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How to do research? After a successful start it’s time for actual researching. Doing research will occupy most of your time on the research paper.


How to Do Research

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Actually, you will be performing three overlapping tasks: reading, research, and writing. As your reading becomes increasingly focused, it becomes integral to your research. So does your writing, which includes book notes and periodic research reports to discuss with your adviser.

These written reports blur the bright line between research and writing. Research is not something you do after you finish reading and before you start writing. It includes both, with a very happy result. It means that when you finally sit down to draft your research paper, you won’t be starting from scratch. Large chunks will already be in place.

Beyond this focused reading and preliminary writing, what is your research? It is the work needed to provide information, context, and contending perspectives about your topic—the work needed to answer the questions you have posed. You may acquire this basic information by reading primary documents, watching films, downloading survey data, conducting interviews, running tests, or finding still other sources to analyze. To provide a context for your research paper, you need to know the relevant secondary literature, that is, the analysis and interpretation scholars have already done on your topic.

These writers will not speak with one voice. They will ask different questions and often suggest different interpretations of the same basic data. They will offer varied perspectives and promote alternative theories. That’s true no matter what your field is. To understand your topic fully, you need to understand these debates and then look beyond them to see what the debaters have in common and what their most fundamental differences are. Once you’ve grasped this literature, you may even choose to enter the debates yourself, adopting one stance and rejecting others, or perhaps finding a synthesis. In any case, you want to learn from the best work, engage it, and build on its findings.

Consider, for instance, a history research paper about African slaves arriving in South Carolina during the mid-1700s. Using primary documents such as ship manifests, bills of sale, and perhaps letters by slaveholders, you intend to study the slave ships and their human cargo arriving in the port of Charleston between 1740 and 1760. You would certainly want to read the best narrative histories about eighteenth-century slavery in general. That literature covers the triangular trade that brought slaves to America, the cotton plantations where they worked, and so on. These secondary works on slavery and Southern agriculture permit a richer interpretation of your primary documents because they situate the Charleston slave market within a wider social and economic context. As you read, you may discover gaps in the literature—questions not asked or topics not studied—which you can explore in your research paper. You may discover, for instance, that several articles deal with the size of slave families in Virginia and Louisiana, but rarely those in South Carolina and never for the decades you are studying. If that question interests you, you could fill an important gap in the scholarly literature if the primary documents reveal the data.

You also want to know which disputes surround your research paper topic. What concerns the scholars who study your subject? Do some assert, for example, that the data for individual ships is not very good or that these ships are not representative? Is the most serious dispute about the number of slaves who died during the Middle Passage from West Africa to America? Are there brisk debates about the prices paid, the slaves’ life expectancy, or their ultimate destination after sale in Charleston? Reading the secondary literature should alert you to these issues. You will learn which ones are well settled and which ones are hotly contested. Reading carefully should highlight the most interesting questions and the most vigorous debates. Some reflection about these issues and a little research may also reveal gaps in the literature, like the question about family size. When you discover questions and gaps like these, mention them to your adviser. She’ll be a good source of feedback.

From your reading and conversations with faculty, you’ll develop views on both primary and secondary sources. You’ll learn which documents are trustworthy, which should be treated with considerable skepticism, and which are entirely worthless. You’ll learn which secondary authors are reliable and highly regarded, and you’ll want to compare their views to see where they agree and disagree. This critical assessment is vital to your research paper, and it applies to every field.

With this background in the literature and some guidance from your faculty adviser, you can narrow your topic to a few closely related questions on the slave trade and focus your research paper. You will continue to work with primary documents and secondary sources to find the answers and, quite often, to produce still more questions for investigation.

Different Kinds of Research

Because research papers differ so widely in substance and method, they require different kinds of research. Investigating slavery in South Carolina is radically different from interpreting Wordsworth’s poetry or studying charter schools. For historians, research usually means analyzing primary documents such as the Carolina ship manifests, often supplemented by other historical data and writings from the period. For students of comparative literature, it means close reading and careful appraisal of novels, poems, and plays in their original languages. For social scientists, it often means refining theories and testing them against empirical evidence. Some do that by building and testing formal mathematical models, others by exploring specific cases in depth. Still others analyze large data sets. Demographers examine population statistics; voting specialists look at surveys and elections; psychologists compare experimental test results; economists consider statistics on trade, prices, capital flows, and savings. For many social scientists, research not only means finding this raw material, it means actually generating it through surveys, tests, experiments, and more.

