Monthly Archives: October 2008

The Research Process: Step 3.5

Getting Organized


At this point, let’s take a deep breath and review what you’ve done:

·         Chosen a topic

·         Found some sources

So far, so good.

Now might be a good time to take a few minutes and get organized.

People work on research papers in different ways, and you need to find the way that works best for you. Unfortunately, students often don’t have any sense of how to work on a research paper and just scurry through and then use the same ineffective manner over and over again.

Today, I’m going to tell you some things that have helped me.  I hope it will provide a starting point for you. Take what you need and discard the rest.

I have one big problem when it comes to research:  Procrastination!

I’m not sure I’ll totally cure procrastination, but one thing that has helped is to make a schedule and put it on my calendar. I use my Outlook calendar on my computer, so on certain days things pop up on my screen as reminders. That way, I can keep up (or at least be reminded of how far behind I am).

Here are some tips that I’ve found to be helpful when scheduling my work for a research paper:

·         Start from the due date and work backwards.  If the paper is due on December 15, my deadlines might look like this:

o   December 10—final editing (If you type your paper until the end or have someone else do it, then you will need to give more time for this step.)

o   November 30—have the final rough draft done.

o   October 30—have sources for paper. (This is especially important for me. I can do research forever. It feels like I’m being productive but it is often a smokescreen, not forcing me to go on to the next important stage: writing the paper.)

o   September 30—have topic for paper

·         Assume the worst will happen every step of the way. Now this may seem pessimistic, but it really helps when making certain that your paper is turned in on time. If you plan for the fact that the library might not have the sources you need and will need to get through interlibrary loan, then if that happens, you’re prepared. If you give yourself a week before the paper is due to have the final draft ready, then if something happens to your computer and you have to type it all again, then it will be an annoyance, but not an emergency.

Other helpful tools:

·         Write a rough-draft essay about your topic. This has been very helpful to me. I write a basic essay at the beginning of the process with my basic thesis and my supporting reasons. This step has several advantages:

o   I see if I actually have something to say on the topic.

o   Later on, it makes it easier to tell my own opinions from those stated in my sources.

o   It helps me know what kind of source material I’m looking for. For example, if I’m writing my essay on obesity and I see that my major points deal with psychological effects instead of physical ones, then I will focus on those aspects in my sources.

·         Have a method for keeping source material sorted.  In the olden times, before computers, students were often required to keep index cards for their sources and notes. Now students print out articles and copy book pages. But they often end up with mass quantities of print-outs, making it hard to keep up with everything. Here are some tips that might help:

o   When you copy an article or before you turn a source book back in, make sure that you have all the information you need for the works cited entry.   I also recommend writing the information down in MLA order; that way, when you’re ready to do your works cited page, everything is correct. I have also just kept a running Works-cited page, putting it in order on the last page as I go. If I end up not using a source, it’s easy enough to delete the entry.

o   Clearly mark your sources. In larger papers, you might want to have different folders for each area. But you can also use different highlighter colors for each area. For example, let’s say that you want to discuss three psychological effects of obesity.  When you come across information that backs up effect 1, mark it in pink.  Effect 2 might be yellow. And so on. (You can also use different-sticky notes.) Just don’t overdo where you have every page marked.

Add your own comments about what keeps you organized during the research process!  

Finding Sources: Articles

The Research Process

Finding Articles

We are spending quite a few days on step 3: finding sources since good source material really is at the heart of the effective research paper. Today, we’ll look at finding articles. (Once again, if you are not familiar with the John  E. Mayfield library, this would be a good time to go through the online orientation.)

When pressed, some students admit that they prefer books when doing the research paper because the whole database thing just makes them confused. They don’t know how to navigate all those weird-sounding terms, like EBSCO and Wilson Web. But don’t fear. It’s not as strange as it seems, and the databases are structured to help you at every turn.

Plus, articles are a very important part of the research process. Articles tend to be more timely than books. Articles deal with more specific issues. And it is through journal articles that much academic discussion takes place.

Many professors prefer that article sources come from scholarly journals.  I linked to a tutorial in an earlier post, but for those of you just joining in, here it is again.

 Now let’s look at the John E. Mayfield Library databases. First, don’t worry about the names.  The categories are much more important here. The general topic ones are just that. They cover a multitude of subjects and are often the best place to start. Which one?

A lot depends on personal opinion. Some people used TEL when they were in high school, so they like to start with that one. I like EBSCO, because its result list provides summaries, which can be very helpful.

For some other topics, here are some guidelines:

Controversial Topics

·         SIRS

·         Facts on File

·         Points of View Reference Center


·         Literature Resource Center

·         JSTOR

·         AcademicSearchPremier in EBSCOHost

·         Academic OneFile in TEL

·         Omnifile Full Text in Wilson Web



·         Omnifile Full Text in Wilson Web

·         JSTOR

·         AcademicSearchPremier in EBSCOHost

·         Academic OneFile in TEL

·         The New York Times (articles  back to 1851)

·         Chicago Tribune Historical Archive (articles back to the 1860s)

·         Facts on File: Choose Issues and Controversies in American History


If you ever have trouble finding an article, stop by the reference desk for help or email the library.

