How to Do Original Research

Research Paper WritingAlthough you’ll probably conduct most of your research online or in the library, remember that there’s a great deal of material you can find in laboratories, in courthouses, and in private archives. Consider the possibility of conducting some original research for your research paper. You can do this by interviewing knowledgeable people and devising and distributing questionnaires or surveys. This may be required in class, so always check with your professor.

Original research is research you conduct rather than find in books or articles. It is also called primary research because it starts with you. If you plan to conduct primary research, like an experiment, personal interviews, or a survey of people, you will need to devise a basic methodology for your inquiry. A methodology is simply a statement of the procedure you will follow in conducting the research. Depending upon the type of research you are conducting, the methodology could include:

  • A step-by-step sequence of procedures performed for an experiment.
  • Questions to be asked in personal interviews.
  • The names of people you plan to interview or a profile of the people you plan to interview.
  • The questionnaire you will use in the interview.
  • A demographic profile that segments people you will survey by such things as age range, gender, educational levels, income bracket, geographic location, or common interests.

A good methodology lends credibility to your research paper. If you are conducting an experiment, for instance, it is important to record the process so that others can later repeat the experiment and get the same results. It also provides important background for your readers and ensures consistency across your results. Whenever you conduct interviews, your readers will be interested in what questions you asked and what the person answered. If you are conducting a survey, it is important to ask everyone in the survey the same questions so that you can compare responses. It is also essential to note whom you surveyed so that you can say something about the attitudes of the particular group.

How to Conduct Interviews

Interviews allow you to conduct primary research and acquire valuable information unavailable in print and online sources. By including quotations from people who have
direct knowledge of a particular subject, you add considerable authority and immediacy to your research paper. You can conduct interviews by telephone, by e-mail, or in person.

Often, you can find subjects to interview via the Web sites you visit in your research. Use the contact form at the Web site to extend your invitation. Allow plenty of time. If you want to interview the person who runs the site, he or she may get back to you immediately.However, most often your request will have to be forwarded to an appropriate individual or routed through “channels,” usually the public relations office of the sponsoring organization.

7 Steps in Arranging Interviews

  1. Identify whom you will interview.
  2. Locate and contact the person.
  3. Invite his or her participation.
  4. Determine how you will interview the person—by phone, in person, or by e-mail.
  5. Assemble the questions you will ask.
  6. Forward the questions to your interviewee.
  7. Request the right to ask follow-up questions.

Who should you interview? Include only respected people in the field. Don’t waste your time with cranks and people with private agendas to further.

Guidelines for Requesting Interviews

  1. Identify yourself by full name and title.
  2. Explain your assignment/project.
  3. Explain your topic.
  4. State your time frame.
  5. Offer an idea of how much time the person should allow for the interview.
  6. Ask for the interview, requesting either someone who is able to speak to your topic or a specific interviewee by name.
  7. Provide your contact information.
  8. Finish with a cordial closing as you would in a letter.
  9. A day or two before the interview, send an e-mail reminder or telephone the interviewee to confirm the time and date.

Interviews can be conducted via e-mail, by telephone, or in person. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

E-mail interviews are convenient; interviewees can respond at their convenience. They also provide you and the interviewee with a written record of what was asked and answered. However, they also place a burden on the interviewee by requiring the person to write out responses that you normally would record in a telephone or face-to-face interview. Be prepared to give considerable thought to questions you prepare in advance. Follow-up questions are difficult in e-mail and you do not want to waste the time of people who have graciously agreed to be interviewed. Be specific and complete in your questions to avoid getting answers that require followup because they do not deliver the information you need. Avoid questions like,”What do you think of social networking?” Instead, be specific with questions that seek detailed information, such as, “What is the most significant trend in social networking that you see emerging among teenagers, and why do you believe it’s the most significant?”

Telephone interviews are more open-ended and offer you the opportunity to follow up with questions that might occur to you in the course of the conversation. They are not good options, however, if you are excessively shy or if the interviewee is uncomfortable with them. They can also be difficult to arrange if the person maintains a busy schedule. Never insist on a telephone interview; choose the format that is most convenient for the interviewee. Finally, it is useful to record telephone interviews so that you can later review what was said and ensure accuracy on any quotes you use;however,always ask the permission of the interviewee before recording an interview.

Face-to-face interviews, like telephone interviews, are not for the shy and can be difficult to arrange. However, they offer you the opportunity to meet the interviewee. This can be particularly valuable if you are meeting in a setting that is pertinent to your course of inquiry, such as the person’s laboratory or a social setting that pertains to the topic, such as an Internet café if you are discussing social networking, or a troubled housing project if you are discussing the influence of neighborhood environments on high school completion rates, crime rates, or family support networks.Ask the person’s permission to record the interview at the time you make the appointment.