This varied data reflects the equally varied aims of research. For students of literature and history, the aim is to interpret and compare primary texts. For most social scientists, the aim is to construct and test causal models reflecting their theories of social life. For interpretive social scientists, the goal is to make human action, symbols, and communication intelligible, at both the individual and collective levels. Their work seeks to explain, but rarely in the form of causal explanations. They are more interested in exploring how social meanings are constructed. In fields as diverse as education, social work, nursing, and public policy, the aim is not only to explain and interpret but also to evaluate current practices—and frequently to suggest more effective ones. Their audience reaches beyond the university to policy makers and working professionals.

Given these varied aims, what can be said about research in general? At least a few things that can help students working on different kinds of research papers. Perhaps the most important is that your research should be tailored to your specific project and your individual skills. One size does not fit all. It does not fit all questions, and it does not fit all researchers.

Picking the method that suits your questions and your skills is a central element of the research paper. Several factors will influence your decision whether to work mainly with primary documents or secondary sources, with detailed cases or large databases. First, what type of question are you investigating (and in which discipline)? Second, what kind of explanation are you trying to develop and evaluate? Are you trying to interpret a novel, painting, or movie, or perhaps compare several from the same genre? Are you trying to understand the meaning of an important event or offer a causal explanation for it? Are you evaluating one or two cases in depth, or are you trying to find broad patterns encompassing many cases? Could your explanation be rejected if you found some confounding data? If so, then you need to search for that crucial data to test your explanation.

Third, what research skills do you bring to the research paper? To build formal models, you need higher mathematics. To test large data sets, you need statistical training. To decipher primary documents, you need to know the languages and perhaps even the handwriting. Different topics and different approaches have their own distinct requirements. That’s why you need to take advanced courses not only in your major but also in related fields.

Finding the Sources

At this point we suppose you did some early research to find a topic for your paper. Now it’s time to revisit those sources to explore them some more. You’ve already done some early research, taking a quick look at an encyclopedia and the Internet. Although you won’t take notes yet, these sources will help you gain important background information. This exploratory research tells you know where you’re going and what to look for when you do your actual research—a topic we’ll discuss next.

Searching the Internet

The Internet, with its speed and ubiquity, has made research much easier than it once was. Thanks to the Internet, you have a library of millions of sources at your disposal 24 hours a day. This abundance of research, however, can be overwhelming. Today the problem is not how to find research material but how to work your way through the thousands (or even millions) of documents that turn up in your search. Enter a search word or phrase about a topic, any topic, into Google, Bing, or whatever your favorite search engine might be, and in seconds you will be presented with pages upon pages of two-line summaries of articles that contain it. Google and other search engines “weight” the results by putting the most likely matches at the top, but the chore of finding the perfect source to meet your research needs is still left to you. Learn how to conduct online research.

Using Library and Database Resources

Many times instructors will recommend, or even require, that student researchers avoid the popular search engines and, instead, take their search for information to the library. A visit to the library can transform your research efforts from simple look-ups into an educational experience that reveals many more resources that are open to you. Learn how to use a library.

Conducting Original Research

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. Learn how to conduct original research.

How to do Research on Aging

As a subject area for your research paper few topics are as interesting as aging. Whether you are writing a research paper about serious health issues or the latest demographic and statistical trends, countless resources are available on all areas and categories of aging. They include comprehensive A–Z encyclopedias and information handbooks, relevant indexes and abstracts, timely full-text articles from leading journals, newspapers, and magazines, general online databases, and specific Web sites, organizational subject directories, as well as detailed studies, position papers, and reports. Anyone can be a good starting point for your research paper no matter your topic. Learn how to do research on aging.

How to do Research on Business

In the vast field of business and economics, finding timely background information and data for you research paper is vitally important. Your quest for information may include researching a major Fortune 500 company, basic concepts and strategies of business or economics, or current business or economic trends. No matter what your purpose is, a wealth of business sources is available in a variety of formats on all aspects of business, economics, finance, and related disciplines. Learn how to do research on business and economics.

How to do Research on Criminal Justice

Criminal justice is a broad term that refers to such subjects as crimes and criminals, law and policy, prisons, and violence. Meanwhile, the administration of justice includes criminal law, constitutional law, individual rights, and procedures and evidence, with laws administered on federal, state, and local levels through legislation, regulations, and court decisions. Using such keyword terms will help you find timely and relevant information for your research paper. Whatever the subject or topic that you plan to investigate, researching this field is cross-disciplinary, including, for example, law and social sciences; therefore, you may need to extend your research beyond primary sources in your core subject in order to fully research your topic. Learn how to do research on criminal justice.

