What is good research?    (this document is still under construction, but here's what I have so far....)

Many students ask why they have to do research papers since someone has inevitably already undertaken the topic they are about to research.  There's a simple answer to this question, so here goes.  Students are asked to do research projects so that they can hone their research skills, not only in the academic disciplines, but in their lives after college.  One does not have to know everything about literature or mathematics to be seen as an expert, but it is critical that he or she know where to go to get information to fill in the gaps of their knowledge.  Students begin their college lives with few skills in research and they almost always start with a search of the Internet.  Bad idea.  Get to know your library and the print resources housed there.  Knowing how to dig up great information on a literary character will also help you when you go to buy your first car, a computer, a diamond engagement ring or a child car seat. So, simply stated, the college research project is practice for the research you will do later, both in the academy and in the "real world."

Well, the day has come.  You are expected to go to the library and begin looking for resources for your paper.  Where to start?  A few caveats (cautions) before you begin.

First, remember that just as you have a reputation amongst your friends and family, you will have a reputation in school.  Do you want to be known as someone who works hard, does thorough, honest work, and always looks for new ways to look at things?  If so, good.  Your research techniques and what you cite in a paper will show that either you have these good qualities or that you did sloppy work, were lazy in what you chose, and didn't verify information.  No one else will protect your academic integrity and credibility as well you you can.

Second, don't go to the Internet first.  There are so many spurious sources floating out in cyberspace that a student can easily get lost in the mess.  Start in the library and branch out to the Internet after you get a feel for your topic.

Third, if a fact seems too good to be true, it just might be.  Verify everything you find.  If you cannot find anything that backs up an author's claim, treat that claim with care.  Example:  if I poll all of my English 1101 students and ask them if they have ever had anything alcoholic to drink and 18 out of 22 students raise their hands, can I report that 81.8 or 82% of college students drink?  Perhaps.  If I just drop that fact out there with no other information, the number is misleading.  I could be teaching a class of 22 students who are all 30 years of age or older.  That, then, sheds quite a bit of light on my 82% figure, doesn't it?  On the other hand, my class may be made up of traditional college students, but many of them have had a sip of wine at church or at a holiday dinner with their families.  Does that make a difference?  That 82% figure, stated in the present tense (drinks) is very misleading without the whole story.  It seems that 82% of college have had alcohol at some point in their lives, but they are more than likely not the heavy drinkers the 82% unqualified number makes them appear.   I have seen books that stated that Shakespeare lived in the 18th century!  Really???  Wow, the Bard sure had a long life!  (Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616--the 16th and 17th centuries).  Sources will start to concur on certain facts, viewpoints, and controversies surrounding a given topic.  Pay attention to names, as they may appear in many places.  Chances are if you see  David Burns' name connected with new discoveries in photosynthesis in 10 of 12 sources, he is probably an expert on plant biology and may be a credible resource.

Fourth,  Stay away from general encyclopedias.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Stay away from general encyclopedias.  They are great for basic (very, very basic) information, but they are also riddled with errors and typos.  So does that mean that you should also avoid The Encyclopedia of Shakespearean Characters or The Encyclopedia of Human Anatomy?  No.  More than likely, these resources were written by experts and should contain valuable information.  However, use these resources as a first point of education, not as a cited source.  In general, papers that contain lots of citations from encyclopedias and dictionaries show one thing:  the researcher was lazy and didn't want to dig deeper into the topic.

Ok, now that you know what not to do, what should you do?  Where should you start?  Here are some simple answers.

Do you have a general idea of what you are looking for?  If so, start by doing a search in your college library for materials related to that topic.
    Next, go to WorldCat if you have it available to you.  WorldCat is a catalog of materials that are available everywhere--yes, everywhere.  You can always order materials via interlibrary loan if you find sources that will be helpful to you but they happen to be in California.  Look at the titles of the works that come up in WorldCat.  You might be able to narrow your topic down based on some of the works you see listed.  "Gun control" is a huge undertaking, but if you find yourself intrigued with works that discuss how to keep guns out of the hands of children, you have just narrowed your topic.
    Think outside of the topic, but not too far outside of it.  What if I am working on a paper that analyzes the character of Tom Sawyer?  I will look, of course, for materials that are directly related to Tom Sawyer.  What if I come upon a book called Critical Essays on Huckleberry Finn?  Should I cast this book aside?  Well, in this case, no.  I know that Tom Sawyer makes an appearance in Huckleberry Finn and I might get some very useful information about my frisky friend Tom from reading some of the essays in this book.
    Go to the library find the books that came up on your catalog search.  Pull the book down from the shelf, look in the index, look in the table of contents.   Does there appear to be any information regarding your topic in the book?  Look for a bibliography.  If the book seems like it might help you in your education on a topic, put it aside to check out from the library.  Look at the other books in the section.  Pull some of them down and look at the index and table of contents.  You would be surprised how much information you might get on a topic by simply going to the section of the library that houses materials on your topic.
    Several of the books you checked out have bibliographies.  So what?  Well, take a look at the bibliographies.  Are the same materials mentioned again and again in different books and articles?  If so, make it your business to get that book.  For instance, if I am doing some work on mythology and Medieval romances and I keep finding references to someone named James Frazer.  Frazer wrote a book called The Golden Bough.  Every source I find mentions Frazer.  Why?  Well, once I get the book I realize that Frazer's work set the foundation for many, many modern mythological studies.  The Golden Bough is considered by many scholars to be an authoritative text and it is essential to have a basic grounding in Frazer's work before one can proceed to other aspects of mythology.  Without consulting Frazer, I am ignoring a major part of my education on the topic I seek to discuss and, inevitably, my lack of knowledge will come screaming through any paper I might attempt on the topic.  It will appear that I am not merely ignorant on the finer points of mythology, but, by choosing to ignore a very important source, it is evident that I am lazy and careless.