If you are doing a telephone or face-to-face interview, be sure you allow the interviewee to do the talking. Do not interrupt or rush the person through the interview. Many times, interviewees will use the opportunity to promote recent books, writings, or product/service introductions. If they do, let them and then proceed to the questions that are of interest to you. Cutting off an interviewee can set a bad tone for the interview and produce disappointing results.

As you incorporate interviews in your paper, you must accurately and fairly present their views and opinions—even when they do not conform to your own. Be sure to do your research in advance. Read at least one thing your interviewee has written on the topic. Have a good sense in advance of what the person will say about it.

How to Conduct Surveys

Surveys are useful when you want to measure the behavior or attitudes of a fairly large group. On the basis of the responses, you can draw some conclusions. Such generalizations are usually made in quantitative terms: “Fewer than one-third of the respondents said that they favored further governmental funding for schools,” for example.

Fortunately,Web sites and software programs abound to help you design surveys by offering a structure for organizing the survey, prompting you to enter questions, and tabulating the results. Online free polling services include Zoomerang, and Polldaddy. The New York Times offers a lesson on poll creation, called “To Free or Not Too Free,” for middle school and high school teachers in its Learning Network at

Surveys should be carefully focused and ask specific questions to minimize ambiguities or bias in the findings. Questions should be crafted and presented to ensure that the data you collect will allow you to make the kinds of determinations you seek. Surveys should follow a structure that informs respondents of the purpose.

Structuring Your Survey

  1. Give your survey a title.
  2. State the purpose of the survey.
  3. Tell respondents where the information will be published
  4. Include a privacy statement explaining with whom you will share the information and how it will be used.
  5. Get the respondents’ permission to use the data they provide.
  6. Describe how the survey will be conducted.
  7. Set a deadline for when you need the results.
  8. Tell the respondents how to complete the survey. Be very clear about how they should answer the questions (i.e., whether they should check, circle, or underline the answer
    or write a response in the blank provided).
  9. Thank respondents for their time.

You want the respondents to complete the surveys. For that reason, the surveys should not be too long. Aim for 25 to 30 questions. The choices presented to respondents should be straightforward and easy to respond to. Questions can be presented in the following ways:

  1. Yes or no/true or false
  2. Multiple choice
  3. Ratings on a scale, usually 1 to 10
  4. Ranking in order of importance or preference

Yes-no and true-false questions are the most straightforward. Multiple choice questions can be problematic if the respondent does not identify with the choices given; these
should always include options such as “don’t know” or “none of the above” that leave room for exceptions. Rankings allow respondents to express qualitative preferences by assigning a number that reflects their attitudes according to a scale.

Rankings, on the other hand, ask the respondent to place a series of items in order. Comments can be the most revealing as they ask the respondent to state their opinions or describe
something; however, they are difficult to tabulate as the results cannot be easily fitted into categories. As you begin designing questions, ask yourself: What, exactly, do I want to determine? Surveys are typically conducted for one of two different reasons. Attitude surveys can be short and simple, focused around a single issue and pose a single question or a short set of questions. For example:

Do you believe that the quality of education would improve if the school year was lengthened to offer more hours for instruction?

  • Yes
  • No

Surveys designed to identify trends tend to be much longer than other kinds of surveys. This is to provide a qualitative view of related issues rather than one that is simply based on a yes or no answer. For example:

How would you rate the quality of education in your local school district?

  • a. Excellent
  • b. Good
  • c. Average
  • d. Below average
  • e. Poor

Adding questions that gather demographic data allows you to make distinctions about the individuals being polled and interpret their answers according to group affiliations. Questions asking the person’s age range or income can also be relevant for your research, but such questions should always be respectful of peoples’ privacy. Rather than ask survey respondents to divulge their sex or annual income, for instance, present the respondents with a range and give them the option of not answering, such as:

Are you:

a. male

b. female

c. I prefer not to answer

What is your annual income?

a. under $25,000

b. $25,001–$50,000

c. $50,001–$75,000

d. $75,001–$100,000

e. Over $100,000

f. I prefer not to answer

Tabulating Your Survey Results

A great deal of care should be taken to correctly tabulate results.This can be a challenging task if you have not collected data through an online site or from a form that provides automatic analysis. Researchers who expect to review and tabulate the data themselves would be well advised to work with a small group of respondents (no more than 20) to keep the task manageable.
The American Statistical Association (ASA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) publish excellent guidelines on how to conduct surveys and tabulate the results. The
ASA’s publication What Is a Survey? can be downloaded from The APA offers numerous articles on conducting surveys at its Web site

In addition, many topics have been extensively discussed by experts on respected television news programs and documentaries. It is often possible to write to the television station and obtain printed transcripts of the programs. You might also be able to videotape the programs or borrow copies of the programs that have already been recorded.