The essence of writing a research paper is engaging critically with a particular scholarly debate and making an original intervention of some kind. Key to writing a top-quality research paper, therefore, is making sure that you draw upon and critically evaluate the right sources. This involves two stages:
Finding Credible Sources
The sources you use must, in the main, be recognized scholarly sources, principally journal articles, academic books, and book chapters. Other allowable, if less common, sources include (but are by no means limited to) government websites, reports published by NGOs, academic conference proceedings, and media pieces of special significance. This means that you must resist the urge to include newspaper and magazine articles, blog entries, and random internet sites unless absolutely necessary for some reason. Wikipedia must definitely not appear in your research paper. The key principle for determining whether or not something should be deemed a credible source is usually (though not always) whether or not that source has undergone some form of academic peer review. You might also consider whether or not the author of a particular text is a reputable scholar working within the Higher Education sector, rather than, say, an ideologue, a journalist, or a talking head. Remember, the intervention you are aiming to make must be a scholarly one, and to that end you must target scholarly sources.
The best place to start when looking for credible sources is your university library. Virtually all university libraries today offer physical and electronic access to an enormous range of scholarly resources. Start with the library’s search engine, and think very hard about the key terms you wish to search for. Be as narrow and specific as you can, otherwise you risk being inundated with thousands upon thousands of results, and finding your credible sources becomes like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most library search engines offer the possibility to refine your results by, for instance, books that are available in the university library and “peer-reviewed journal articles only.” Such filters are using for eliminating newspaper and magazine articles, which might otherwise also be thrown up. You can also usually filter results by “relevance” (how closely the item corresponds to the search terms) and by “date: newest first.” One useful tip is to begin by sorting by date and to read the most recent literature first. The reason for this is that the most recent literature will not only reflect debates that are ongoing, but it will also refer back to previous literature and give you a clear indication of what has already been said so that you do not necessarily have to read all the older literature yourself. Of course, searches by date should be accompanied by searches for relevance to make sure you are not missing a very relevant but older text, and the fact of starting with newer texts does not mean that older texts should not be read. It does mean that you will develop an overview of current debates more quickly, however.
Provided you have the relevant login details (normally your student ID and password), you should be able to download the vast majority of the electronic resources that appear in the search results from your university library. In practice, however, this is not always easy, especially if you do not have much experience with the process. Different university systems have different ways of accessing the texts that appear in the search results. Usually there is a link to “view online” or similar, which then takes you to database such as EBSCO Host or JStor, where you have to click again to access the text you want. Even when the text finally comes up, typically in pdf format, you still have to find a way of downloading it, and that will depend on the specific website to which you have been redirected by the database (e.g. an academic journal website). Other variants of this somewhat convoluted process are possible. The key point is, however, you should be able to access virtually every text that appears in your search results. Do not be put off by the practical challenges of doing so. Ask a librarian for help. It is important that you get hold of the right texts.
Another useful source for locating and accessing scholarly literature – though nowhere near as good as your university library – is Google Scholar. Sometimes you get lucky and authors have posted their articles in pdf format online somewhere (e.g. academia.edu), in which case Google Scholar often has a link to the article and you can download it for free. Often, however, Google Scholar will direct you to a journal website that requires a paid subscription to be able to access the article, in which case you need to make use of your university’s subscription (if it has one) by going through your university system.
It is also worth making use of Google Books: it never lets you see the whole book, and sometimes it does not let you see any of the book, but it certainly beats carting books back from the library or waiting for books to come through on interlibrary loan. Of course, you may still want to get hold of a physical copy, either because you cannot see the pages you need or the book is so important to your research that it would be easier simply to own a copy, but in many cases you can find what you need on Google Books.
Evaluating Credible Sources
Once you have the texts you need, the next step is to evaluate them critically. In order to do so, you need first to understand the argument the author of an individual text is making. To that end, it pays to take notes as you read so that you can go back through those notes and glean an overview of the key points of the argument, along with any key quotes. It also helps to read secondary literature: other commentators may be able to shed light on the text, or point out things that you did not see yourself. Having said that, do not feel obliged to consult secondary literature, and be wary of over-relying on others’ opinions. The aim is to develop your own critical analysis of the text, not to regurgitate what others have written.
When you feel as though you properly understand what the text is trying to convey on its own terms, you need to approach it a second time, only this time with a good dose of scepticism. You need to ask some probing questions. For example, where are the logical inconsistencies in the argument (there are usually some)? What important facts has the author neglected to mention that might run counter to his/her argument? What is the author’s ideological bias, and how does it affect the quality of the argument? What rhetorical techniques does the author use to mask the deficiencies in his/her argument? And so on. The aim of this second reading is to understand the text in your terms, not the author’s. Of course, it may be that you think the text is virtually flawless, which is fine provided you can justify that opinion (but remember: no text is completely flawless).
If, for each credible source, you are able to outline the argument, identify its strengths and weaknesses, and weigh those strengths and weaknesses against one another, then you are critically evaluating that source. By repeating the process for multiple sources, you will find that your own voice emerges strongly and authoritatively and that you have something interesting and original to say when it comes to making your own argument.
If you need help with an essay or term paper post your project on unemployed professors today!