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MU Home » Academics » Davis Memorial Library » Research Help » Research Guides» Writing a Research Paper

Writing a Research Paper
This guide will help you in the process of finding and evaluating scholarly and professional information in books and articles. Your professors and librarians can help in every stage of the research process. Listed below are the steps of the research process and links to library resources. Use them to model your own research strategy.

Step 1: Choose a Topic

Discuss the research assignment with your professor, classmates, librarian, or experts in the field. You should be able to answer the following questions before starting:
  • What are your instructor's requirements for the assignment?
  • What type of assignment is this? A three page paper? A five minute speech? A twenty page paper?
  • How many resources do you need to use? Are there requirements as to the type of resources you use?
  • When is your assignment due?
Choose a topic that is interesting to you. To help you identify a topic that you would enjoy researching, try the following steps:
  • Use your textbook to give ideas on possible topics.
  • Browse journals in your field of study or current newspapers to identify promising topics.
  • Use the Online Catalog to locate books on a topic.
  • Ask your instructor for assistance in choosing a topic.
  • Consult with a Reference Librarian for ideas.

Step 2: Explore your Topic

Consult encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides to the field, or biographical guides for example. Search the
Online Catalog for books about the most important ideas in your topic statement. Do not expect to find specific aspects of the topic in the catalog. They may be covered in a chapter or reference from the book's index.

Step 3: Refine your Topic

Depending on how much or little information you find, narrow, expand, or change your topic. If the issue is addressed in too many books and articles, concentrate on a specfic aspect or population. If you found only a few books and articles, or none at all, broaden your topic statement, or change the topic all together. If satisfied with the scope and amount of information found, you are ready to select specialized resources in your subject area. Use the Brainstorming Your Research Topic worksheet to formulate your research question.
Ways to Narrow your Topic
  • Who? - Is there a particular group of people involved? Can you limit by gender, race, ethnicity, or age? Women? Children? Seniors? African-Americans?
  • What? - What are the main issues of your topic? Can you limit to one aspect rather than focus on the whole? For example, air pollution could be divided to acid rain, smog, or effect on asthma sufferers.
  • When? - Is there a specific time period to be addressed in your project? The Middle Ages? The Depression? The Cold War?
  • Where? - Do you need to focus on a particular place or region? Africa? Australia? Russia? Asia?
  • Why? - Why is this topic important? What makes it relevant to people's lives?
Ways to Broaden your Topic
  • Is there an aspect of the topic that was missed?
  • Use the steps for narrowing to broaden. Expand by who, what, when, where, and why.
What to do with your Focused Topic
Draft a topic or thesis statement. Highlight essential ideas in your statement.
For each idea or concept, generate a list of key terms. For each key term, list synonyms, related terms, lay and specialized terms for the idea or population you are studying. The reference books you consulted in step 2 to help you explore your topic will also be useful in finding alternatate ideas and terms.

Topic: Capital Punishment and African-American males in the United States

Term: Capital Punishment, Death Penalty, Execution, Lethal Injection, Electric Chair

Term: African-American, African American, Black

Term: Male, Men, Man

Term: United States, America, American

Step 4: Select Specialized Resources

Identify resources from a Subject Guide, or by consulting with your professor or librarian.

For books, search in the Online Catalog (materials located at Davis Memorial Library) and/or Worldcat database (for materials located in libraries around the country). If the books are not available at Davis Memorial Library, you can use Interlibrary Loan to obtain them. Remember that this may take about two weeks, as the books must be shipped through the mail.

For articles, use some of the words you listed in step three, and search for articles in a general reference database such as: Academic Search Complete or Westlaw Campus Research. To get scholarly articles, limit your search to " peer reviewed or refereed articles " articles written by experts in the subject area.

Consider primary sources: correspondence, manuscripts, archives from digital archives.

Locate Internet sites that provide accurate, unbiased professional or scholary information, using a search engine like Google. If you search on Google, considering limiting to sites ending in .edu or .gov to get more authoratative information. A variety of search engines are highlighed in the Search Engline Guide.

Step 5: Search Strategically

Some reference databases, for example the education database ERIC, have specialized thesauri or subject lists. Use the database thesaurus or subject list to translate your concepts and keywords into the language of the database.

Use Boolean operators, AND, OR, and NOT, to combine search sets or subject terms. For help with this kind of searching refer to Boolean Searching in the Databases and on the Internet. Use the Brainstorming Your Research Topic worksheet to assist in forming your search strategy.

Enclose phrases in quotes.

Use the truncation symbol specified for each database (usually "*") to retieve variant forms of a word: (journalist* OR author*) AND (publisher* OR newspaper*) AND "digital copyright" "digital copyright" NOT music.

Print relevant full text articles, save them to a disk, or email them to yourself.

  • Find a review article summarizing recent knowledge on the topic and citations to books and other articles.
  • Read relevant chapters and articles, recording a citation and brief annotation for each.
  • Note the name of the database with the citation so you can retrace your steps if necessary.
  • Edit your word lists to include helpful subject terms and keywords.
  • Draft a short abstract summarizing what you have learned about the topic.

Step 6: Evaluate Sources

Read and evaluate your sources, keeping those that are pertinent, authoritative, and unbiased.

How can you tell if your resources are sufficient for your assignment?

  • you have gathered a variety of sources (books, articles, data or statistics, and web sites)
  • author name and affiliation are displayed for each source
  • the information is accurate and conclusions are supported
  • the author acknowledges the research and ideas of others
  • the document does not serve propaganda, sales, advocacy, or promotional purposes
  • the information addresses one or more aspects of your topic
  • For detailed evaluation guidelines, refer to Evaluating Websites.

Step 7: Write your Paper and Document your Resources

You are now ready to write your paper. Remember to rephrase ideas in your own words and document all sources that you use. The following sources can help you as you finish your assignment: