Usually, term or research papers are assigned to give you an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned in lecture, reading, and class discussion to a problem or issue in the subject you’re studying. Your work should demonstrate that you’ve become familiar with scholarship on your topic, that you’ve understood that scholarship, and that you can contribute something to it—your own opinion, perspective, or point of view.
Develop a Research Question and Thesis
You’ll probably start with a fairly broad topic idea, such as women in World War II. Read widely in related literature to find out what questions have been asked about your subject and how others have answered them. Once you have an understanding of what others have said about the topic, narrow it.
Ex. Topic of women in World War II narrowed to WWII war brides
Next, pose a question about your topic that would be interesting to your readers. They will want to know how your research contributes to an understanding of the scholarship on the topic. For example, if you’re writing an academic paper addressed to anthropologists, consider why they might find war brides of interest. An anthropologist is interested in cultures and how they form, so you might relate the topic to the conditions under which people join together to form support organizations.
Ex. Why did WWII era war brides join together to form support groups in their new countries?
Once you have the question, you’ll look for an answer in the research, and this will be your thesis.
Ex. WWII era war brides in the United States created clubs to help each other adjust to a new culture often radically different from their own and to provide the support they no longer had from their families.
Do the Research
If your research is incomplete or sloppy, your paper will be as well. To find appropriate sources, talk to a reference librarian or check the University Libraries’ home page under “Research Guides” or “Class Resources.” It’s important to find scholarly sources that are respected in the discipline you’re writing for.
It’s vital that keep track of your research. A well-documented paper serves a number of purposes:
- Establishes your credibility as a researcher/scholar by showing you’re familiar with debates and current opinions
- Helps your readers come to trust your judgment by allowing them to find and read your sources for themselves
- Guides others who may want to learn about the same topic
- Acknowledges the ideas and words of others.
Carefully record any words and ideas you’d like to use. You’ll need this information when you are writing so that you can quote accurately and fairly. Be sure to consult a style guide for correct documentation practices. Common style guides include MLA, APA, and Chicago (these books are available at the library, or see our guide on Documentation Styles).
Information you must record
- Titles (of both articles and the journals they appear, as well as books)
- Pages for articles (all the pages of the article, including the one you are citing if it’s a particular page)
- Date of publication
- For books, a place of publication and publisher
- Direct quotes, word for word with no typos. Note the page numbers carefully. If the page changes in the middle of a quote, make a note of that. If the quote contains a typo, copy it exactly and make a note. (Often the Latin word [sic] in square brackets is used to indicate that an error appears in the original source.) If you omit any words when you copy, indicate that with an ellipsis (three dots . . . ).
- Paraphrases. In your own words, restate what the source says. Note the page numbers carefully. Be as original as possible in writing your paraphrase, but without changing the meaning. Don’t use the same word order as the original. And don’t simply replace a few words with synonyms: that can constitute plagiarism. Instead, read the original carefully twice and then set it aside and write what you remember. Then re-check the original to be sure you were accurate.
- Summaries. What is the gist of the source, not referring to any particular page or section? Again, be sure to use your own words.
Methods of organizing research notes
Select one method and stick to it. Below are some ideas:
- End Notes and RefWorks. These are electronic ways to organize notes supported by University Libraries. From the University Libraries homepage, go to “Citing Your Sources” under the “Class Resources” heading.
- Index cards. For every source, record the full citation for the Works Cited or Reference page (author name, titles, dates, page numbers, etc.) on one card, and label it with a letter. When you take notes from that source, put the letter of the source at the top of the card. Use a new card for every note.
- Word files. For every source, create a Word file and record the full citation for the Works Cited or Reference pages (author name, titles, dates, page numbers, etc.) at the top. Name it with a short reminder of the source, such as the first author’s name. When you take notes, use the file for that source.
- Photocopies. Photocopy the title pages and all publication information you will need as well as any pages you will cite.
- Matrices. Create a matrix, where you can record both the source information and relevant citation (direct, paraphrase, or summary). Matrices are useful if you already have a basic thesis and a few main points in mind. Label the columns across the top with a letter or number you’ve used to identify your work. Use the columns to record your notes. Use quotation marks to show if you quoted directly.
