This essay is written for the student who has never written a paper at the college or university level. Its purpose is to discuss what professors expect of you when they is critical thinking a level hard papers and other kinds of presentations.
It will not give you footnote models nor describe how to use the library or the internet because its purpose is really more fundamental than that. Some students come to college without ever having done research and have no idea what the process involves. The problem begins because a great deal of the work assigned in many secondary schools is focused on how to teach students to gather information. Making such judgments, however, is what good research requires. The research paper is very likely not what you think it is. Research is not combining a paragraph from the Encyclopedia Britannica and a paragraph from The Book of Knowledge with a slick pinch from Time. Nor is it research even if you carefully change each phrase and acknowledge the source.
This essay will discuss research from the more sophisticated perspective that recognizes the researcher’s obligation to contribute something original to the process. The most important single concept about doing research and presenting the results of that research in some way, as in a paper or a presentation, is really a very simple one: your finished product must have an idea, and the idea has to be your own. This does not mean that every piece of information and argument in your work has to be original. Once you have formulated a thesis about what you have learned through your research, you will realize that presenting it involves explaining how the ideas and information generated by others led you to that thesis. The specialists who have written about this problem generally resort to one of three explanations, but no one of these explanations seems wholly satisfactory. At this level you stop doing that. You take your work more seriously.
You do the most thorough research you can, taking care to find out, either as you go or through the assistance provided by your professors or the library staff, what sources of information and analysis are most critical to your research project. You work hard to understand the argument that is implicit in even the most apparently factual collection of information. If you are confident of the worth of your thesis, accurate and complete documentation becomes a matter of integrity of the highest kind. You will assume that people will check your references, not to see if you are honest about your obligations, but to judge the worth of your idea.
Here, now, are some very practical pieces of advice about the various stages of a research project. They illustrate how this way of thinking about research should be part of your thinking at every stage of the work. If the topic is not assigned to you, and sometimes even if it is, you should do some preliminary reading and then, on the basis of that, focus your topic. Do this very early on in the process of your research. This may be a stage in your research when the input of your professor or the bibliography of a textbook can make a crucial difference. When you cannot draw on such authorities to get you started, ask a reference librarian for assistance.
Require yourself, when you read, to try to state the thesis that is implicit in each of your sources. Ask, in each case, what point each of your sources is making and observe how the information and arguments in that source are marshaled to support that point. Making yourself do this is, by the way, good practice for the moment when you will formulate your own thesis. Attach names to arguments and data. Get into the habit of doing that in your own thinking and your note-taking.
Be guided and encouraged by this truth: the more confident you can be of the quality and thoroughness of your research, the more effectively you can present an idea that is your own. NOTE: These days, photocopying machines, computer printers, and the capacity to cut and paste online material into your own document can make taking notes the process of duplicating the work of others before you have really digested it. On the one hand, this is an enormous convenience. If you collect material for your research project by photocopying it or printing it, be sure each page of what you collect has the complete documentation you will need should you decide to cite the material.
If you do take notes by writing things down from the sources you consult, be scrupulous about putting all directly quoted material, even if only a key word or phrase, in quotation marks and noting the page on which it appears. If someone else’s words seem the best way to say something, be prepared to acknowledge that aptness by quotation marks. Keep careful track of exact bibliographical details, including page numbers, even of ideas and opinions that you are summarizing or paraphrasing. Remember, take yourself seriously enough to assume that at every point of your paper or presentation, your reader or audience is going to want to follow up on your research. Make sure you can provide the details that will make that follow-up possible. Cutting and pasting from an electronic database can cause problems.
It is easy to omit the elements of a proper citation. Collecting a printout of what you wish to use allows you to keep track of the context of the material you will use, and retyping it into a paper or report is an opportunity to focus on it in a way that can often prove very helpful to your own efforts to integrate the material into your own argument. Use your thesis to organize how you present your research. This means that you actually present the conclusion of your research at the beginning of your presentation.