Research Assignment Tips
Research is a creative process, which is another way of saying it is a messy process. However, your results will improve if you keep the big picture in mind while you are immersed in research. When you get a research assignment, look at it closely. In this blog, we explain several tips for writing a research assignment.
An assignment that asks you, for example, how the usual definition of intellectual property applies to YouTube invites you to write a definition argument
An analysis of causes requires you to write a causal argument
An evaluation requires you to make critical judgments based on criteria
A proposal requires you to assemble evidence in support of a solution to a problem or a call for the audience to do something.
Identify your potential readers
How familiar are your readers with your subject?
What background information will you need to supply?
If your subject is controversial, what opinions or beliefs are your readers likely to hold?
If some readers are likely to disagree with you, how can you convince them?
Assess the project’s length, scope, and requirements
What kind of research are you being asked to do?
What is the length of the project?
What kinds and number of sources or field research are required?
Which documentation style is required, such as MLA or APA?
Set a schedule
Note the due dates on the assignment for drafts and final versions.
Set dates for yourself on finding and evaluating sources, drafting your thesis, creating a working bibliography, and writing the first draft.
Give yourself enough time to do a thorough job.
Find a Subject
Describe strategies you can use to find a subject to research.
One good way to begin is by browsing, which may also show you the breadth of possibilities in a topic and lead you to new topics.
You might begin browsing by doing one or more of the following.
Visit “Research by Subject” on your library’s Web site. Clicking on a subject such as “African and African American Studies” will take you to a list of online resources. Your library’s Web site may have a link to the Opposing Viewpoints database, which assembles articles on controversial issues.
Look for topics in your courses. Browse your course notes and readings. Are there topics you might explore in greater depth?
Look for topics as you read. When you read actively, you ask questions and respond to ideas in the text. Review what you wrote in the margins or the notes you have made about something you read that interested you. You may find a potential topic.
Gather Information About the Subject
Explain how to use field research strategies to gather information on a research question.
Most researchers rely partly or exclusively on the work of others as sources of information. Research based on the work of others is called secondary research. In the past, this information was contained almost exclusively in collections of print materials housed in libraries, but today enormous amounts of information are available through library databases and on the Web.
Much research done at a university creates new data through primary research—experiments, examination of historical documents—and field research, including data-gathering surveys, interviews, and detailed observations.
Conducting field research
Sometimes you may be researching a question that requires you to gather first-hand information with field research. For example, if you are researching a cam-pus issue such as the impact of a new fee on students’ budgets, you may need to conduct interviews, make observations, and give a survey.
Observing can be a valuable source of data. For example, if you are researching why a particular office on your campus does not operate efficiently, observe what happens when students enter and how the staff responds to their presence.
Choose a place where you can observe with the least intrusion. The fewer people wonder about what you are doing, the better.
Carry a tablet, laptop, or paper notebook and write extensive field notes.
Record as much information as you can, and worry about analyzing it later.
Record the date, exactly where you were, exactly when you arrived and left, and important details like the number of people present.
You must interpret your observations so they make sense in the context of your argument. Ask yourself the following questions.
What patterns of behavior did you observe?
How was the situation you observed unique? How might it be similar to other locations?
What constituted “normal” activity during the time when you were observing? Did anything out of the ordinary happen?
Why were the people there? What can you determine about the purposes of the activities you observed?
Draft a Working Thesis
Draft a working thesis to guide you through further research and the development of your argument.
Once you have done some preliminary research into your question, you can begin to craft a working thesis. Let’s take one topic as an example—the increasing popularity of organic products, including meat, dairy products, and produce.
If you research this topic, you will discover that because of this trend, large corporations such as Walmart are beginning to offer organic products in their stores.
However, the enormous demand for organic products is actually endangering smaller organic farmers and producers. As you research the question of why small farmers and producers in the United States are endangered and what small farmers and producers in other countries have done to protect themselves, a working thesis begins to emerge.
