Papers: How to research

Ah, yes, research. This can quickly get long. It’s easy to spend way, way too much time researching a project. My thoughts are that you should try to move past this as fast as possible, get into actually writing instead of running around trying to find stuff to write about.

Have I said that already? Moving on…

Undergraduate work is not actual research, not really. I don’t know – maybe if you go to Harvard or something, but I doubt it. Undergrad work is pretty much just about combining old info in quasi-interesting ways, like how I just combined the pretentious word quasi with the decent word interesting. It’s about mixing and matching, not adding anything “primary” to the discussion.

In other words, this whole process is really about finding sources that will write your paper for you, so you don’t have to actually say anything yourself. Keep that in mind as you search.

Writing a supposedly academic paper, you’re basically going to be working with two types of sources: articles, like in peer reviewed journals, and books. The articles are great for making it look like you did a lot of research. The books are great for actually finding stuff to write about.

The best kind of sources are the ones that not only have information but also structure you can use. This particularly shows up in books, which is why I much prefer books over articles as sources. If you can find a chapter or a few paragraphs in a book that line up with your topic, you can copy/paste them into your paper, paraphrase them, cite them, and call them yours, kind of. But we’ll get to that later. 🙂

In articles, the best places to look are in the introductory paragraphs and in the conclusion. The introductions tell why the writers did their research and what they hoped to accomplish. That said, I usually start by reading the title of the article, followed by the abstract (if that’s available), and then I head straight for the conclusion. The conclusion will usually have the stuff you can actually use, the findings and the ideas for further research.

Realize that professors appreciate long bibliographies (those lists at the end showing all the sources you cited). As a result, it’s good to include a bunch of sources, even if you only cite each of them once throughout your entire paper. That’s where the articles come in handy.

If your professor asks for a specific number of sources, add at least three extras. In the actual paper, you can even include sources you don’t quote or paraphrase by writing something like, “For more information on this, see such and such.”

Even crazier, the sources don’t even have to directly relate to your topic – they can go off on some other tangent only somewhat related to your topic. Like if you’re writing about baseball, you could say, “For more on this as it relates to basketball…” Bam, you have extra sources in your paper. Sleazy, but yeah, it happens.

Okay, so where to find this stuff to begin with…

  • Your course textbooks are the first place to start. This doesn’t always work – it depends on your assignment, how your professor sets it up. Even if you’re not allowed to count your textbooks as sources, though, like in the minimum number of sources required, if you can pull content from them in chapter or paragraph format, you’re golden. Just add other peer reviewed articles or whatever to pad the source count.
  • Next, check your school’s library to see if they grant you access to any kind of online library of scholarly books and journals. If so, you can pull from that.
  • Amazon.com and their free first chapters for ebooks work well too. If you can work with mainstream books at all, books that have digital versions available, then you should be able to get access to at least the first chapter or so online. And those first few chapters, especially in academic writing, often outline some of the primary ideas in the book.
  • Wikipedia is great too. You can’t actually cite the site, but you most definitely can learn about your topic through its articles and then check the bibliographies at the end of the articles for sources you can cite. I’m a big fan of this. Actually, all of your sources for a research paper will probably have bibliographies, so check those for the info on other books and articles and then google them or search for them in your university’s online library to see if you can access them.
  • As a last ditch effort, you can actually hit up a library. I suggest leaving this as a last resort because it means adding extra time to your search. Going to the library, searching for the books, possibly ordering them from other libraries, waiting for them to arrive, dragging them back to you place, actually hunting through the books to find your info – it’s not ideal. You can’t copy/paste from a physical book either. But it’s there if you need it.

My strategy, as I find sources, is to copy/paste the bibliographic information for each source as I go, even if it only looks slightly promising. Like I said at the start, I want to gather the required number of sources as quickly as possible, even if I haven’t read them all or even really know which direction my paper will take. Once I have an overabundance of sources, especially if I have at least two quality book sources with over 500 words of solid info, I stop researching.

Don’t worry about understanding the sources. Don’t worry how you’ll use them so much either. Just make sure the titles fit your topic and that you have enough of them to meet your quota.

And move on to the next step.

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