The Research Process: Going to the Library

Finding Books

At this point in the research process, you know the following:

·         What is expected of you in the assignment

·         Your research question.

·         An overview of the topic.

·         And the types of sources you’ll need.

So now let’s go to the library and get those sources! (If you have not visited the NSCC Library before, this would be good time to use the online orientation to become familiar with what’s available.)

At this point, you are looking for two types of sources: books and articles.

Today, we’ll talk about books.

As I mentioned in my last post, you want to make sure that any source is reliable, current, and authoritative.

The main advantage of using books is that the information is often more in-depth.

However, there are some disadvantages. Because you have limited time, you may not be able to read  several  books for your paper. You may rely too heavily on just one book  and end up writing a book report instead of a research paper.

Locations of books in the John E. Mayfield Library:

1.       Stacks. These are books that can be physically picked up and carried out of the library. You can find them by a search in the library catalog. Most books can be checked out for four weeks and may be renewed once.

2.       NetLibrary. These are books that can be read online. You can find them by searching the regular library catalog or search NetLibrary alone. To be able to use NetLibrary off campus, you will need to create your account while on campus. It only takes a few minutes.

3.       Safari Technical Books. These are mainly books on computers and programs. Like most libraries, the John E. Mayfield Library now subscribes to an online service since technical books tend to become outdated very quickly.  When off-campus, you will be prompted for a user name and password. These will be your “A” and pin numbers.



The Research Process: Step 3

Finding Sources

Students often wonder about the purpose of research papers. After all, most students don’t particularly like writing them, and, if professors are to be believed, most teachers don’t like grading them. So why go through all the agony?

Well, as old-fashioned as it might sound, doing research is good for you! Almost every job will require you to be able to take new information and combine it with what you know to improve processes and systems. Whether it’s done in a formal research paper or not, the research process will be part of your life.

When will you need to do research? The opportunities are endless:
• Buying a car.
• Choosing a major.
• Deciding on a health-care plan.
• Voting for a candidate.

Let’s take the first example: buying a car. You’re thinking of getting a used car and your local dealership has two nice red cars with about the same number of miles on the lot: a Honda and a Chevy. How do you decide? Well, you do some research:
• Ask friends who own Hondas or Chevys.
• Ask some mechanics about the types of problems those cars have.
• Check Consumer Reports or other magazines that deal with car and consumer issues to see which car has gotten a better rating.

Taking all the information you gathered, you are then in a better position to make an informed decision about which cherry-red car will be gracing your driveway.

Now, let’s try an academic example:
You’ve been assigned a paper on whether nature or nurture is the primary factor in determining human personality. As I mentioned in the last post, you might want to check an encyclopedia or two to ensure that you know what the terms mean. Then you need to get some sources. What are the best sources for such a paper?

Well, one thing you could do is round up a bunch of infants and conduct experiments on them. But that does take up a lot of time. Plus, there are ethical issues. And parents often balk at giving up their children for college students’ scientific experiments.

But who does experiments? Psychologists! And when they do them, how do they report their findings? In academic journals! And where do you find journals? In your library!

Despite where you find your sources, they should have some common characteristics:
• Authority. Is the source considered an expert in the field? Is there some reason to believe him or her? (This is important. In the world of the Internet, where anyone can post comments and be Googled, authority is more relevant than ever!)
• Relevance. There should be a direct connection to your research. Sometimes students, in an effort to make sure they have enough sources in their papers, simply add quotations that have little connection to the topic at hand. Make sure that each source backs up a point. Also, check the publication date; in some fields, such as information technology, materials can become out of date very quickly (2-3 years may make a source a dinosaur in some fields).
• Reliability. Just as you may go to the same mechanic over and over because you know he’s trustworthy and does good work, the same is true of sources.
Click here for a more in-depth look at evaluating sources. And if you ever need help with choosing sources, stop by the library. Or email me, your Jolly Librarian!

The Research Process: Step 2

Choose a Topic

Choosing a topic for your research paper can be compared to choosing a spouse. Choose badly and you’ve got weeks or months of unhappy times on your hands! Fortunately, a topic can be changed a little more easily. Still, it makes sense to choose wisely at the beginning.

What are some tips in choosing a good research paper topic? Well, people disagree, but here is what I’ve found useful in the decades that I’ve been writing research papers:

·         Find something that interests you. Even in courses where the instructor chooses the topic, you often have enough room to find an angle that resonates with you personally.

