by Diane Matlock, English

[This is a very general assignment that challenges first- and second-year students to apply their developing critical skills to a question of interest to them. R1B is a course that satisfies the campus’s Reading and Composition requirement. The materials below are instructions for the students.]

What Is a Research Paper?
Preparing for a Research Project
Beginning the Research Project
Evaluating Sources
Assessing an Argument
Managing Information
Working Sources into the Paper
Your Working Title and Introduction

What Is a Research Paper?

A research paper should provide its writer and its reader with new knowledge and a new understanding of a specific topic. The success of your research paper depends primarily on your critical judgment in selecting sources and on the originality and thoughtfulness of your treatment of the topic.

To write an effective research paper, one that makes an argument about your topic, you must review relevant resources and, using powers of analysis and integration, develop a paper that reveals understanding and original thinking. You want to think of your research topic as a question or problem — not a topic area — that your essay is going to address and/or resolve.

If you take seriously the importance of using sources judiciously and of learning something new through the research process, the paper should embody all of the following characteristics:

  • Originality
  • Expression of an evaluation or attitude
  • A reasoned approach to an argument
  • A synthesis of information from several sources
  • Systematic documentation of sources
  • The result of a time-consuming research process

Preparing for a Research Project

If you have been assigned a research project, be sure you understand the requirements and the limits of the assignment before you begin your research. If you have been assigned a specific research project, keep in mind the cue words in the assignment. Are you to describe, survey, analyze, explain, classify, compare, or contrast? What do such words mean in this field? You also need to know the audience, rhetorical stance, scope, length, and deadline for your project.

Research log

You should keep a research log — either on paper or digitized — to jot down thoughts about your topic, lists of things to do, and ideas about possible sources; also use it to keep track of library materials. You can also use the log as a means of analyzing and developing your research process. What things worked? What didn’t work? How will you do things differently next time?

Project calendar

Before beginning a research project, you should also map out a rough but realistic schedule for your research. It can include the following action items and the dates they need to be completed:

  • Analyze project; decide on primary purpose and audience; choose topic
  • Set aside library time; develop search strategy (see below)
  • Send for materials needed from Interlibrary Loan
  • Do background research, narrow topic if necessary
  • Decide on research questions and a tentative hypothesis
  • Start working on bibliography; begin tracking down sources
  • Gather or develop graphics or visuals needed
  • Develop working thesis and rough outline
  • If necessary, conduct interviews, make observations, or distribute and collect questionnaires
  • Read and evaluate sources; take notes
  • Draft explicit thesis and outline
  • Prepare first draft, including visuals
  • Obtain and evaluate critical responses to your draft
  • Do more research if necessary
  • Revise draft
  • Prepare list of works cited
  • Edit and revise draft; use spell checker
  • Prepare final draft
  • Do final proofreading

Beginning the Research Project

You should see your research project as an essay that responds to an interesting question. For an academic, one of the fundamental roles is asking questions. To initiate your project, you should begin by formulating a research question. Pose possible questions that are worth exploring and challenging. You should also choose a narrow question that can be answered fully within the page limits set for the assignment. You want to create a discipline-appropriate question that is interesting, significant, and pursuable. Before beginning, consider:

  • What is the research problem or question you intend to address?
  • Why is it an interesting question? Why is it problematic?
  • Why is it significant?

Your instructor can help you think through these questions if you get stuck.

Evaluating Sources

Once you have selected your research topic and begun exploring the primary and secondary sources available, you will work to evaluate the sources you find: determine which ones are most relevant to your research question; identify which sources will provide the best context for answering your question; and collect the sources that you will be able to use as evidence for the argument you will eventually make. To do this, you will need to eliminate inappropriate sources — such as those that are outdated, are unreliable, use uncited sources, or make unsubstantiated claims.

Don’t try to read everything — be selective

You want to select sources that are worth your time and attention. Begin by looking at the title, abstract or introductory paragraphs, date, name of publisher or periodical, and length of text. Consider carefully each source’s relevance, currency, scholarship, and scope.

Next, you need to determine the rhetorical situation of the sources you will work with.

What is the rhetorical situation of the source?

Every text originates in a particular situation; you need to learn about the situation or conversation a text belongs to. What question is being posed, and how does the writer shape it? You need to consider a real author, writing for some important reasons, within a real historical context, from a certain perspective. Whether argumentative or informative, sources present particular perspectives. This is true of primary sources as well as secondary sources. For example, the editorial staffs of different magazines and newspapers can have distinct political orientations, and emphasize issues in particular ways to appeal to their assumed audience. For this reason, before reading closely through a whole article or book, you need to try to determine the rhetorical situation of the source and the argument. Ask yourself:

  • What kind of text is it? What are its qualities and features?
  • Who is the author? What is the reputation of the author? What is her or his perspective or bias?
  • When was the source written?
  • Where did the source appear? (There are different degrees of scholarly prestige for different journals and presses.)
  • Why was the book or article written?
  • What is the author’s aim?
  • How is the source organized?
  • What sources are included in the bibliography and footnotes?

Answering these questions will help you understand the rhetorical situation of a source.