Use the same process to find articles from scholarly journals, including going to the actual holdings and poring through the tables of contents of each volume of the particular journal.  Again, look for bibliographies.

What's the difference between scholarly articles and magazine articles?  This one's simple: MONEY.  A magazine depends upon advertisements and subscriptions for its existence.  Writers are paid to produce articles for publication.  Ask yourself if you would refuse to write something if it meant not getting a check for $5000.  That is not to say that all magazine articles are useless fluff.  It might be a magazine article that sparks your interest in a topic.  That is fine, but unless your topic is something that is VERY current, avoid using magazines as anything other than entertainment.

Scholarly journals are generally peer-reviewed before publication.  This means that a writer submits two or three copies of an article to the journal with nothing on the main body of the article that identifies him/her.  Experienced readers read and rate the article.  Sometimes an article is rejected outright because it adds nothing to the body of knowledge or it contains spurious and unsupported information.  Other times, recommendations are made for specific changes/improvements.  It takes at least 4 months and as long as 3 years for a scholar who has had his work accepted to actually see it in print.  Most journals do not pay for submissions.

You might be thinking to yourself that all you need to do is find 10 sources that support your point of view so that you can use quotes in your paper, right?

Wrong!  The purpose of research is, literally, to re-search.  Chances are that someone else has already taken on something similar to your topic.  What do you do?  Well, look for another angle.  Do you find after reading the stack of materials you got from the library that you find yourself disagreeing on some major point that is commonly held about your topic?  If so, examine that point of disagreement.  Do you have your facts right?  Have you misinterpreted anything?  If not, then you might have a very fruitful topic.

When you are doing your research, your thesis is still very much in a working stage.  Don't go into your research with a firm thesis because you will overlook potentially valuable resources.  It is enough to be looking for materials that concern Lancelot, but too narrow to be looking for materials that are concerned with Lancelot's adulterous relationship with Guinevere.  See the difference?  I might find something much more interesting to write about once I read some of my material.

Keep an open mind while doing research.  If something looks potentially useful, write down the information about it so you can go back to it if needed.  Some people keep very detailed notes; others dash down keywords and the source information.  There's no right way to keep up with your notes, but be careful to keep good records.  One of the worst feelings in the world is to remember that you came across a great source but you don't remember where it was and didn't write the information down.  Everyone has done this at least once while working on a project.  I did it when I was doing the preliminary research for my thesis and I never did re-find the source before my deadline.  2 years later,  I found the source  by accident and felt the embarrassment of my mistake all over again.  Thankfully, upon examination of the book I found that it wasn't really useful for the angle I took.  Phew!

You have no idea what you want to write your research paper on.  Don't despair.  There are many great exercises out there for generating topics.  One of the best is in Bruce Ballenger's  The Curious Researcher, published by Allyn and Bacon.  A variation on the topic generating exercise is to get a piece of paper and make 4 columns.  At the top of one, write "Interests".  Write "makes me mad" on the next; "I don't know a thing about" on the next; and finally, "If I could change ___ I would do ___" at the top of the last column.  Now spend at least 30 minutes filling in the columns.  Put the list away.  The next day, go back to your list and look at the things you wrote under each column.  Let's see:  I wrote "cutting down trees for yet another shopping mall" under "makes me mad."  Can I make a topic out of this?  Well, maybe.  What are the key words associated with that potential topic?  Development, building, deforestation, commerce.  Let's try deforestation.  Go to the library with your list and pull down The Library of Congress Subject Headings book.  It will be in the Reference section of the library.  The subject headings found in this book are the ones that all libraries use to catalogue their materials.  I turn to "deforestation" and see what other headings I might find.  Didn't find much?  Expand.  What is deforestation?  The removal of trees. Let's try trees.  Jackpot!  There are tons of headings.  Wait!  What if I find one that seems more interesting than deforestation, like "introduction of non-native species" ?  Looks like I might have found a topic!

