For reference on when to start your paper and how to choose a topic, see the following post from last week: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/what-should-i-write-about/
Research can be an arduous, time-consuming thing, but it can also be a fascinating process if you’ve chosen a topic you are interested in. Assuming you have already learned a bit about research and how it works, I’d like to take the opportunity to help guide you through the process by digging a little deeper and addressing the following:
- Why we research
- How to choose sources
- How to read sources for information you need
A Research Scenario…
Imagine you are trying to prove to your skeptical friend, James, that Americans did land on the moon in 1969. What sources would you gather to prove your side?
You might start off quoting a NASA document, but then James argues that they are telling you what they think you should know. So you have to dig deeper. You find a scholarly article that addresses the conspiracy theories. You find a book on the life of Neil Armstrong. You find another book on the science behind space travel. Each time, James refutes it with another source, but this only makes you take your research further, until you and James are in a back-and-forth discussion, each backed up by your sources.
We Are All Researchers
I used this silly illustration to show that research isn’t an arbitrary, boring task for scholars that you have to imitate while in school but never use again. We research all the time! We read product reviews to judge which brand to buy, we research why we woke up with a sore throat or which restaurants we should go to on vacation. Research, especially with our easy access to Google, is a part of our every day lives.
A Worthy Opponent
In the illustration above, you are researching something with the intent of proving a point. This is what you most likely be doing in academic research. To prove a point, you need a “James” to remind you that you are not the only one who holds your opinion. Finding a source that opposes your argument will help you know which points need more evidence, that author becoming the “antagonist” to your paper that gives you, the protagonist, something to push against. That antagonist can also represent your readers without you having to argue against the readers themselves. They are the ones giving you momentum and making you question every point you are making so that you can back it up with more evidence.
An Ongoing Conversation
Thinking about research as discovering an ongoing conversation among scholars about your topic—and thinking of your paper as a contribution to that dialogue—can help you as you search for sources. Remember that researching is a part of the brainstorming process. While you may have already chosen a topic and even written a draft of your thesis, research will help you dig deeper and develop your ideas.
Choosing a source
When choosing a source, think about your audience. Most often, it is best to think of your audience as someone like James—a skeptic with a high expectation for academic evidence. That means your evidence needs to come from academic, scholarly sources. WKU’s library website offers many options for finding resources. For more information, see here: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/understanding-your-wku-libraries-and-that-looming-research-project/
Sometimes, however, you will need to look at a book, such as a biography, or even a news article. While most of your papers will require academic sources, don’t think this is the only answer. Sources can be anything from personal interviews to documentaries to Twitter feeds. It all depends on your audience, your topic, and your argument.
The main thing to ask yourself is, “What do I need to know, and how do I found out?”
Reading the Source
There are many ways to make sure a source will be useful to you before you read the entire thing. You can read the abstract to see what the paper is arguing, read the first page and look for its thesis, or glance through the article, looking for topic sentences and finally the conclusion.
If you are able to copy and paste the article into a word document, you can highlight or bold the sections you find useful. You can also use “ctrl F” to find certain words or phrases.
Write a brief summary about the article. This will not only help you get an idea of what the paper is about, but it will also help you later when you address the article in your own paper. You will need to know clearly what the article’s stance is, or what information they are sharing.
Also, while you are reading, you can take note of certain quotes or ideas you think might be used for or against your argument. Save these and take note of the page number. Also make sure you copy and paste the citation, if given, the url, or—for books—any information you will use to cite it later.
Compiling Your Sources
Once you’ve read through several sources, taken notes, and written summaries, you can compile them as you choose. I like to organize my notes into categories based on the points I want to make. I simply copy and paste my notes into the order I want them to go and give them appropriate title sections.
Dig deep. If a source references another source that seems interesting, see if you can find it. If you can find a primary source—such as a historic document or interview, etc.—this is especially useful. Remember, this is all part of the writing process. The more you do before you actually write your paper, the easier it will be to get your ideas down later.
Keep an eye out for next week’s post on writing a thesis!