Thesis: The swine flu scare was mostly a media creation.
||Source #1 Jones
||#3 World Health site
|Main idea #1 The media is responsible for panic.
||Jones takes the position that the media always runs the most dramatic stories and seldom checks the facts (p.4).
||Dr. Spiro stresses the need for responsible coverage to help prevent further outbreaks and to stop panic.
|Main idea #2 The facts don’t support a crisis.
||Very few Americans have died of this disease (p.7).
||Previous scares were exaggerated by the media, for example in 2003 the flesh eating bacteria scare (pp.33-34).
||“On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization raised the worldwide pandemic alert level to Phase 6 in response to the ongoing global spread of the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus. A Phase 6 designation indicates . . . a global pandemic.”http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/
Read the Research Critically
Critical reading actually starts as critical thinking. Ask yourself: What am I reading to learn or find? How does this relate to my research question?
The following questions can help you decide what is important as you read each text.
- What is the main idea or thesis? How is the main idea supported and developed?
- What content is new to you? What concepts does the text introduce? (e.g., new vocabulary, a new theory, a new perspective on an established concept)
- What questions, issues, or problems does this text address? Does it create or bring up additional questions?
- How is the text organized? (e.g., categorically, chronologically, compare/contrast, scientific method)
- What type of writing is the text? (e.g., narrative, research study, critical analysis, review)
Knowing more about the genre (i.e., the kind of text it is) can help you know what to expect from the work. If the text is a critical analysis, for example, it will evaluate the authenticity or accuracy of something—say an idea or a performance. If the work is a research study, the article will present the purpose, methods, and results of the study. If the text is an argument, it will present a claim and evidence for the claim.
Critical Reading Tips
In addition to asking these questions while you read, you can use some of these tips to help you concentrate and notice important information.
- Read the text several times if needed.
- Highlight key phrases, sentences, or words, but don’t highlight too much. Otherwise, nothing will stick out from the text.
- Look for words or headings that signal organization or that might lead to main points.
- Mark unfamiliar terms and difficult sections to reread, look up, or discuss with your professor.
- Take notes or outline the text’s organization and content. Review what you write.
- Annotate and comment, or respond to the text in writing. Writing allows you to think deeply about the content and make connections with the ideas in the text.
- Read complicated sections out loud. Slowing down and using two senses (hearing and seeing) helps you understand and retain the information more effectively. It also helps you pay attention instead of letting your eyes superficially sweep over the words.
- Allow plenty of time to read; skimming isn’t the best method for reading critically.
Your work isn’t done once you’ve finished reading. Think about the text. Review your notes or comments. In some cases, you’ll find yourself questioning the text’s claims, evidence, or results; even if you accept the findings, asking yourself critical questions about what you’ve read will help solidify your familiarity with the text. Thinking about the text and reviewing your notes will help you remember what information you found. You may also find it helpful to discuss your topic or research with a peer or teacher.
Titles. Your title should describe what the paper addresses and should contain key words that will help others find it in a database. Often titles describe the type of research, the scope or setting of the research, and sometimes hint at the findings.
Ex. Title “Survey of Educational Achievements of Teenage Mothers”
Introduction. Use the introduction to interest the reader in the research problem you are investigating. For example, perhaps readers need to know more about WWII era war brides and the challenges they faced so they can better understand why they needed support. Use the introduction to state your thesis—that is, a short statement of your argument or your perspective.
Review of the Literature. In a term or research paper, a large portion of the content is your report on the research you read about your topic (called the literature). You’ll need to summarize and discuss how others view the topic, and even more important, provide your own perspective.
Organize your research as you discuss it. One way is to comment on it from the perspective of your thesis. For example, you might be examining how teenage pregnancy affects the educational level of mothers, and you find some scholars stress negative effects, while others stress positive effects. Use this pattern as your organization: first discuss the negative effects, then the positive. Another way to organize is by topic: for example in a paper on war brides, the first half might focus on how forming clubs helped war brides adjust to their new culture and the second half might discuss how the clubs provided support in times of crisis.
Conclusion. Use the conclusion to restate the research question, reinforce your thesis, and discuss the wider significance of the problem. Perhaps you have a point of view, but you feel that it would be stronger if further research was conducted; perhaps you conclude that theories advanced by the research you read don’t really explain the topic or solve the problem; perhaps you feel that your topic has been neglected by scholars and deserves more attention. Or you may discuss applications for the field—does the research suggest that a new procedure or policy be adopted?
The prose style of a term paper should be formal, clear, concise, and direct. Don’t try to sound “academic” or “scientific.” Just present solid research in a straightforward manner.
Use the documentation style prescribed in your assignment or the one preferred by the discipline you’re writing for. Don’t mix styles or just copy and paste from works cited pages. Be sure your documentation style is consistent.
Bean, John, Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam. Reading Rhetorically. 2nd brief ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Kennedy, Mary Lynch, and Hadley M. Smith. Reading and Writing in the Academic Community. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall-Pearson, 2010.