How to do Research on Environment

From the harmful effects of air and water pollution to the hazards of global warming, ecology and the environment are issues hotly debated by activists, politicians, policy makers, scientists, researchers, think tanks, and environmentalists. As a result, considerable supporting evidence and research has been published over the years on these and many other important ecological and environmental issues that are ripe for the taking to convincingly support your chosen research paper subject or topic. Learn how to do research on environment.

How to do Research on Education

Soaring enrollments and serious budget cuts in U.S. K–12 public and private schools and at colleges and universities have directly impacted teacher performance, student-teacher classroom ratios, and the deemed “underperformance” of educational institutions. These critical problems, along with a broad range of social, cultural, economic, and political issues and many overcrowded and understaffed schools, have made the goal of fulfilling equity and educational excellence for most schools a near impossibility. Whether you are engaged in the study, discussion, or writing a research paper on education and educational topics, a remarkable tide of librarian-suggested resources providing academic viewpoints and perspectives from both sides are available to examine any problems or issues facing educators, parents, and students. Learn how to do research on education.

How to do Research on Film and Television

Whether you intend to write a research paper on the technological or cultural content of films and TV shows, the work of an individual performer or director, or find reviews for a particular movie or show, an abundance of printed and electronic sources are available through public, academic, and specialty libraries. This includes biographical data, filmographies, production credits, plot summaries, critical essays and reviews, and series studies of well-known performers, producers, directors, and others for virtually every film or television program ever produced. Learn how to do research on film and television.

How to do Research on Health and Medicine

Many people would like to be better informed about the diseases and conditions that may threaten their health and well-being. Of paramount importance is finding accurate information on symptoms, procedures, tests, and treatments for common health issues; the effectiveness or side effects of certain prescription drugs; specific aspects of human anatomy; and the best techniques for staying fit and healthy. Selecting your research paper sources carefully is the key. The most reliable sources for medical and health-related information are core-subject print and Web indexes and abstracts that specialize in the field and contain bibliographic information on articles published in highly respected peer-reviewed academic and medical journals. These are authored by leading medical practitioners and researchers, and while at times highly technical, they are credibly sourced and detailed. General references, such as books and encyclopedias; popular magazines, including consumer health magazines; and major newspapers in addition to Web sites of many major health organizations, medical associations, and government agencies offer articles, reports, and other literature written for more mainstream audiences. These too can be beneficial. Learn how to do research on health and medicine.

How to do Research on History

The birth of civilization, the invention of the first gas-powered automobile, the outbreak of the Civil War, the new developments in culture, fashion, and technology, and the passing of time itself all share something in common: They are all major moments in American and world history. Literally hundreds of historical references are accessible in print or electronic form, each providing a unique perspective on history. Learn how to do research on history.

How to do Research on Law

Laws are enacted for the purpose of governing society. These include local, state, and federal codes, legislation, regulations, and court decisions that have either upheld or rewritten longstanding laws. There are also various consumer laws, labor laws, family laws, bankruptcy laws, laws for renting and selling a home, or leasing and purchasing a used car, and city ordinances banning smoking in public places or the use of certain trash receptacles. Learn how to do research on law.

How to do Research on Literature

When it comes to the study of literature or critical examination of famous authors, novelists, poets, and literary works, leading scholars and historians have compiled countless volumes of analysis, criticism, and research. For any research paper on the analysis, interpretation, evaluation, or comparison of literature, you can find many resources to help you understand and interpret the work you are studying. In print or electronic form, and on the Web, you can find articles, essays, book reviews, scholarly and popular journals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks. With so many available resources, you may not know where to start. The following list of sources will assist you in your quest for research and information on any literary research paper topic, or literary figure. Learn how to do research on literature.

How to do Research on Mathematics

Everyday mathematics is used in some shape or form to help us calculate, analyze, and understand the outcome of quantitative problems in many fields—architecture, agricultural science, art and graphic design, architecture, computer science, environmental science, finance and economics, geological science, science and engineering, and real-life situations. The nature of mathematics entails a high level of thinking and problem solving to investigate a problem through the collection, interpretation, and measurement of data—using different methods, such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus—and applying theories, including logic and probability. In the end, the resulting data or statistical outcome can explain a new phenomenon or a common problem in a way that others can hopefully understand. Whether writing a research paper on a famous mathematician, the origin of some important mathematical theory, or a complex mathematical problem, a host of credible research by leaders in the field and sources recommended by librarians await you in print and electronic form to provide the documentation or answers that you are seeking. Learn how to do research on mathematics.

