Choosing A Topic
If your topic has been assigned, then one of the hardest parts of writing your research paper is done for you already. If it is not, here are some important things to consider:
- Select an area of study that really interests you - You will be more motivated to dig deeply into your research and your engagement with the topic will animate and inform the finished product.
- Take into account the amount of time you have to complete the project - If you must gather a lot of background information to acquaint yourself with the terminology and important concepts involved, make sure that you allow for this process. Do not expect to get everything you need "from the computer." Electronic reference tools, including the Internet, can be very useful and efficient, but it takes a lot of time to learn how to use and evaluate these resources. Keep in mind that some of the books or journals you need may be unavailable locally; requesting items on Interlibrary Loan can take several days.
- Topics that are very broad - e.g., Shakespeare's Comedies, Depictions of monarchy in Victorian Literature, Joyce's use of epic literature, etc., may capture your interest, but you may find yourself overwhelmed with too much material and it will be difficult to decide what to write about. Topics like these need to be broken down into more manageable parts.
- By the same token, avoid topics that are too narrow or of only local interest - These can be fascinating, but the material about them may be very difficult to track down and you may not find enough information in the amount of time that you have.
Developing A Research Strategy
- Determine what general fields or disciplines you need to explore in order to find material that relates to your research. Do not limit yourself to one field of study; it usually takes research in many different areas to provide broad coverage of almost any topic.
- Decide whether you want to focus on a popular or scholarly treatment of your subject. Popular sources include newspapers and magazines intended for a broad audience; scholarly sources include journals that are published with a very narrow readership in mind, usually academic or professional. In addition, you should decide whether or not you wish to deal only with current issues or you might determine that a historical perspective would be more practical. Sometimes a combination of the two works well.
- Identify the types of reference materials you will most likely need and seek help from a reference librarian in locating and using them:
- background information: subject encyclopedias, specialized dictionaries, bibliographies
- factual data: handbooks, almanacs, timelines, yearbooks
- biographical: a wide range of biographical sources is available, from Contemporary Authors to online full-text biographical databases
- primary sources: firsthand accounts of the subject, issue, or event - these include interviews, eyewitness accounts, research data, etc. Primary sources include newspapers, manuscripts, testimonies, research reports and some government documents
- secondary sources: commentary, articles about an event, issues, or reviews. Secondary sources include books, journal articles, and encyclopedia entries
Evaluating Your Sources
Examine your sources carefully using the following criteria:
Accuracy: As far as you can tell, is the information presented free of errors and omissions?
Authority: Who is the author? What are his/her credentials? Does the publisher have a respected reputation academically? A large publishing house or major university is a safe bet; but look more critically at documents found on web pages. Check carefully to see if the item is signed, copyrighted, dated, etc.
Objectivity: For factual information, check to ensure that it is free of bias and that statistical information is not so selective as to skew results.
Currency: How up-to-date is the information presented? Does the time frame covered meet your research needs?
Coverage: Is the author's treatment of the material broad or narrow? Are footnotes and references to additional reading provided?