Writing a Research Paper

It is not farfetched to claim that most students shy away from the research paper. Research, by nature, entails tedious preparation, long hours of working, and meticulous writing. You need to know what you want to research on and have it narrowed down so you would not have to spend unnecessary time on matters that do not really help your research topic. You must know which sources you need and where to find them. An academic research paper usually takes up at least a week before it can be submitted, as your research topic may have aspects that can change throughout your study and may have to be accounted for in your paper. For those dedicated to their body of work, research is also done throughout one’s lifetime. Lastly, meticulous writing means that every claim you make in your research is backed up so well that it leaves little to no room for loopholes that are subject to questions and criticisms. Indeed, the fact that most students sigh in defeat and look heavenward for some sort of divine intervention on being tasked to do research is quite understandable.

But then again, research is a quintessential aspect of learning. Learning can only happen if you observe the world around you, read whatever your eyes come across, explore beyond your comfort zone, and discover what the universe has to offer—basically, actions that equate to research. Being assigned a research task means you are given the freedom to learn more about what you want to know. You are given independence to discover things you are passionate about.

Planning Your Research

A. Work with a familiar subject

Working with a familiar subject would be very convenient for you as a researcher. You know what your sources are and where to find them. You already have your own insights and assumptions before you even start your research. Plus, it might even exert much depth if you compare and contrast them with realizations after the research is done. Examples of familiar research subjects are your family, peers, neighborhood, school, city, or any other that you grew up or spent a significant amount of time with.

B. Try something new that piques your interest

If you want to try researching on something beyond your comfort zone, go for what your curiosity leads you to. Explore your hobbies; your favorite TV shows, movies, cartoons, anime, comics, and authors; what you want to major in when you go to higher institutions of learning; what you want to work on once you get a job.

C. Browse through available research materials

Once you have decided which narrowed down research topic you would like to work on, brainstorm on your available sources. What is the easiest and/ or most convenient source you can reach given the amount of time you have to work on your paper? Check your immediate surroundings, local and school libraries, how to contact experts on your topic, the Internet, the newspapers, and the magazines. Exhaust every possible means of getting sources as all these might eventually add more insights and depth to your final research paper.

II. Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources are very useful materials from which you can acquire first-hand information. Unlike books whose information is written by authors, primary sources give you material that you were able to experience and acquire. Some examples of primary sources are observations and interviews.

A. Observations

Observing your surroundings entails very little effort. All you have to do is open up your five senses to take note of everything that is happening around you. See, smell, taste, hear, feel—all these five senses have to be active when you decide on holding observations for your paper. You need to have a notebook with you to write down each and every detail you observe with regard to your research topic. Make it a point to write your observations descriptively and objectively. Do not include your personal biases, judgments, and presumptions as these will heavily affect your output and might lead to unwanted criticisms.

A single day of observation does not yield pertinent and sufficient data for your research. As a researcher, it is your duty to leave your research topic or subject and then return to it to see how it changes after a certain amount of time. Hence, bringing the notebook with you everywhere you go becomes handy. Write your observations on it every time you observe your topic or subject so that when it is already time for writing, you remember your observations conveniently.

One particular form of observation is called ethnography. According to the website of the Department of Sociology at Columbia University,”Ethnography—or field research—is a sociological method, that explores how people live and make sense of their lives with one another in particular places (“Ethnography,” http://sociology.columbia.edu/ethnography, Retrieved on 10 June 2015). If we look at its etymology, “ethno-” means “race, culture” and “-graphy” means to “study”; hence, the study of races and cultures. Ethnography is commonly done in the Humanities, particularly in the disciplines of Anthropology, Archaeology, and Sociology. By doing ethnography, a researcher is to live with his/her research subjects in their normal living environment for a significantly long period of time. It entails sleeping under the same roof, eating the same food, drinking the same beverage, and basically doing whatever your research subjects do on a regular basis. Even if the researcher is just dealing with one single case of living with a particular group people, notes have to be done in great detail. The ultimate aim of ethnography is to produce the most authentic data that can strongly support your claims in your research paper.

B. Interviews

If you decide to include interviews in your research paper, well, it is time to put your people skills to motion. Aside from mere observations, one other excellent primary source is people themselves. You get your desired information directly from the horse’s mouth. Here are some tips that you can follow when including interview in your research:

1. Planning and setting up the interview

Know which person/s you want to interview for your research and then contact him/her to schedule the interview. Keep in mind that you are asking a favor from the interviewee. You adjust to his/her schedule. When the day of the scheduled interview arrives, dress properly and do not be late to avoid wasting the interviewee’s time. Be prepared with your questions beforehand. Write them down so you will not forget them. While it is acceptable to come up with new and additional questions during the interview, make sure that the main and important ones that can help back up your claims in your research are not forgotten. Too much follow-up questions can potentially lengthen the time of the interview and might not even help in your paper.

2. Notetaking

Be ready with a pen, a paper, and a tape recorder. The tape recorder is for those little details that the interviewee would say that you might not be able to jot down. Do inform him/her that you would be using such a recorder just so he/she is aware. During the interview, do more listening than notetaking, anyway you already have a tape recorder. Focus more on how something is said more than what. Take note of how your interviewee dresses up, how he/she responds to questions, how he/she moves and gestures, so that your notes are not just mere words and scribbles—they are filled with texture that add color to the entire transcription of the interview.

