Pre Step: Know the Characteristics of a Research Paper and the Research Process
The Sunapee Middle School sample research paper, completed by a Sunapee seventh-grader, can be used to learn about the basic characteristics of a research paper. See Step 10 (below) for additional sample papers, including a high school paper.
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Video on Research Paper Characteristics | Slides on Research Paper Characteristics
Step 1: Use Basic Information Sources to Understand Your Topic
Before you can decide on a specific topic and begin to ask research questions about your topic, you must first establish a general understanding of the broad subject area you are interested in. If, for example, you wanted to research a specific aspect of the American Revolution, you would first need to acquire a basic understanding of the overall revolutionary period. The best way to accomplish this is by reading overviews in reference books such as textbooks, regular encyclopedias (e.g. Britannica), or subject-specific encyclopedias (e.g. Encyclopedia of American History). Websites such as Wikipedia can also be useful for finding a topic overview. These types of general information sources are good starting points because they provide understandable background information on broad subjects. After acquiring an understanding of your overall subject, you will then be ready to choose a specific research topic and begin to ask focus questions to guide your research.
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Video on Completing Background Reading | No slides for this step
Complete Topic Proposal (Step 1)
Step 2: Create a Workable Topic
An easy way to do this is to develop a topic in the form of a question. For example, if your area of interest is the causes of the American Revolution, then your primary research question might be, “What was the most important cause of the American Revolution?” Creating a research question tends to reduce the scope of your research. This is important because size matters. If your topic is too big, you won’t be able to adequately handle it in a five- or ten-page research paper. Once you have chosen your primary research question, your next task is to develop secondary focus questions to guide your research. For example, if your research paper’s goal is to identify and explain the most important cause of the American Revolution, then the following secondary focus questions might be researched:
- Focus question #1: Which British economic policy caused the greatest hardship for colonial Americans?
- Focus question #2: Which British political policy caused the most wide-spread outrage among colonial Americans?
- Focus question #3: What other things, such as European Enlightenment ideas, made revolution likely?
Step 3: Plan on Using Different Types of Information Sources
You should use a variety of sources when researching. Also, as explained in Step 5, you should limit your use of websites and spend most of your time looking at books, reference books, and periodicals.
- Books: Most nonfiction books are written by experts and focus on a particular subject. Though they are sometimes updated, they are generally published once. Books tend to provide detailed information on a topic.
- Reference Books: Reference books generally contain a series of articles on a variety of subjects. An example of a reference book is a regular or subject-specific encyclopedia (see Step 1 above). Often the articles within reference books are written by different authors with a particular expertise. The information in reference books tends to be more general than the information found in books. For this reason, reference books are a good starting point for research.
- Periodicals: Periodicals are information sources that get published at regular intervals, or periodically (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly). Newspapers, magazines, and professional journals are periodicals. Generally speaking, professional writers write for newspapers and magazines, while scholars write for professional journals. Professional journal articles tend to be difficult to read and are recommended as information sources for juniors and seniors only. Examples of professional journals include the Journal of American History and the Journal of Athletic Training.
Questions (Step 3)
Step 4: Create Search Terms
In order to find information sources on your topic, you first need to develop a list of keywords (search terms) that you can use to effectively search the library’s book catalog, sometimes called OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog), and the library’s databases. (Databases are collections of information (e.g. magazine articles and ebooks) that can be searched.) These keywords should be the most important words or phrases associated with your topic–the ones that best describe what you are looking for. It is essential to search OPACs and databases differently than you search Google or any other search engine. Simply typing in a question (e.g. “What was the most important cause of the American Revolution?”) will typically not work when searching a database. Database and OPAC searching sometimes requires considerable time and effort. It is often necessary to repeatedly modify search strategies in order to find relevant information sources.
Create Search Terms (Step 4)
Step 5: Search for Information
Once you have created your list of keywords, you are ready to begin searching for information within the library’s databases. As explained in Steps 3 and 4, when you do research and write papers, teachers generally expect you to use books and periodicals, rather than just websites. Websites, in fact, are sometimes considered unacceptable by teachers. Although websites can be useful sources of information, they are part of the free web and therefore differ significantly from books and periodicals. Unlike books and periodicals, most websites never undergo editing. That is, an expert never checks the information before it gets published. A research paper that was created exclusively from free-web information therefore runs a distinct risk of being inaccurate. Because information from books and periodicals is considered to be more reliable, it is essential to search the library’s catalog and online databases when doing research.
