Research Paper

More about Writing the Research Paper

On the previous page we talked about how creativity and developing a good thesis are important for writing a good paper. Here we will focus on the research paper.

Selecting a Topic

I never had difficulty selecting a topic because I began listing ideas on the first day of class.  When I went to lectures or classes, the professor occasionally mentioned topics that caught my interest.

In a Freshman Zoology class, my professor mentioned the question of whether the cell nucleus or the cytoplasm of the fertilized egg had the greatest effect on the organism. This was years ago before we understood the importance of DNA. I circled the question. It was interesting. It was something I wanted to know more about.

When it was time to do a term paper, I went back through lecture notes and reading notes for such circled topics. When I chose this particular topic to research and write about, I had no idea this was the area of the professor’s own research.

At the beginning of the next semester, this professor offered me a job as his research assistant. He chose me because I understood the subject so well. Working as a research assistant is a fabulous experience. You experience actual research and may learn more than you would in a class. Plus I got paid for having one of the most important experiences of my college years.

I remember two other experiences that were similar. Very brief comments were made in a lecture or class that struck me as interesting, comments that other students probably didn’t even notice. One led to an honors paper in a humanities class. One led to my third master’s thesis. I remember these papers clearly. I have very little memory of those many papers that I wrote simply because I had to write something.

Other interesting topics led to personal research instead of papers.

If you have been writing lists of questions as you read, you have an excellent source of topics. Choose something that is not impossible to answer. At the same time, choose a subject that should have a reasonable number of resources available in the library.

1. Actually, it’s wise to choose three to five topics.
2. Do a quick Internet search to see if there are a couple dozen pages, or hundred of pages.
3. Check the library. How many books are there on each topic? Check some of the books. If many people have written entire books on the topic, you need to narrow your focus. If there are only two books that mention the topic, each with less than a page, you need to choose a different topic. If there are 20-30 books that have a page or two on the topic, you have found a good topic. It is wonderful to be able to read everything in the library on the subject.
4. If your topic was too broad, write a list of questions about the topic. Can you find an interesting part of this subject that will make a better topic?

You may need to work on this for several days or a week before you get the topic narrowed to something you can reasonably expect to deal with.

I can find better information, faster, at the library! Instead of spending hours sifting through Web sites, I use the library’s Help Desk. They know every conceivable resource and will help you find it.
Junior, Business, Western Michigan University, Been There, Should’ve Done That, p. 95

It is wise to start with a limited number of sources. Choose one or two books from the library. Perhaps you might choose several journal articles and photocopy them. Begin reading and taking notes. The usual method is to have stacks of 3×5 cards.

1.  Write a Bibliography card for each source you plan to use.

2. Write a quote card for each quotation you might want to use, Be sure to write the page number and the book title.

3. Write a summary card for passages you don’t want to quote. This might include a series of facts or a paragraph that summarizes the material in a chapter. Write page numbers for anything you might refer to (quoted or summarizing. Be sure to write the page numbers and book title.

OR – You can use the great Cut and Paste Method

None of the books I’ve looked at suggest the cut and paste method. They all return to the dreadful stacks of 3×5 cards with notes on them. But most college students are very familiar with cut and paste. I have a several variations I have used.

First, you can do a “cut and paste” using your 3×5 cards.  A book called Study Methods and Motivation might be SMM-1 for the first card – the bibliography information. The other cards would each have a number. The first quote would be SMM-2. The next would be SMM-3. This way you don’t need write title and author on each card

In my freshman year, I began by actually taping these cards to my papers as I wrote by hand, saving time by not copying each quote. I sometimes saved time by hiring another student to type the papers. There were no personal computers in those days.

I then made the process easier, by not taping the cards. I might say “Howard Gardner said   MI-13 . This is important because  MI-4.   John Dewey once said  HWT-7.  I would organize the cards in the order they would be used, and could locate them easier as I typed.

The next time I wrote a paper I skipped the 3×5 cards. I used the copy machine on pages with a lot of information. I added bibliography information in the margins. If I found a very short quote and didn’t want to spend the money copying the page, I added it to the margin of another page from that book, being sure to include the page number. I took a colored marker and drew around the sections I wanted to use, again marking them, with numbers.

These two systems both made writing go more quickly and there was one less opportunity for an error. Instead of writing the quote on on a card and then copying it into my first draft, It went straight from the card to the typewriter.  Now, of course, it would go from the card to the computer.

Be very sure when you photocopy pages in a book that you get the entire bibilography information: Author, title and edition, city of publication, publisher, date and page numbers. With journals you must add other relevant information about the journal. You may want to use this information to go back to the article for further information.

Two Warnings

1. Do NOT overuse quotes.

When using the cut and paste method, students often fall into the trap of pasting a lot of quotes and just linking them with a few sentences here and there. The teacher isn’t interested in all the interesting quotes you found. The paper should make sense without the quotes. You are still the person writing the paper. Quotes should be used here and there as examples or evidence of what you are describing.