Write down your subject, research question, and working thesis, and refer to them frequently. You may need to revise your working thesis several times until the wording is precise. As you research, ask yourself, does this information tend to support my thesis? Information that does not support your thesis is still important!
It may lead you to adjust your thesis or even to abandon it altogether. You may need to find another source or reason that shows your thesis is still valid.
In order to meet the increasing demand for organic products that have been created by larger corporations such as Walmart, smaller organic farmers and producers should form regional co-ops.
These co-ops will work together to supply regional chains, much as co-ops of small farmers and dairies in Europe work together, thereby cutting transportation and labor costs and ensuring their survival in a much-expanded market.
Develop a search strategy, including using keywords, to find quality sources faster. The Internet makes available vast quantities of searchable facts and data. Nevertheless, libraries still contain many resources not available on the Web. Even more important, libraries have professional research librarians who can help you locate sources quickly.
Determine where to start looking
Searches using Google or Yahoo! turn up thousands of items, many of which are often not useful for research. Considering where to start is the first step.
Scholarly books and articles in scholarly journals are often the highest-quality sources, but the lag in publication time makes them less useful for very current topics. Newspapers cover current issues, but often not in the depth of books and scholarly journals. Government Web sites and publications are often the best for finding statistics and are also valuable for researching science and medicine.
Learn the art of effective keyword searches
Keyword searches take you to the sources you need. Start with your working thesis and generate a list of possible keywords for researching your thesis.
First, think of keywords that make your search more specific. For example, a search for sources related to Internet privacy issues might focus more specifically on privacy and Internet
You should also think about more general ways to describe what you are doing. What synonyms can you think of for your existing terms? Other people may have discussed the topic using those terms instead. Instead of relying on “privacy,” you can also try keywords like
Find Sources in Databases
Sources found through library databases have already been filtered for you by professional librarians. They will include some common sources such as popular magazines and newspapers, but the greatest value of database sources are the many journals, abstracts, studies, e-books.
And other writing produced by specialists whose work has been scrutinized and commented on by other experts. When you read a source from a library database, chances are you are hearing an informed voice in an important debate.
You can find databases on your library’s Web site. Sometimes you will find a list of databases. Sometimes you select a subject, and then you are directed to databases. Sometimes you select the name of a database vendor such as EBSCOhost or ProQuest. The vendor is the company that provides databases to the library.
Your library has a list of databases and indexes by subject. If you can’t find this list on your library’s Web site, ask a reference librarian for help. Follow these steps to find articles. Select a database appropriate to your subject or a comprehensive database like Academic Search Complete, Academic Search Premier, or LexisNexis Academic.
Search the database using your list of keywords.
Once you have chosen an article, print or e-mail to yourself the complete citation to the article. Look for the e-mail link after you click on the item you want.
Print or e-mail to yourself the full text if it is available. The full text is better than cutting and pasting because you might lose track of which words are yours, which could lead to unintended plagiarism.
If the full text is not available, check the online library catalog to see if your library has the journal. Your library will probably have printed handouts or online information that tells you which database to use for a particular subject. Ask a librarian who works at the reference or information desk to help you.
If you wish to get only full-text articles, you can filter your search by checking that option. Full-text documents give you the same text you would find in print.
Sometimes the images are not reproduced in the HTML versions, but the PDF versions show the actual printed copy. Get the PDF version if it is available. Articles in HTML format usually do not contain the page numbers.
Google Books Allows you to search within books and gives you snippets surrounding search terms for copyrighted books. Many books out of copyright have the full text. Available for everyone.
Google Scholar Searches scholarly literature according to criteria of relevance. Available for everyone.
General OneFile Contains millions of full-text articles about a wide range of academic and general-interest topics.
LexisNexis Academic Provides full text of a wide range of newspapers, magazines, government and legal documents, and company profiles from around the world.
Opposing Viewpoints Provides full-text articles representing differing points of view on current
Resource Center issues.
