tune in to changes in ideas about the topic that have occurred over time. As you read, think about ways to organize your paper and a possible outline you might follow.
Develop an outline for the paper that systematically covers the main points of the topic. As you develop the outline, you may discover that you need to get additional articles on some points. Repeat Step 3 above to do this. If the issue is a controversial one, you should include data on both sides before you draw a conclusion and the conclusion should match the data presented. If the issue is not controversial, present the main facts that the person needs to know in order to understand the issue. The conclusion should be based on the facts presented.
Write your paper by filling in the outline with paragraphs. Analyze and critically evaluate information. If some evidence is questionable or there is conflicting evidence explain that in your writing. Every major point in the paper should have at least one reference to back it up. The points made should be based on evidence, not opinion.
The conclusion, which is the answer to the question you started out with, should emerge from the evidence and should be based on an objective examination of evidence rather than on your personal opinion or what you wish were true. Obviously, this is a very different style of writing compared to essays where you express your opinion or papers where you try to persuade others to adopt your position on a topic. Ordinarily, a research paper ends with the objectively arrived at conclusion. However, if you have strong personal opinions or reactions, you may permit yourself a brief comment. This should be clearly identified as your opinion and not based on currently available evidence. One should be modest and not overly dogmatic in such comments. For example, “When I began this investigation I was of the opinion that gun control was a bad idea. Having examined the evidence, it appears that some additional control may be warranted. However, much of the research done to date is lacking in scientific rigor. It is to be hoped that more definitive data will be available in the near future. In the meantime, I intend to keep my guns and use them in a safe manner.”
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