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How to: Begin Basic Academic Research

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?"

— Albert Einstein

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" — Albert Einstein

One of the most important aspects of college work is research. In any college course, you will need to gather information, assess it, and present it in your own work. For many students, research is an intimidating and overwhelming process. But another way to look at the prospect of conducting research is that it is your turn to delve into a new and interesting subject and present your own ideas about what it means. There is creativity in the research process, because you can often choose your own topic and sources, and use your ability to synthesize and analyze information to create something entirely new, whether it is a paper, lab report, or presentation. The advent of the Internet simplified research in many ways, making it more convenient and comprehensive, but the search for appropriate sources among the vast amount of information available means you need to refine your research skills.

Choose a Topic

A professor will often assign a topic, or provide you with a list of approved topics from which you can choose the one that interests you most. That makes choosing a topic easy. However, some professors, often in more advanced courses, suggest a general subject area and allow students to narrow their focus on their own within that general subject. This is when many students worry that they won’t choose an appropriate topic because they want to make sure they complete the assignment correctly.

The most important thing to remember in this situation is that the topic you choose should be clearly related to the general subject of the assignment or the course. If you have questions, it is always best to consult with your professor, who can provide further guidance on the assignment. Email your topic, outline and/or list of sources to your professor to make sure you are on target. An excellent resource to help you understand how to choose a good topic is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). You should also make sure that when you select your topic, you get approval from your professor or check to make sure that your topic will fulfill the assignment.

Gather Your Resources

College-level research involves sophisticated scholarly sources. Libraries, archives, databases, and other online materials are all considered appropriate and even necessary sources of information for college-level work. Here are a few places where you can begin your hunt for data:

  • Libraries. A library, either online or on the ground, may be the best place to begin gathering the sources you will need to learn about your topic. Libraries contain in-depth catalogs of their on-site and online holdings, including books, journals, and archival materials such as document collections. Cornell University offers an excellent guide called The Seven Steps of Research Process, which focuses on how to use a research library. Also, do not forget to take advantage of the skills and expertise of librarians. All academic librarians are extensively trained in library science and can suggest research avenues that may not occur to you. You don’t even have to be in a physical library to reap the benefits of librarian help. When you use an online library, there are librarians available to you in real-time, meaning that you can email a question and receive a response in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Databases. In addition to the online catalog of a library’s holdings, databases are searchable electronic lists of all the articles, reviews, and scientific results published in professional scholarly journals. EBSCOHost and Lexis/Nexis are two of the more well-known databases. There are also searchable newspaper databases like the International Coalition on Newspapers, which can include centuries-old newspapers and popular publications in addition to their book catalogs. Once you find your materials in a database, you can then download the material directly to your computer and read it at your convenience. The trick to using online resources successfully is to understand how to use search terms. The basic Internet search method is called Boolean searching and is conducted by using terms called Boolean operators to define exactly what it is you are searching for. The three main Boolean operators are OR, AND, and NOT. For example, if you want to find information on colleges and universities, the phrase you would use to search for course material in a database is "colleges AND universities." There are useful tutorials on Boolean searching available on the Internet if you want to refine your skills.
  • Websites. The Internet can provide a wealth of resources for researchers, but it can also lead you down a false path if you do not know how to search efficiently. There are many search engines besides Google Scholar, one of the most well-known search engines tailored to academic research, including search engines focused on specific academic fields or professional disciplines, and the Search Engine List offers a list of such search tools. Once you select a search engine, it is important to type in the most effective search terms to find the sources you need. To do this, use Boolean operators in website searches, just as you do in database searches, to get accurate information. Also, make sure to note the hyperlinks in any article you read, and click on them to find additional information.

Evaluate Your Sources

After you have gathered a number of potential sources to peruse, take the time to determine whether they are beneficial or not. Unfortunately, some sources are far less helpful than others, so it important to evaluate the research and articles you have uncovered before launching your project.