ProQuest Databases Like EBSCOhost, ProQuest is a gateway to a large collection of databases with more than 100 billion pages, including the best archives of doctoral dissertations and historical newspapers.
Use search engines wisely
Search engines designed for the Web work in ways similar to library databases and your library’s online catalog, but with one major difference.
Databases typically do some screening of the items they list, but search engines potentially take you to everything on the Web—millions of pages in all. Consequently, you have to work harder to limit searches on the Web or you can be deluged with tens of thousands of items.
KINDS OF SEARCH ENGINES
A search engine is a set of programs that sort through millions of items at incredible speed. There are two basic kinds of search engines.
Keyword search engines (e.g., Bing, Google, Yahoo!). Keyword search engines give different results because they assign different weights to the information they find.
Specialized search engines are designed for specific purposes:
Regional search engines (e.g., Baidu for China)
Medical search engines (e.g., WebMD)
Legal search engines (e.g., Lexis)
Job search engines (e.g., Monster Jobs - Job Search, Career Advice & Hiring Resources)
Property search engines (e.g., Zillow)
Search engines often produce too many hits and are therefore not always useful. If you look only at the first few items, you may miss what is most valuable. The alternative is to refine your search. Most search engines offer you the option of an advanced search, which gives you the opportunity to limit numbers.
Google searches can be focused by using the “Search tools” option. You can specify the time range from the past hour to the past year to a custom date range. You can also specify that Google finds the exact phrase you type in with the “Verbatim” option under “All results.” Another useful way of limiting searches is to specify the domain (e.g., site:.gov).
The “Search tools” option on Google allows you to specify a date range.
The OR operator is useful if you don’t know exactly which term will get the results you want, especially if you are searching within a specific site. For example, you could try this search: “face-to-face OR f2f site:webworkerdaily.com.”
You can also exclude terms by putting a minus sign before the term. If you want to search for social network privacy, but not Facebook, try “social network privacy–Facebook.”
Search interactive media
The Internet allows you to access other people’s opinions on thousands of topics. Millions of people post messages on discussion lists and groups, Facebook, blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter, and so on.
Much of what you read on interactive media sites is undocumented and highly opinionated, but you can still gather important information about people’s attitudes and get tips about other sources, which you can verify later.
Several search engines have been developed for interactive media. Facebook and Twitter also have search engines for their sites.
Know the limitations of Wikipedia
Wikipedia is a valuable resource for current informa-tion and for popular culture topics that are not covered in traditional encyclopedias. You can find out, for example, that SpongeBob SquarePants’s original name was “SpongeBoy,” but the name had already been copyrighted.
Nevertheless, many instructors and the scholarly community, in general, do not consider Wikipedia a reliable source of information for a research paper. The fundamental problem with Wikipedia is stability, not whether the information is correct or incorrect. Wikipedia and other wikis constantly change.
The underlying idea of documenting sources is that readers can consult the same sources that you consulted. MLA advises that Wikipedia is a good place to begin your research but not a good place to end. Often a Wikipedia entry will include a list of references that you can use as a starting point.
Checklist for evaluating online sources
Web sources present special challenges for evaluation. When you find a Web page by using a search engine, you will often go deep into a complex site without having any sense of the context for that page.
To evaluate the credibility of the site, you would need to examine the home page, not just the specific page you get to first. Use the following criteria for evaluating Web sites.
Source. What organization sponsors the Website? Look for the site’s owner at the top or bottom of the home page or in the Web address. Enter the owner’s name on Google or another search engine to learn about the organization. If a Web site doesn’t indicate ownership, then you have to make judgments about who put it up and why.
Author. Is the author identified? Look for an “About Us” link if you see no author listed. Enter the author’s name on Google or another search engine to learn more about the author.
Often Web sites give no information about their authors other than an e-mail address if that. In such cases, it is difficult or impossible to determine the author’s qualifications. Be cautious about information on an anonymous site.