- Find book sources: Use the online card catalog (OPAC) for locating books in the library. You can also access book sources from some of our databases, such as Questia, Gale Virtual Reference Library, and Biography In Context.
- Find periodical sources: Use our databases, such as Questia or EBSCOhost’s Masterfile Premier, for locating magazine and newspaper articles. See an overview of the library’s databases here.
- Check reliability of Internet sources: Because free-web content can be extremely inaccurate, it’s a good idea to evaluate it for reliability.
- Keep track of your sources: When you find helpful information, identify the source of the information. As you gather sources, it is essential that you keep a list of each source’s permalink. See examples for assistance with this. Ultimately, any book, website, periodical, or other type of information source that you plan on using to write your research paper must be listed in your works cited page.
Videos & Slides
Video on EBSCOhost | Video on Gale (GVRL & Biography) | Video on Questia | Videos on Website Evaluation | Slide on Search Strategies | Interactive Rubric for Website Evaluation | Websites Evaluated | Quick Review on Where to Search | Use Permalinks for Tracking Database Articles
Identify Your Information Sources (Step 5)
Step 6: Organize Your Sources Before Taking Notes
Before starting to take notes, be sure to enter your information sources into your EasyBib account. This will help you stay organized as you write and cite sources in your research paper. EasyBib is an online citation tool that allows users to accurately create and save works cited entries and internal citations. Students should register with EasyBib by using their school email address.
Complete Your EasyBib Works Cited (Step 6)
Step 7: Take Notes In Order to Cite Your Sources and Avoid Plagiarism
All writers must cite their sources. In other words, as you write your paper you must give original authors credit for ideas and phrasing. If you were to portray their ideas or phrasing as your own, you would be committing academic dishonesty. It would be plagiarism. It’s essential, therefore, to take accurate notes from your information sources. Most teachers will expect you to do this on Focus Area or Focus Question Information Sheets. FQI sheets will help you keep everything organized. When it’s time to start writing, you’ll be able to use your Focus Question Information Sheets to sequence and assemble your paper. Here’s an example of note taking completed on a Focus Question Information Sheet. Students should know that SMHS teachers use Turnitin when they evaluate and grade research papers. Turnitin is a plagiarism detection service which scans student work and compares it to writing found in book, periodical, and web sources, as well as student papers previously submitted to Turnitin. The Turnitin service generates reports which contain a similarity score. These scores show how closely a paper matches different information sources and other papers submitted to the Turnitin service. Here is one page of a sample Turnitin report.
Videos & Slides
Video on Research Paper Notes | Video on Internal Citations | Video on EasyBib: Creating In-text or Parenthetical Citations | Video on Paraphrasing and Quoting | Sample In-Text Citations | Slides on Avoiding Plagiarism
Step 8: Establish Your Thesis and Outline Your Paper
Establishing a thesis statement should occur before outlining the paper. (See a sample completed outline.) Your thesis is your main argument, around which your paper will stay focused. Think of it as a one-sentence answer to your primary focus question. If your research paper was about identifying and explaining the most important cause of the American Revolution, then a thesis statement might read this way: “Although there were many causes of the American Revolution, more than anything else the Intolerable Acts caused Americans to unite and revolt.”
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Video on Thesis Statement | No slides for this step
Thesis & Outline (Step 8)
Step 9: Begin Writing Your Research Paper
Once your thesis has been established and your outline has been completed, it’s time to begin writing your paper. All papers should start with a quality introductory paragraph. See a sample introductory paragraph and another one.
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Video on a Sample Introduction | No slides for this step
Write Your Introductory Paragraph (Step 9)
Step 10: Finish Writing and Properly Format Your Research Paper
Following the introductory paragraph, you’ll want to write informative body paragraphs that begin with clear topic sentences. All topic sentences and body paragraph information must support your thesis. As you write you’ll also want to properly format your paper to comply with MLA style guidelines. The following sample MLA research papers illustrate how a final paper should read and what a final paper should look like. You should choose one and read it in its entirety, concentrating on the academic writing style, the MLA formatting, and the comprehensive nature of source documentation. For a list of research paper characteristics, view these slides. Also, see Mrs. Gosselin’s MLA formatting checklist.
Post Step: Evaluate Your Work
Once you’ve finished your research and writing, evaluate your work and review the steps used in completing your paper. Unless you’re out of time and your due date is upon you, consider addressing any shortcomings in your work. Review your work using the SMHS Research Paper Rubric. Now give yourself a pat on the back for following these important steps and wrapping things up. Best of luck on your grade.
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