A Key to A+ University Research Papers (a Retrospective Method)

What not to do: A research paper in high school might have involved collecting information from Yahoo!® or Google® and re-presenting that information in a report format--that is, research for research’s sake. 

What to do: College research papers are nearly always argument-based: you collect evidence in order to make a point, not just to prove that you found five sources.

A retrospective research method.

1. Choose the tiniest, most specialized subject that the instructor will allow. For example, never choose "smoking," when you can choose "the effects of cigar smoking on high-risk pregnancy," or "the toxic tars of cigarette smoke," or "the addictive properties of nicotine in mice." It makes your task easier if you pick some very specialized or out-of-the-way subject, about which you can easily become the class expert (or the Texas expert, or the world's greatest expert!).

2. Go to a college-level research source and pull up references on your subject. Some of  the best are:

  • The Science Magazine searchall website (for the sciences--http://www.sciencemag.org/searchall), or

  • The LANL Print archive search engine (for physics, biology, mathematics, and computer science only--all articles are full text and free of charge--http://xxx.lanl.gov), or 

  • The Google Scholar search engine (this is new and still has some serious problems, but may be helpful along with other sources--http://scholar.google.com), or

  • Go to the UTEP library and ask a librarian for research help. If you find an online scholarly article that is pay-per-view, DO NOT pay for it! Instead, the library can help you get a copy free of charge.   

    Extremely important:
    DO NOT rely on private popular-level, corporate or advocacy websites for your sources!

3. Start out by finding and reading at least TWO full-text scholarly-level articles on the specialized subject that you are researching. Make sure this is not at popular or entertainment-level! A few articles have the full text on line. (Note that many scholarly articles and websites are pay-per-view, so you may need to search for free full-text articles.) Some journals are available hardcopy at the library. The Librarian can order ANY article you want, but it may take some time.

[NOTE: If you know nothing at all about the subject to start, you may wish to begin by reading an encyclopedia article on the subject. However, it is best NOT to include the encyclopedia article (or quotes from it) in the sources for your paper, especially Wikipedia, which is NOT reliable!  Also, do not use abstracts for sources.]

4. DO NOT BE SCARED if you do not understand part of the article. Find parts of the article that you DO understand, and if necessary, look up words you do not understand, and/or talk to an instructor, professor or tutor who can explain it to you. If you do not understand anything at all in the article, it is probably too advanced or specialized, so choose a different one. There are plenty of academic articles available on almost any subject.

[Note: Do NOT ever use any word in your paper, even in a quote, if you cannot define it!]

5. Just about any scholarly book or article you will read has a bibliography, or works cited page.  In fact, if it does not, you can be fairly sure that it is not really scholarly.  Find two, three or four sources (or as many as you need for your paper) in the book or article's  bibliography or works cited list, track them down, and read them. You will soon be an expert in this tiny area!  This is your goal. 

[Important notes: Be sure to actually read the references, not just list them on your bibliography or works cited page. Listing things on your works cited page that you have not actually read is cheating, and can result in penalties up to and including failing the course or getting expelled.

Also, depending on your subject this method may give you older, but not current, sources. If your subject is something where you need the latest, up to date sources, find all your sources from current search-engines.  For historic or background-type research, this method works just fine!]

6. Go through the process of writing your paper in the assigned format that corresponds to the class you are taking. DO NOT use the "garbage can" method of just finding a whole bucket of facts and figures and quotes on the subject, and pouring them onto your paper in nearly random order!  Organize your paper to be clear, expressive and persuasive. Be sure to use a careful planned writing strategy  for your introduction and conclusion.

7. Credit every fact, figure and quote individually in the text of the paper as you use them--do not follow the high school method of simply relying on the bibliography or works cited page to credit your sources. It does not work in college, makes you look ignorant and childish, and can even get you accused of plagiarism! Check out a real academic research paper for what this should look like. There are several methods of citing sources, so find out which one (if any) your particular instructor prefers.

O.W. rev 5/09

For educational purposes only.
Owen M. Williamson - Education Bldg 211E - phone: (915) 747 7625 - fax: (915) 747 5655
The University of Texas at El Paso - 500 W. University Ave. - El Paso, TX 79968
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