Doing Academic Research
by Kurt Reymers, PhD
Morrisville State College
Research is hard. It takes a long time and you can spend a lot of that time chasing down false clues and "red herrings." Nonetheless, when you find sources that really help you to better understand your topic, it can be very rewarding. And, like everything, you get better at it the more you do it.
Here are a few pointers for doing research:
NARROW THE TOPIC
- You will inevitably be starting with a very broad, general knowledge of the topic you have chosen. Your goal is to analyze the topic using more specific and narrow sources (thereby potentially narrowing your own focus on your topic to a more managable point). You should use the research articles you find to focus the empricial data (observations and conclusions from research articles) into a narrative that will support your perspective or argument about your topic.
- Example: You have chosen and written a concept paper about "Racism" with a title question "Can racism be stopped?" This is a very broad question, practically rhetorical. The thesis of your concept paper is "Racism can and should be stopped in the world because it harms society." Again, too vague: your topic needs focus. You start the research/citation assignment by going to the library database and immediately you are presented with narrowing options (see image below).
You can use these categories to help narrow your search based on a topic that interests you most. Use many different synonyms for the different words related to your topic while searching in database search engines. Computers are dumb and very literal, so using different words for the same thing can bring up vastly different results. Also, using different databases can help vary results. Once you have a sense of all of the different ways in which the broader topic of "Racism," for example, can be addressed, choose one that will interest you most, for example racism and police brutality in America -- this narrows the topic sociologically to the institutional problems of criminal justice in relation to race and geographically to the United States. Narrowing your topic will help both in the research and writing aspects of your paper.
TYPES OF RESEARCH SOURCES
- There are basically two types of research sources: scholarly and not scholarly, and each can be evaluated in terms of their reliability, value to your paper, and ease of access/readability.
- Non-Scholarly Sources: Examples of sources that are not scholarly would be , newpapers, magazines (periodicals), popular (trade publication) books, radio, TV, podcasts and many internet webpages (particularly .com, .org, and .net domains, like Wikipedia.org or Ask.com). Unscholarly sources are frequently easy to identify because they also feature advertising in addition to the content for which you are looking. For this reason, and because authors in magazines, newspapers, or podcasts are not necessarily experts in the information they are providing, the information presented can be biased, thus non-scholarly sources often (but not always) rate poorly in terms of their reliability. The value they provide are stories about a topic or issue (for instance, following our example using the topic of racism above, it may be a video news story from CNN.com about the 2014 Eric Garner case from New York City). These sources are often called "secondary sources" because they are getting their information from scholarly sources and repeating it through abbreviation and simplification of ideas (so they can fit it into the "news cycle" or allow it . Simplification can also lead to bias, so you will have to thin critically about whether using these sources will bias your paper. The possible value of these sources to your paper, however, is that they summarize sometimes complex information into stories. Stories catch your reader and are fun to read and to write. The risk, however, is that they oversimplify the truth and fail to engage in crticial analysis of the topic the story is about. Nonetheless, because stories are easier to read than scholarly writing, they offer something to the paper. Below is an example of non-scholarly sources found on the Morrisville database. Note the lack of a check in the "Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Resources" box.
- Scholarly Sources: Examples of sources that are scholarly would be academic books and journals, papers found on professors' webpages (.edu), government sources (.gov, .mil), and position papers found at so-called "think tanks" (like the Heritage Foundation or Union of Concerned Scientists). Scholarly sources typically lack advertising. They present full research cases on topics of academic interest. They can be complex, and thus readability can be more challenging than unscholarly sources. But the value they offer to your paper is credibility (ethos) and reliability that the topic has been studied thoroughly and the conclusions represent the best attempt of the researcher to get at the truth of the matter. Nonetheless, it is probably better to avoid papers that you don't understand, particularly if they contain sophisticated statistics and mathematical calculations. Some scholarly sources use this quantitative technique of "truth-finding", but many don't, choosing a more qualitative telling of the truth through interviews, case studies, ethnographies, etc. These are also stories, but usually more complex than those told on non-scholarly sources. Because you are writing an academic paper, using at least a few of these types of sources will be crucial to a good grade. Below is an example of scholarly sources found on the Morrisville database. Note the check in the "Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Resources" box.
Here's a web page from Cornell University that will help you distinguish between scholarly and other sources of information.
NOW GET ORGANIZED
- Start thinking about how the research sources go together to tell a larger story about your topic.
- Develop a folder or set of folders to help you organize your research. These can be virtual, on your computer, or actual, using traditional folders to store printouts.
- Be sure to record the citation of any valuable research source you might use. It makes things much, much easier later when you have to write your "References" page.
- Speaking of citations, the next help page is about exactly that topic.
CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE LIBRARY WEBPAGE AND START YOUR RESEARCH!
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