How to do Research on Music

For serious study or a research paper, thousands of reliable resources chronicle everything there is to know about music: the distinctive styles and movements, the world-famous composers, performers, and musical groups, the top-charting songs and recordings, the historical periods and major events, and more. Most of it is available at a library in print or electronic form or on the Internet. This article offers some recommended sources for music research papers. Learn how to do research on music.

How to do Research on Nursing

Nursing is one of the fastest-growing professions today. Increasingly, research and literature is being published that discusses the administration, policies, principles, practices, ethics, methodologies, values, and effectiveness of nursing. Heading the list are literature indexes and computer databases containing bibliographic records and full-text newspaper and journal articles, conference proceedings, pamphlets, scholarly dissertations, and other printed or non-printed sources. They include databases that are fully searchable by subject, author, keyword, or title enabling researchers to locate clinical articles by experts and scholars, original studies by researchers, and consumer-oriented material. Learn how to do research on nursing.

How to do Research on Political Science

From current legislation to public policy decisions affecting every city, state, or nation, politics is a fact of life that has been around for centuries. And yet, issues and challenges never seem to go away, and politics remains at the core of public policy and public administration in all that embodies society. This article details an abundance of source material that has aided political science students, researchers, and scholars in writing research papers on this field. Plenty of print and electronic sources are available for research. Learn how to do research on political science.

How to do Research on Psychology

In a field as vast and rapidly changing as psychology, many leading authorities, scholars, researchers, and psychological professionals have chronicled everything about the history, technique, and applications of psychiatry for further study and research paper writing. Whether you want to find up-to-date information about difficult psychological terms or concepts, thousands of psychological conditions, psychological drugs, or prominent specialists in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, every possible source on these and countless other subjects await you. Learn how to do research on psychology.

How to do Research on Religion

Religious study has grown in popularity in recent years, particularly at schools of religion and colleges and universities with religion programs. Whether reading biblical passages or considering the inherent meanings of religious artifacts, enormous opportunities exist today for students, researchers, and believers to more fully explore the common characteristics, conceptions (and misconceptions), methods, practices, and traditions of religions from around the world. To satisfy your strong desire to explore traditional and nontraditional religions, differences between one religion over another, laws separating church and state, or deeply rooted religious theories or changing attitudes towards religion, almost everything in the world related to this specific field of study is accessible in some form. Learn how to do research on religion.

How to do Research on Science and Technology

Scientific discoveries throughout history have dramatically shaped the world as people know it today. From the invention of the first telegraph to the Hubble space telescope, countless men and women of every scientific discipline have explored the vast unknown. Such discoveries have resulted in cures for formerly untreatable diseases, broken the human genetic code, and accomplished many other scientific and technological feats in such important disciplines as astronomy, atomic and nuclear physics, biochemistry, biotechnology, botany, cell and molecular biology, chemistry, computer science, earth science, engineering, environmental science, forensic science, and many more. Learn how to do research on science and technology.

How to do Research on Sports

To many sports enthusiasts, the echoing crack of the bat or the resounding body slam of an opponent in the ring embodies the true spirit of sports. In reality, there’s more to this popular past time than a few home runs or cracked vertebrae. Sports are the stuff of legends and players of every caliber, of grit, determination, and heart pumping action, of athleticism, psychology, and individual performance, and, more importantly, love and appreciation for the sport itself. Learn how to do research on sports.

How to do Research on Theater and Dance

With an arsenal of print and electronic material at your disposal, you can delve into the history, literature, acting, choreography, design, and management of theater and dance. You can research a specific period, a particular artist’s or playwright’s style, theater and dance culture, or theater and dance performances based on a specific literary work. You also can research theater and dance’s history; production companies and individual productions; technical and theatrical aspects; the best plays of the modern ages; excerpts from critically-acclaimed plays; and the most notable names in theater and dance worldwide, or the present state of affairs for academic, children’s, community, ethic, experimental, and regional theater. Learn how to do research on theater and dance.

How to do Research on Women Studies

A vast accumulation of timely and historical research on women’s studies exists, discussing their changing roles in society, their standards of living, their sacrifices, suffrage, and their accomplishments in various areas and in every period of history. Thanks to a wide array of print and electronic sources, research paper writers today can learn all about women of the past and women of today. Learn how to do research on women studies.

How to Take Notes while Doing Research

Now you can get your hands on the sources you identified and take notes on the information. And because you’re prepared for this, you can expect the process to go smoothly. Your first step is to locate your sources and get yourself settled—either at a table in the library, or at home if you’re using sources that you can take home. Be sure to have your source cards and research questions with you. Other supplies you’ll need depend on the note-taking method you choose. Learn how to take notes.

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