III. Finding Sources in the Library

Secondary sources are those whose information offers second-hand data to you. While secondary sources may not be as authentic as primary sources, they can still help substantiate your research as they are data that have already been tried and tested multiple times before. Some examples of secondary sources are books, newspapers, magazines, theses, dissertations, and online articles.

A. Dewey Decimal System

What if you need to find a single book inside an enormous library? Do you browse through every single book and check if it is actually the one you are looking for? Do you enlist the help of your instructor and/or librarian to locate it? This is where the Dewey Decimal System comes in handy. 

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) or Dewey Decimal System is a library system used to organize books and other resource materials, to keep track of who borrows and returns them to the library, and to determine which books are new acquisitions and which books are in need of reprinting. The system is made up of ten classes, or subjects, to facilitate ease of organization of the books. 

While the DDC may not immediately point to you that single book you are trying to find, at the very least, the area you need to browse through is narrowed down enough for you to save time for other matters related to your research.

B. Encyclopedias and disciplinary guides

Once you have found a particular subject or class using the DDC, it is highly suggested that you consult first encyclopedias and disciplinary guides to get a good gist of your research topic. These kinds of books have very general information and offer the most important details of a given subject. These can serve as a springboard that can fling you to specialized areas of your research topic. Check out the bibliographies near the end of the book that can easily give you other sources with specific information.

C. Books, periodicals, newspapers, and magazines

Books, whether hardbound or softbound, are usually given a privileged position in the academe. Teachers and critics prefer more of books in your bibliography because books have been edited and peer-reviewed multiple times before it is published; hence, highly reputable and credible. Going beyond encyclopedias and disciplinary guides, make it a point that most of your “specialized” sources are published books to adhere to this tradition of research. 

Some books are called “seminal works,” meaning, they are somewhat considered as classics. They have held some semblance to truth, credibility, and reputability ever since their early days of publication until long after. Theory books, for example, while may be debunked, can still hold pertinent data to explain phenomena in this world that can potentially help you support your claims in your research. 

Unlike seminal works, the most up-to-date sources you can get are periodicals, newspapers, and magazines. They have the latest information on whatever topic you have chosen. Through these kinds of sources, you can get the latest technology and development of research topics in among their pages.

D. Finding sources through the Internet

There might be instances in which books and other printed materials are not enough or unavailable to you. The Internet can potentially save you from this problem.

E. Using Internet sources

A great number of students, for as long as they have the connection, would choose the Internet as a source of information in their research. It is quite understandable, really, as surfing through the World Wide Web entails only the action of clicking. It is very convenient and does not consume much time and effort. 

There is nothing wrong with consulting information from the Internet for as long as the websites you visit for research are credible and reliable. Not everything you see online is mistake-free or bias-free. Researchers are given the additional task of discerning whether what they see on their computer screens is reliable enough to be included in their research bibliographies. Below are some ways that you can follow to check if the sources you find on the Internet are alright:

1. View the URL

The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is like the address of a webpage on the Internet; you can access it anywhere you are in this world for as long as you have Internet connection. The URL’s purpose does not only lie in easy retrieval of a webpage, but also in providing you an idea of the website’s reliability. The last part of the URL, where you can see the .com, .org, .or edu, is called the top-level domain. Generally speaking, .com is usually used for commercial websites, .org for non-profit organizations, and .edu for educational institutions.

2. Question the author

Deeming something as reliable or not entails the use of critical thinking. Stumbling upon an online article that can potentially be relevant to your research, ask the necessary questions before citing or discarding the site. Who is the author? What is his/her background? What is his/her expertise? Which POV (point of view) was used; the first, second, or third? What is the author’s thesis statement for the entire article? Who else cites this author and/or his/her other works?

3. Detailed info, accuracy, and grammar

As a critical thinker, you must also question beyond the author. How much information is laid out in the online article? Is it as general as what you have found in encyclopedias and disciplinary guides? Or as detailed as specialized books which you were lead to from the bibliographies you found somewhere else? Are the information organized? Does the article contain the same information you can find in other sources, particularly in published books and journals? Do not forget to go back to the basics: How is the author’s language? Is his/her grammar acceptable?

4. Timeliness

relevant and up to date. If the publishing dates are not shown, compare and contrast the online article with other sources that you know had just been recently published. Some examples would be those found in newspapers, magazines, and journals.

IV. Making a Working Bibliography

As you go along on your research, keep a notebook or a set of notecards on which you can write your working bibliography. A working bibliography is a list of all the sources you have come across as you are doing your research. Take a book you found in the library as an example. On your notebook or notecard, jot down the title of the book, the author’s name, publishing house, and publishing year. If necessary, you can also include the chapters or pages that you would like to return to after quite some time. Do this for each and every source you have to facilitate ease of retrieval when necessary.

It must be noted, however, that a working bibliography is not necessarily the final bibliography (or Work Cited List in the MLA and References in the APA) that would appear in the final pages of your research paper. As was mentioned earlier, the ultimate purpose of a working bibliography is to make it easier for you as the researcher to go back to previously acquired sources when you keep on acquiring more. The final bibliography could have more sources cited or even less.