Always ask yourself "what about it?" when you think you found a topic.  Put the topic into a sentence.  "I am going to write about the introduction of non-native plant species for my research paper."  "What about it?"  This forces you to answer the question.  " The introduction of non-native plant species in many areas of the country has led to the extinction of important native species."  "So what?"  "Because native plant species are going extinct, the creatures that depend upon them for survival have also gone extinct. Eventually the extinction of seemingly minor creatures could lead to extinction of major "capstone" species."   Perhaps there is a seed of a thesis in this series of responses.  Still, keep your mind open and your thesis flexible.  Now you're ready to do the main part of your research.


"I found a great deal of material published by the Nature Conservancy when I was doing my research.  Should I throw it away because it is biased?"

In a word, no.

What is a bias?  Is biased information always bad?  No.  All material is biased in some way.  Ask yourself what the author of any piece has to gain by your agreement with him/her.  Will you buy something?  Go somewhere?  Adhere to a particular political view?  Take up a sport/hobby/activity?  Maintain a bias against a certain person, group, company, organization, or affiliation?  Agree to the introduction of non-native plant species in your neighborhood?  Be enlightened?  Expand your knowledge of a given topic?  The possibilities are endless.  Just be sure you understand the author's purpose before you use his/her material in your paper.

Ballenger cites the NRA as an authority on gun control.  Who knows better what the NRA stands for than the NRA???  What if I tell my English students that I think all college students should be required to take 3 full years of English courses as undergraduates.  Is this a biased statement?  What if a Math professor tells the same students the same thing?  My point of view (as an English professor) is certainly biased--I love my subject and want everyone to feel the same way about it.  I could also have more nefarious purposes in mind, though.  What would the increase in students taking English courses do to my job security?  It would certainly improve.  Therefore, a statement about students being required to take more English courses may very well be considered biased coming from me.  What about the Math professor?    Let's see.  Professor Mathematics sees that students who take 3 years of English courses come into his courses prepared to work hard and seem to have an easier time in his upper level math courses.  He is also a dedicated professor who believes that education for education's sake is the reason students should attend college.  Is Prof. Math's point of view biased?  Does it look like he has anything to gain by making such a statement?  It appears that the only thing Prof. Math has to gain is a group of better students if they all take 3 years of English.  Certainly Prof. Math's point of view can be seen as much less biased than my point of view.

Let's think about the article you found for a minute.  If you go into your project knowing that one of the Nature Conservancy's main goals is species preservation, how can you be led astray?  Are you going to be told anything by that group that overturns their goals?  No, so use the material, just know that it is biased.  What about an article you find by someone who readily admits he is a stockholder in XYZ Corporation, which makes its money removing yellow pine trees from the forests in Georgia and replacing them with Bradford pear trees?  The article states that Bradford Pear trees are a great replacement for yellow pines because they grow quickly, are not susceptible to damage in ice storms, and cost 1/10th of what a single yellow pine costs.  Is this useful?  Perhaps.  Your research has revealed that 4 types of woodpecker (2 of which are on the endangered list) and 83 species of insects rely on the yellow pine for survival.  Go find the same information about the Bradford pears.  See how this would work?  You have to research yellow pines, Bradford pears, the four types of woodpecker, especially the 2 endangered ones, and perhaps 2 or 3 of the insect species in order to do a comparison.  Your notes might look like this:
Yellow Pine
                                              Bradford Pear
 Prickly backed green woodpecker (Endangered)  Giant anteater woodpecker (eats yellow spotted and large hardshell brown beetles)
Yellow beaked ladderback woodpecker (Endangered) Brown Striped woodpecker (eats large hardshell brown beetle)
Red headed blue wing woodpecker  Yellow spotted beetle  (eats the eggs of the purple wiggly worm)
Giant anteater woodpecker (eats yellow spotted and large hardshell brown beetles)
Purple wiggly worm (Prickly backed green woodpecker's main diet)
Large hardshell brown beetle (food source for many woodpeckers)
blue spotted butterfly larvae (main diet of the Yellow beaked ladderback)

What would a wise conclusion be?  It appears that indeed the Bradford Pear is NOT a viable replacement for yellow pines because the two endangered species of woodpecker have no good source available to them on or near the Bradford pear.  Also, it tells you about the motives of your author.  He wants you to agree with him so the yellow pines keep being removed and replaced with Bradford pears.  Why?  SO HE CAN KEEP MAKING MONEY!!!  So, do you throw the article away?  Not necessarily.  You might be able to use it to show that some groups are advocating the introduction of a non-native plant species, but you have found that their doing so is disastrous.

Make sure when you set up a comparison that you apply the SAME CRITERIA TO EACH SIDE.  What does that mean?  Well, in the illustration above, I asked myself "what woodpeckers depend on the yellow pine for survival?  What insects depend on the yellow pine?  Do any of the woodpeckers rely on the insects they find on the yellow pine?  Now ask the same questions for the Bradford pears.

To Be Continued....

Last updated12/18/02