  • Determine Usefulness. There are so many interesting resources that it is easy to get distracted while conducting research. Because of this, not everything you find interesting will actually be useful for your research. This is especially true when it comes to finding information on the Internet, where you can find hundreds of websites that are only tangentially connected to your research topic. It is absolutely necessary to remain focused on your research topic, and assess the usefulness of each of your sources. If the source does not deal directly with your topic, it might not be the best material for your research.
  • Evaluating Credibility. Not all books, articles, websites or other pieces of information possess credibility, which is the term used to describe the quality or value of the resources you use. Credibility can be established by learning about the author of the source. Are they an expert in their field? For example, a manual on brain surgery written by a biology researcher who has never conducted surgery would have less credibility than a manual written by an experienced brain surgeon. It is also important to evaluate the sources the author used by reading the bibliography. In addition, pay attention to the kind of website on which you find the source by noting the domain name of the site. If the source is from a .edu website, for example, it is sponsored by a school, and usually possesses high academic quality. However, if it is from a .com address, the site may be more interested in selling you something than in providing credible and unbiased information. There are many different ways to evaluate the credibility of your sources, and knowing the different kinds of websites is a helpful way to get a quick understanding of the kind of source you are using.
  • Detecting Bias. Not all sources are equal in their ability to provide balanced and verified information. Many times, authors have a political or ideological agenda they wish to promote, and in their books, articles or websites offer only the information that supports that agenda. This is a form of bias, and it is important to ensure that your research sources are free of bias, in order to produce the most effective academic work. Check out a list of red flags and other clues that your source is biased.

Use Your Sources

Once you have determined that your research materials are worth digging into and working with, you can approach the data in different ways to get the most out of your researching. Taking notes on all of your materials is essential, as the number of sources you consult in your research might be quite numerous. Note-taking is a varied and inexact science, because there are many different methods. It is important to find the method that works best for you, so that your research is organized and useful when you are ready to write. By taking notes, you’ll be able to keep better track of what information you’ve gathered from each source.

The end product of all your research should reflect the main points of your sources and support the argument you present in your paper, lab report, PowerPoint presentation, or oral presentation. The end result should not be a simple summary of your research, but instead it should be an analytical assessment of the topic that is supported by your research. The best way to use your research is to refer to it through citation and quotation:

  • Citing Your Sources. For any source you get ideas from, paraphrase, or directly quote, you must cite the source of that information. Citations include endnotes or footnotes, as well as your bibliographic information, which you can include in a Works Cited page, Bibliography or list of References. Citation format also depends on which citation form your professor specifies. The most common citation forms are MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian.
  • Using Quotations. Students can include too many quotations because they are not familiar with the citation rules regarding how and when to quote directly from your research sources. With online sources, it is easy to "cut and paste" information, but it is almost always better to paraphrase, unless there is no other way the information can be stated or the quote you are using is directly discussed in your work.

Once you have compiled your research and used it to support the arguments you make in your academic assignment, the final step is to edit and proofread your work. The best students remember that all writing involves rewriting to achieve a polished final product. Also, the whole point of any research assignment is to allow students to demonstrate their ability to compile, assess, and analyze information and come to a new conclusion. This cannot be accomplished if students rely on sources without citing them appropriately. Any time someone else’s words, ideas, or interpretations are used without appropriate citation is plagiarism, and plagiarism is a serious academic offense that can result in failure of the assignment, course failure, or expulsion from the college. However, plagiarism is easy to avoid if you follow the rules regarding appropriate uses of sources.

In addition to the process outlined above, it is a good idea to stop your research periodically and check to make sure you are still focused on your topic, aware of deadlines, and on schedule to complete your project or assignment. Also, do not be afraid to show your research to your professor and get his/her insight into ways you can improve, refine or expand upon what you have done. The best research is not rushed, so that you have time to evaluate what you have done, make sure that you are using your source notes effectively, and that you have understood all of your source material. Achieving this balance can sometimes be difficult if your topic is new and challenging. Above all, remember that you are the researcher and that you are in control of the project. You can take your work in any direction, as long as you support your assertions, cite your materials appropriately, and meet the requirements of your assignment.


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