Start your research early! Not only will you have sufficient time to read the resources, you will be able to "beat the rush" and obtain the best resources. If you start early, you will avoid having to recall books and wait until the borrowed books are returned. If you're writing a first-year English essay, you probably won't be expected to use secondary resources. That means you'll have to rely on your own understanding of the text and your professor's lectures, and you probably won't need to do Steps 1 and 2 below. Nevertheless, you should still read through all the steps and see which ones might be useful.
1. Locate sources of information.
When you did your preliminary research, reviewing your course textbook(s). You may have discovered that your text cites some sources relevant to your topic. If you look up these sources they in turn might lead you to other relevant resources. You should also check the University Library Homepage for access to the library's catalogue, journals and journal articles, databases, subject pages, and other helpful resources. The reference desk staff in the Main Library (Murray Library) are friendly and helpful if you need help getting started.
2. Skim the sources and decide which are worth reading carefully.
Once you've located possible sources, review them to determine their usefulness. Ask yourself:
- Is this information related to my topic?
- Is this source appropriate to my current level of understanding? (As you learn more about the topic, you will be able to understand more complex material.)
- Is the source reliable? Is the writer educated in this subject? Is the publisher reputable? (University publications, academic publications, and professional journals will probably be reputable. Nevertheless, you want to ensure that the publisher is legitimate.)
If the information contradicts other information, make a note of it. If you think the source is reliable, you may wish to include this information in your paper. Learning to identify and refute contradictory evidence is an extremely useful skill.
Note: Commercial websites such as SparkNotes.com are not considered credible or reliable sources of information in a formal academic paper.
3. Document your sources.
Once you've decided the source is worth a second look, be sure to record the author, year, title, place of publication, and publisher (edition number, editor, and page numbers if applicable). If you used the Internet for research, be certain to record the source of the information-the URL and the date the page was accessed, as well as any other information available, such as the name of the webpage.
Some people use index cards to record this information, while others record this information in a computer file. This is very important! If you fail to document the sources of your information, you may be accused of plagiarism (copying the work of others). As well as being unethical, plagiarism can result in disciplinary measures.
There are at least three different methods of documenting material, the Modern Language Association (MLA), often used for English and other humanities classes; the American Psychological Association (APA), often used for psychology and other social sciences; and the Chicago Manual of Style, which is sometimes used in the natural sciences. Be sure to consult the style guide of the citation method that you are required to use.
You have the choice of paraphrasing or summarizing this information in your own words or quoting the author's specific words. The steps involved in paraphrasing are:
- Reading the paragraph
- Asking yourself, "What were the main idea and details in this paragraph?"
- Putting the main idea and details in your own words
- Re-reading the paragraph to make sure the information is accurate.
A good paraphrase must:
- contain a complete thought (subject and verb)
- be completely accurate
- make sense
- contain useful information
- be written in your own words
If you are paraphrasing a new idea, be sure to include the author and year with the paraphrase. If the idea is one you have read before, add the reference to your earlier paraphrase. When you use this idea in your paper, you will list all the references. The following excerpt uses the APA format to indicate multiple authors: Research studies have found that regular exercise improves concentration (Jackson, Roach, & Jones, 1998; Sanderson & Smith, 1995; Thomas, 1992).
Sometimes, especially in literature, an author expresses an idea so clearly or powerfully that you want to use his or her exact words. However, you must ensure that your writing incorporates the quotation into a complete sentence. Often, especially in literature, you will have to demonstrate your understanding of the quotation by explaining the relevance or importance of the quotation. Never use quotations as a substitute for your own writing and never use a quotation if you don't understand it. Your professor wants to see if you understand the material and if you can do research and present your information coherently.
If you are using direct quotations, you need to indicate that it is an exact quotation by placing quotation marks around the author's exact words. If you omit any words, indicate that words are omitted by using an ellipsis ( . . . ). Be very careful not to take the quotation out of context or misrepresent the author's meaning. Depending on the citation style you are required to use you may include the author's last name, year of publication, and the page number for any direct quotation. The following is an example of a short quotation (less than four lines) in a paper that uses the APA method of documentation: For example, Sattler (1992) stated that "rapport is essential in individual testing" (p. 212).
If the author's name is clear from your writing, as in the example above, you don't need to repeat it within the parenthesis following the quotation. If it's not clear, the author, year, and page number will be included within the parenthesis: Because "rapport is essential in individual testing" (Sattler, 1992, p. 212), the first phase of an assessment is to establish rapport. Longer quotations over four lines are indented and do not have quotation marks.
4. Review, expand, and/or revise your outline.
As you read, revisit your outline often. You will find that some areas require more research than others. Sometimes you discover that you have enough material for your paper before you've completed half the research you'd planned to do! Comparing your research with your outline helps keep your research in line with the paper's requirements.
Also, start writing early. Try to explain the ideas in your own words. Explore your own ideas and insights through writing. Even if you don't use this preliminary writing, you will benefit from learning to express yourself in writing. Sometimes writing can help you clarify your ideas. Certainly it will help you understand the information.