2. Do NOT Plagiarize.

Students hear this frequently and do it anyway, partly because they don’t understand what this means. Quite a number of well-know people have been found, many years after graduation, to have plagiarized material in college. This damages their reputation.

Plagiarism  will often result in a 0 (far worse than an F) on your paper. It might mean that you automatically fail a class. In some schools it leads to automatic expulsion. It is important that you understand what Plagiarism is.

Plagiarism is copying someone else’s work and claiming that it is yours by not giving the author credit.

1. Perhaps you remember doing reports in elementary school. Students may have been told to write a report on volcanoes. Most children went to a library, found the encyclopedia for V, and copied a page or two, word for word. This is obviously plagiarism. For many children, however, it’s the only way they know how to write a report.

2. Later we learned this was not acceptable. We still used the encyclopedia but rephrased each sentence. This is still plagiarism unless we list the source of the information. You must list your sources for ALL INFORMATION that is not common knowledge.

3. By the time you were in high school, you were more likely to use several sources (I hope) and you were learning how to create a bibliography.  That’s a good beginning. You named the author, the title of the book, information on the publisher in your bibliography in your bibliography and the pages referred to in your paper.

4. The next step was learning to put quotes around the actual quotes and indicate which author wrote these words. But high school students are often under the impression that if you rearrange the words in a sentence it is no longer a quote (true) and therefore there’s no need to give credit to the source of information (false).

When do we need to give someone credit?

Certainly there is some information that comes from a book or other source that does not need a source. When I write that it is good to create an outline before writing, I don’t need a source. We heard our teachers say this. It is included in nearly every book on writing. It would be impossible to know the original source. We understand that it is part of general knowledge.

But imagine that you want to list the 25 types of writing found in Write for College. Even if you list them in a different order, even if you paraphrase some of them, this list is not part of  common sense. It came from a particular source. You must give the author credit.

If you use an author’s ideas, even if you changed every word, you must give them credit. You don’t need quotations marks in this case, however.

Sometimes even a single word needs to be in quotes with credit to the writer. (Sebranek, et. al,  pp. 297,299, 1999) The poem isn’t just good, it is “sublime” according to Jane Jones in the NY Times Book Review August 5, 2001.

What if you have seen the same information in several books? You can quote or rephrase the information and use one book as your source You might add that the information is found in several books on the subject, but it isn’t necessary.

What if you have an idea and later found one author had a very similar idea. When there is any doubt at all, give them credit. In this case, you might state your ideas and then add
” I discovered that Sara Smith, Butterflies of Mexico (1972) had a similar idea. She said ” ………..”

What about information on the Internet?

In this age of computers, we get a great deal of information from the Internet. We should give credit for information found there as well. This should include the name and URL of the website, the name of the author if it is given, and the date when you read the information. I would add to this a suggestion I think is very important.

In the past few years there have been huge numbers of new websites that have been created to earn money. Many of them find a serious website with material written by experts in the field and do not attribute credit to the original author. When I think this might be true, I search for that topic, looking for the original source. I attribute the credit to the person who wrote the original material and their website.

Pictures and charts should also be given credit. For this website, all credits for photography and other visuals will be found either on the page where they appear or on the pages in “About the Website.”

The internet makes it easier to plagiarize… and easier to get caught. As a member of the Student Conduct Committee, I’ve seen a lot of denials turn to excuses when we pull up the exact website that was copied. In the “olden days,” instructors had only their suspicions when they came upon PhD-level work connected by 4th grade transitions. Now, it’s like “Hey Slick, we’ve got some pretty damning evidence here!”
Senior, Government, Franklin and Marshall College, Been There, Should’ve Done That, p. 97

I will add to this student’s comment. Today, as I understand it, the professors have a number of websites they can go to. They might enter a few suspicious lines from your paper. They can not only tell if you copied it from a website, but if it came from a commonly used book or from one of the pre-written papers that can be bought.

What if we don’t know where the idea came from?

Somewhere we heard something on the radio or maybe it was on television.  You can begin by checking the Internet for any research on the topic. If you find it, you can attribute the information to them. Chances are good that the radio or TV or maybe a newspaper article, got the information from this basic research. Sometime you won’t find anything.

You can contact an expert in the field and ask if they know the source.

You might be stuck with either not using it or being honest. “I heard this information somewhere, probably on television or on National Public Radio. I have no idea what the show was or the date. I’d guess it was in the Fall or winter of 20010-2011. If anyone has more information please let me know.”

I will admit, I have never seen such a thing written, but I have done it and I don’t think I’d be accused of plagiarism.

Next: Forms of Writing    Perhaps you’ve been asked to do a persuasive essay or a position paper or Literary Analysis. This page covers 25 forms of writing.


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