·         Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The topic, “The Civil War” is not going to be covered well in a 5-6 page paper. More than likely, you’ll end up with a report that comes from a reference work (Which can lead to plagiarism!). Narrow your focus, so you can cover a subject well in the pages assigned.

·         Choose a topic that is significant. For most college papers, you want to choose something that has ramifications beyond the personal. For example, you may have strong feelings about why a ferret is a cuddlier pet than a kitten. But it’s probably not going to win over your instructor. Since in America, we are free to have either as pets, this is a topic that probably doesn’t warrant much discussion. (Warning here! Always go with your instructor’s guidelines. If she loves the ferret vs. kitten topic, then go for it.)


For most people, narrowing the topic is the hardest part. A research paper sounds so overwhelming that many students feel that the only way they’re going to be able to fill so many pages is to pick as broad a topic as possible. But remember, your goal is not to be broad and shallow, but narrow and deep.


For example, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, which was about 250 pages long, I had to go through a progression of narrowing down the topic. I started with my specialty: Victorian women writers.

                Victorian women writers

                                George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

                                                Female characters in the works of those authors

                                                                Female characters that have paying jobs in those works


Let’s try another example:

                Cell Phones

                                Banning of Cell Phones

                                                Banning of Using Cell Phones While Driving

                                                                Banning Teen Drivers from Using Cell Phones While Driving


This might be a good time to delve into some encyclopedias to get some background information and to discover some of the current controversies in the field. This is where your good friend, Wikipedia, can come in handy. Another good location for some subject dictionaries is the NSCC library website. (If you’re off campus, you’ll need your “A” and “pin” numbers to access these books.)


There is another way that a topic can be like a marriage. After you’ve chosen it and worked on it awhile, you may think you would be better off with a different topic. While sometimes, this may be the best thing, often it really isn’t. At some point, you’ll have to make a commitment and go with it.


The Research Process: Step 1

Students often get so overwhelmed when assigned with a research project that they behave like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, running around in all directions without making any real progress.

It’s important to remember that any research project is really just a series of steps. If you break it down into small, concrete steps, it will be much easier. Now, I’m not saying a research paper will ever be totally easy or fun for that matter, but it will be doable.

So what’s the first step?

·         Take a deep breath, relax, and look carefully at the assignment. Make sure you completely understand all the requirements. Be sure you can answer all of the following questions:

o   When is the due date? Are there interim due dates involved? (articles turned in, rough drafts, etc.)

o   What are the page or word requirements?

o   What is the format? (MLA, APA, etc)

o   How many sources are required?

o   What kinds of sources are required? For example, should you use popular or scholarly periodicals?

o   What exactly are you being asked to do? There are many options. Here are a few common assignment types:

§  Comparison/Contrast. Show how two ideas are alike and different, and then show which is preferable.

§  Analyze. Investigate something to show its strengths and weaknesses.

§  Take a position on a controversial topic.

·         One of the key elements of the first step is to make sure you understand the assignment. If you don’t, talk to your instructor. Being clear about what is required at the beginning will save you much time and anguish later on.


Database of the Month: JSTOR


JSTOR is an archive of more than 1000 journals in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences fields. It is a favorite database for students and scholars in literature, history, art, photography, as well as the pure sciences. Journals in JSTOR have “moving walls” that define the time lag between the most current issue published and the content available in JSTOR. The majority of journals in the archive have moving walls of between 3 and 5 years.

The JSTOR database has some helpful tutorials that will guide you through various ways to search the database.

A personal note from the Jolly Librarian: “I couldn’t have made it through my doctoral program in English without JSTOR. It’s a wonderful resource.”


Why Does My Professor Hate Wikipedia?

Sometimes instructors seem so 20th-century. They won’t allow Wikipedia as a source.  But they’re not as wacky as they seem. There are good reasons for their decision, and they have to do with the nature of the research paper.

The Purpose of College-level Research:

In high school, you may have written some reports with the purpose of being introduced to a general topic. In college, the idea behind research is to delve deeply into a topic. You are not looking to write an overview, but to analyze and evaluate some smaller aspect of a topic. Encyclopedias, by their very nature, are meant to provide an overview; therefore, they are not appropriate for deeper research.

When is an encyclopedia useful?

All the time. Let’s say that you are assigned a paper on the nature-nurture controversy in psychology.  You don’t know much about the topic, so you grab your friendly encyclopedia to get an overview. You don’t use this as a source because it provides only background information. But you’re way ahead of where you were. You know the basics of the topic. You should have a sense of what aspect of the topic you want to cover. And if there are sources listed, you can start your research there.

So what are some good sources?

While your instructor will tell you what sources are acceptable, it is hard to go wrong with academic journals. They are written by professionals in the field and go through a review process. Go to the databases tab on the library homepage. As you do your search, limit it to academic journals (Databases will call it various things: Scholarly Journals, Peer-Reviewed). This will increase your odds of coming up with good-quality sources.