Purpose. Is the Web site trying to sell you something? Many Web sites are infomercials that might contain useful information, but they are no more trustworthy than other forms of advertising. Is the purpose to entertain? to inform? to persuade?
Timeliness. When was the Web site last updated? Look for a date on the home page. Many Web pages do not list when they were last updated; thus you cannot determine their currency.
Evidence. Are sources of information listed? Any factual information should be supported by indicating where the information came from. Reliable Web sites that offer information will list their sources.
Biases. Does the Web site offer a balanced point of view? Many Web sites conceal their attitude with a reasonable tone and seemingly factual evidence such as statistics. Citations and bibliographies do not ensure that a site is reliable. Look carefully at the links and sources cited, and peruse the “About Us” link if one is available.
Determine your contribution
A convincing and compelling source-based argument does not make claims based solely on the word of you, the writer. To be persuasive, it must draw on the expertise and reputations of others as well.
However, you must also demonstrate that you have thought about and synthesized the evidence you have gathered from your sources, and you must show your readers which elements of your project represent your original thinking.
Determine exactly what you are adding to the larger conversation about your subject by answering these questions:
Whom do you agree with?
Whom do you disagree with?
Which positions do you agree with but can add an additional point or example too?
What original analysis or theorizing do you have to offer?
Determine your main points
Look back over your notes on your sources and determine how to group the ideas you researched. Decide what your major points will be and how those points support your thesis. Group your research findings so that they match up with your major points.
Now it is time to create a working outline. Always include your thesis at the top of your outline as a guiding light. Some writers create formal outlines with roman numerals and the like; others compose the headings for the paragraphs of their project and use them to guide their draft;
still, others may start writing and then determine how they will organize their draft when they have a few paragraphs written. Experiment and decide which method works best for you.
Define plagiarism and explain what types of information must be acknowledged in a research project.
Plagiarism means claiming credit for someone else’s intellectual work no matter whether it’s to make money or get a better grade. Intentional or not, plagiarism has dire consequences. Reputable authors have gotten into trouble through carelessness by copying passages from published sources without acknowledging those sources.
A number of famous people have had their reputations tarnished by accusations of plagiarism, and several prominent journalists have lost their jobs and careers for copying the work of other writers and passing it off as their own.
If you buy a paper on the Web, copy someone else’s paper word for word, or take an article off the Web and turn it in as yours, it’s plain stealing, and people who take that risk should know that the punishment can be severe— usually failure for the course and sometimes expulsion.
Deliberate plagiarism is easy for your instructors to spot because they recognize shifts in style, and it is easy for them to use search engines to find the sources of work stolen from the Web.
Avoid Plagiarism When Quoting Sources
Explain strategies for avoiding plagiarism when quoting sources.
Effective research writing builds on the work of others. You can summarize or paraphrase the work of others, but often it is best to let the authors speak in your text by quoting their exact words. Indicate the words of others by placing them inside quotation marks.
Most people who get into plagiarism trouble lift words from a source and use them without quotation marks. Look carefully at this example to see where the line is drawn. In the following passage, Steven Johnson takes sharp issue with the metaphor of surfing applied to the Web:
The concept of “surfing” does a terrible injustice to what it means to navigate around the Web. . . . What makes the idea of cyber surf so infuriating is the implicit connection drawn to television.
Web surfing, after all, is a derivation of channel surfing—the term thrust upon the world by the rise of remote controls and cable panoply in the mid-eighties. . . . Applied to the boob tube, of course, the term was not altogether inappropriate.
Surfing at least implied that channel-hopping was more dynamic, more involved, than the old routine of passive consumption. Just as a real-world surfer’s enjoyment depended on the waves delivered up by the ocean, the channel surfer was at the mercy of the programmers and network executives.
The analogy took off because it worked well in the one-to-many system of cable TV, where your navigational options were limited to the available channels.
But when the term crossed over to the bustling new world of the Web, it lost a great deal of precision. . . . Web surfing and channel surfing are genuinely different pursuits; to imagine them as equivalents is to ignore the defining characteristics of each medium. Or at least that’s what happens in theory. In practice, the Web takes on the greater burden.