Evaluating websites

The same criteria that apply to printed sources apply to websites. When using websites to conduct research, consider the following:

  • Is an author named? (Check the home page or “About This Site” link). Who, if anyone, sponsors the site? (If the authorship and the sponsorship of a site are both unclear, be extremely suspicious of the site.)
  • The domain often specifies the type of group hosting the site: commercial (.com), educational (.edu), nonprofit (.org), governmental (.gov), military (.mil), network (.net), etc. What does the domain of this site tell you about the source?
  • Why was the site created? To argue a position? To sell a product? To inform readers?
  • Can you tell whether the author is knowledgeable and credible?
  • Who is the site’s intended audience?
  • How current is the site?
  • How current are the site’s links?

The UC Berkeley Library has an extensive guide you may find helpful on Evaluating Resources.

Assessing an Argument

After learning about the rhetorical situation of a source, read its argument critically. If it is book-length, look at the introduction, conclusion, and one essential chapter. You should choose the chapter that most specifically relates to your research project. Just as you close-read a literary passage by breaking it down into smaller parts, you analyze an argument by examining elements of its form and manner of presentation. Consider what the author states and how she or he states it.

Be alert to biases

  • Is the purpose of the argument to inform or to advocate?
  • Does the author or publisher have political leanings or religious views that affect the argument they make? For example, is the author or publisher associated with a special-interest group, such as Greenpeace or the National Rifle Association, that might see only one side of an issue?
  • How fairly does the source treat opposing views? Does it over-generalize and attack them, or does it engage them respectfully?
  • In what ways does the bias of the source limit its usefulness for your research question?

Analyze the argument

  • What is the author’s central thesis?
  • What is the basic structure of the argument for the thesis? Are there any logical fallacies in the structure?
  • What assumptions does the argument make? Are any of the author’s assumptions questionable?
  • What counts as evidence for the argument? Is the evidence current? Is it accurately presented and interpreted? Is it relevant? Does the source have the expertise to handle the evidence fairly?
  • Does the author consider opposing arguments fairly and refute them persuasively?

Finally, you want to ask yourself how you might use the source. Is the evidence useful, relevant, and accurately reported? Or does the article provide an example of a point of view you want to discuss? How might the source be used to provide evidence for and/or to contextualize your argument?

[For more tips on helping students read critically, see Teaching Critical Reading. For a consideration of ways writers construe their sources, see the Teaching Excellence Award essay Sources into Evidence by Leonard von Morzé.]

Managing Information

An effective researcher is a good record keeper. You need to find a systematic way of managing information. You will need methods for maintaining a working bibliography, keeping track of materials, and taking notes without plagiarizing your sources.

Record complete bibliographic information for each of your sources, and do not forget to include the page numbers of any passages you might cite as evidence in your essay. The following entries are examples of the MLA format for a bibliography:

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Norris, Margot. “Narration under a Blindfold: Reading Joyce’s ‘Clay.’” PMLA 102 (1987): 206–15.

Maintain a working bibliography

Keep a record of any sources you decide to consult. You will need this record, called a working bibliography, when you compile the list of works cited that will appear at the end of your paper.

Keep track of source materials

The best way to keep track of source materials is to photocopy them or print them out.

As you take notes, avoid unintentional plagiarism

You will discover that it is amazingly easy to borrow too much language from a source as you take notes. Do not allow this to happen. To prevent unintentional borrowing, resist the temptation to look at the source as you take notes — except when you are quoting. Keep the source close by so you can check for accuracy, but do not try to put ideas in your own words while you have the source’s sentences in front of you.

As you take notes, be sure to include exact page references, since you will need the page numbers later if you use the information in your paper.

There are three kinds of note-taking: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting.

summary condenses information, perhaps reducing a chapter to a short paragraph or a paragraph into a single sentence. A summary should be written in your own words; if you use phrases from the source, put them in quotation marks.

paraphrase is written in your own words; but whereas a summary reports significant information in fewer words than the source, a paraphrase retells the information in roughly the same number of words. If you retain occasional choice phrases from the source, use quotation marks so you will know later which phrases are your own.

quotation consists of the exact words from a source. In your notes, put all quoted material in quotation marks. When you quote, be sure to copy the words of your sources exactly, including punctuation and capitalization.

Working Sources into the Paper

You want to work quotations and paraphrases into the texture of your own prose, carrying an argument in your own voice. Remember that you are using your sources as evidence for your own argument. In other words, you need to construct a thesis and argument that present your ideas, not those of the primary and secondary sources you read.

Choose a documentation style

The format of citations depends upon the documentation style you are using — for example, MLA, APA, or CMS. Select a style appropriate for your discipline. Consult a style guide (your instructor may recommend one, or there may be a standard one for your discipline).

Your Working Title and Introduction

A good title is an important part of your project as it is your reader’s first introduction to your essay. Your working title can be a question, a summary of thesis or purpose, or a two-part title with a colon. For example:

  • Is Patriarchal Management Extinct?
  • The Relationship between Client and Therapist Expectation of Improvement and Psychotherapy Outcome
  • Money and Growth: An Alternative Approach
  • Fine Cloth, Cut Carefully: Cooperative Learning in British Columbia (this one begins with an interesting mystery phrase that will become clear after reading the essay)

An introduction has three main parts:

  • The first part introduces the reader to the problem the paper addresses. This section usually contains needed background on the problem and often reviews previous scholarship that has addressed it. Frequently, the writer explains why the problem is a problem (for example, why earlier attempts to solve the problem have been unsatisfactory) and why the problem is significant and worth pursuing.
  • The second part explains the focus and purpose of the essay, and includes the thesis.
  • The third part gives the reader an overview of the research project.