Perhaps the most crucial considerations in preparing a successful research paper are your choice of a topic and the way you focus the topic to arrive at a thesis that interests you, will interest a reader, and is manageable in a paper of the desired length. For help with these crucial first steps, review the prewriting strategies in Composing Process. Even after you have a topic and thesis, regard them as tentative until the appropriateness of your choice has been confirmed by the information you gather. Always be prepared to adjust your thesis or even to abandon it in favor of another if your research suggests that you are on the wrong track.
The information you gather will probably come from both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, and raw data compiled from observation, interviews, surveys, experiments, and questionnaires. Secondary sources are analyses, assessments, and evaluations of primary sources. For example, if you were writing a paper about a character in a novel, you might use material not only from the novel itself (a primary source) but also from a literary critic’s analysis or from biographies of the author (secondary sources).
Except for information gathered from firsthand experience such as observation and interviews, most of the information you need for a research paper can be found in your library. The key to successful library research is knowing what the library’s resources are and how to use them. The information that follows is a general introduction to library resources, but resources and procedures differ from library to library, so read your library’s introductory brochure or manual, and consult a library staff member whenever you have questions. Guide to Reference Books by Eugene P. Sheehy and Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Services edited by Jean Gates also provide more information about reference materials.
REFERENCE WORKS FOR BACKGROUND READING
After you have chosen a topic or had one assigned, write down what you already know about it (try brainstorming, clustering, or freewriting), and then make a list of the things you would like to learn. A good place to begin your research is in reference books: dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and atlases. Many of these are available in online and CD-ROM form as well as in print form. These sources provide definitions and overviews that can help fill the gaps in your knowledge, and they can direct you to related topics and other sources of information. After doing some background reading, you may decide to change the scope of your topic, which should be appropriate for the length of the paper and the time you have to write it. For example, suppose you began with the tentative topic of the effectiveness of advertising. After reading the general articles on advertising in encyclopedias and the relevant entries in the Encyclopedia of Advertising, you might decide to focus on the differences in the advertising of a particular product in publications addressed to different audiences.
Specialized Encyclopedias and Dictionaries. In addition to general encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopedia Britannica, the library has specialized encyclopedias and dictionaries about a variety of fields, including literature (from classical to twentieth century), music (from opera to rock), economics, business, U.S. and world history, art, philosophy, physical education, science (from chemistry to computers), and the social sciences (from anthropology to sociology). The entries in these works not only provide a detailed overview of the topic but also usually end with a bibliography of authoritative sources. Some libraries keep these books in the reference section; others keep them in the appropriate subject area in the main stacks. Many of these references are also available online or as CD-ROMs.
Almanacs and Yearbooks. For information about recent developments and up-to-date statistical data, the annual yearbook supplements of general encyclopedias, almanacs (such as Information Please Almanac and World Almanac and Book of Facts), and the following annual publications can be helpful.
Budget in Brief (summary of U.S. federal budget)
Demographic Yearbook (United Nations information on world economics and trade)
Facts on File Yearbook (weekly digest of world news)
Political Handbook of the World (Council on Foreign Affairs publication)
Statistical Yearbook (United Nations publication)
Statistical Abstract of the United States (U.S. Bureau of Census summary of industrial, political, social, and economic data)
Atlases. As you do background reading, consult an atlas to locate any unfamiliar places. Your library contains not only general atlases of today’s world but also historical atlases and specialized atlases, such as atlases of the oceans and of the universe.
CREATING A WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY
After you have defined your topic, you can begin to search for books and articles about it. As you look, create a working bibliography —a list of all the sources that may possibly be relevant to your topic. Because not all sources are as good as they first appear and not all may be available in your library, a working bibliography will be much longer than your final list of works cited. For each source, write the title, author, publication information (publisher, city, year), and call number (if the source is a book) on a 3- by 5-inch card. (Figure 1 illustrates sample bibliography cards.) If you are using electronic databases, you may be able to print out the bibliographic information. When you are ready to compile the list of works cited in your paper, all you will need to do is alphabetize the cards for the sources you used and type the list. If you record the information according to the documentation style you will use for your list of works cited, you can make creating that list even simpler.
A quick survey can help you decide whether a book, magazine, or other source has information that may be useful to your research.
• Note the publication date. Is it current or is it several years old? Does your topic require up-to-date information?
• Is the publication an overview for a general audience or a technical discussion for experts?
• To assess the usefulness of a book, look over the table of contents and then skim the introduction and the index.
• To assess the usefulness of a magazine article, scan the headings or the paragraphs to get an idea of the major topics.
After you have selected a number of potentially useful sources, you will need to evaluate them critically as you read them.
• Is the treatment of the topic evenhanded or does the author have a strong bias? Is the author credible?
• Are the conclusions solidly backed up?
• Are any logical fallacies apparent?