The television imagery casts the online surfer in the random, anesthetic shadow of TV programming, roaming from site to site like a CD player set on shuffle play. But what makes the online world so revolutionary is the fact that there are connections between each stop on a Web itinerant’s journey.
The links that join those various destinations are links of association, not randomness. A channel surfer hops back and forth between different channels because she’s bored. A Web surfer clicks on a link because she’s interested.
Source: Johnson, Steven. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. Basic Books, 1997, pp. 107–09.
If you were writing a paper or creating a Web site that concerns Web surfing, you might want to mention the distinction that Johnson makes between channel surfing and surfing on the Web.
Steven Johnson argues that “surfing” is a misleading term for describing how people navigate on the Web. He allows that “surfing” is appropriate for clicking across television channels because the viewer has to interact with what the networks and cable companies provide, just as the surfer has to interact with what the ocean provides.
Web surfing, according to Johnson, operates at much greater depth and with much more consciousness of purpose. Web surfers actively follow links to make connections.
Even though this paraphrase contains a few words from the original, such as navigate and connections, these sentences are original in structure and wording while accurately conveying the meaning of the source.
Decide when to quote and when to paraphrase
The general rule in deciding when to include direct quotations and when to para-phrase lies in the importance of the original wording.
If you want to refer to an idea or fact and the original wording is not critical, make the point in your own words.
Save direct quotations for language that is memorable or conveys the character of the source.
Use quotations effectively
Choose your quotations strategically, and review every quotation to ensure that each is used effectively and correctly.
Limit the use of long quotations. If you have more than one block quotation on a page, look closely to see if one or more can be paraphrased or summarized. Use direct quotations only if the original wording is important.
Check that each quotation is supporting your major points rather than making major points for you. If the ideas rather than the original wording are what’s important, paraphrase the quotation and cite the source.
Check that each quotation is introduced and attributed. Each quotation should be introduced and the author or title named. Check for signal phrases, which point to a quotation: Smith claims, Jones argues, Brown states.
Check that each quotation is properly formatted and punctuated. Prose quotations longer than four lines (MLA) or 40 words (APA) should be indented 1/2 inch. Shorter quotations should be enclosed within quotation marks.
Check that you cite the source for each quotation. You are required to cite the sources of all direct quotations, paraphrases, and summaries.
Check the accuracy of each quotation. It’s easy to leave out words or mistype a quotation. Compare what is in your project to the original source. If you need to add words to make the quotation grammatical, make sure the added words are in brackets. Use ellipses to indicate omitted words.
Read your project allowed to a classmate or a friend. Each quotation should flow smoothly when you read your project allowed. Put a check beside rough spots as you read aloud so you can revise later.
Write an engaging introduction
Get off to a fast start. If, for example, you want to alert readers to the dangers of partially hydrogenated oils in the food we eat, you could begin by explaining the difference in molecular structure between natural unsaturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids. And you would probably lose your readers by the end of the first paragraph.
Instead, let readers know what is at stake along with giving some background and context; consider dramatizing a problem that your paper will address. State your thesis early on. Then go into the details in the body of your project.
Write a strong conclusion
The challenge in writing ending paragraphs is to leave the reader with something provocative, something beyond a pure summary of the previous paragraphs. Connect back to your thesis, and use a strong concluding image, example, question, or call to action to leave your readers with something to remember and think about.
Review and Revise
After you’ve gone through the peer editing process or assessed your own draft, sit down with your project and consider the changes you need to make. Start from the highest level, reorganizing paragraphs and possibly even cutting large parts of your project and adding new sections. If you make significant revisions, likely you will want to repeat the overall evaluation of your revised draft when you finish.
When you feel your draft is complete, begin the editing phase. Use the guidelines to revise style and grammatical errors. Finally, proofread your project, word by word, checking for mistakes.