Introduction | Choosing a Topic | Getting Information | Writing an Outline | Writing and Rewriting the Paper Citing Sources | How I Grade a Research Paper

INTRODUCTION

The major assignment for this course is a research paper. The syllabus for your specific course will tell you how long it shoud be. All papers, however, should be double-spaced with 1" to 1.5" margins, typed on a computer. A research paper should address a specific issue related to the course. Research is when you should find information on your topic in a variety of academically valid sources, use it as part of your argument, and refer to it following the forms usual in academic writing. Writing a research paper is a challenging task, and I have broken it into several parts: choosing a topic, getting information, making an outline, writing a draft, revising the draft, and citing sources. I have also included some information on how I grade a research paper.

Many of you have already learned how to do a research paper by taking English Composition. Much of what I say below repeats things you should know. For some, it has been awhile since English Comp. I STRONGLY urge you to get a college-level style book, such as Turabian, A Manual for Writers, Strunk and White, Elements of Style, or Hacker, A Writer's Reference. No one, myself included, can remember all the rules about citing sources and other such points of academic style. Nevertheless, they are important, and I expect you to write a polished academic paper.

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CHOOSING A TOPIC

A good topic leads to a good paper. A poorly chosen topic leads to a confused paper. Choose your topic carefully. First of all, choose a topic that interests you. You will be spending a lot of time with this topic. Second, choose a narrow topic. Ten pages may seem like a lot, but by the time you introduce the topic and your thesis, provide examples that support your thesis, and develop your argument, you will easily fill the pages. "Imperialism in the Modem World" is too broad. "Japanese Treaty Ports in China, 1895-1937" is better. Finally, choose a topic that you can do with the resources of the Internet and the FSU libraries. This will lead you to "'Getting Information" below.

It is a good idea to write a paragraph or two describing your topic. Do this at an early stage in your research, and discuss it with your instructor. This will help you formulate a clear, limited topic.

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GETTING INFORMATION

Choose a topic you think you would like to study. Then get some information about it. As a rule of thumb, you should look for at least TEN (10) sources, including

  • PRIMARY SOURCES: sources from the time and place you are studying
  • SECONDARY SOURCES: scholarly research by experts in the field
    • Monographs (specialized books)
    • Articles in scholarly journals
    • Scholarly Internet sites--e.g. those by university professors, not (in general) by university students
  • TERTIARY SOURCES: general information in condensed or summary form
    • Textbooks
    • Encyclopedia articles
    • General interest Web Sites
    • Popular magazine or newspaper articles

Some of these types of source may overlap. For this project, it is required that you use all of the above types of source. In addition, at least one source should be an Internet source.

Although tertiary sources are listed last, you should probably consult them first. Read up on your topic in general information sources. This will give you a sense of the topic and will help you figure out what specialized topic you want to pursue. Tertiary sources also usually contain bibliographies that will help you identify further sources. If you are using a computer on the FSU campus, you have access to Britannica Online, a great place to begin to learn about your topic.

Tertiary sources are a good place to start, but no college-level research paper should be based primarily on tertiary sources. After you have an idea of what you want to study and some background information, you need to find primary and secondary sources on your topic. As mentioned above, tertiary sources may have guides to further reading. The library is the next place to go. Actually, nowadays you don't have to go to the library, because most of the library's resources are now available over the Internet. The Chesnutt Library has its entire Catalog and a host of other resources available from its website. The Web Catalog allows several different kinds of search: Keyword, Subject, Author, Title, etc. If you want to find out whether James R. Bartholomew's book The Formation of Science in Japan is in the library, you could search under "Author: Bartholomew, James R." or "Keyword: Formation Science Japan." If you want to find all books on technology in the United States, search under " Keyword: technology United States." If you really need a book that is not in the library, the librarians may be able to get it for you from Interlibrary Loan. (Hint: When searching the Web Catalog, search all three libraries of the Carolina Coastal Consortium--FSU, UNC-Pembroke, UNC-Wilmington--at once.  If the book is available at one of the other libraries, you can get it through Interlibrary Loan in a matter of days.) 

Another source of information is periodicals. You can access a number of periodicals and periodical indexes through the Chesnutt Library website. Go to the E-Databases page and click on J to go to JStor, the fastest way to find scholarly articles.  JStor has the complete contents of most major historical journals in the United States, from their beginning to about three-five years ago. You can search JStor to find articles. For printed indexes, the Social Sciences Index and Humanities Index are both good for scholarly articles

When you find a book or periodical article, be sure to write down enough information to find it. For books, you need the author's name, title, and call number (if the book is not in the FSU library, write down the place of publication, publisher, and date of publication, too; you will need this information to find the book in another library). For periodicals, write down the author's name, title of the article, name of the periodical, call number of the periodical (if you can find it), volume number, date, and page numbers. (See also "Citing Sources" below.) It is a good idea to write a brief paragraph about each explaining why it is relevant to the topic. (Hint: If you are using a computer, keep a floppy disk or file open, so you can copy and paste bibliographic information rather than write it out by hand. In addition to saving time, you will also reduce errors.)

General-purpose search engines such as Yahoo! or Google may be useful, but they will also return a large number of irrelevant or unscholarly sites. Use your critical thinking skills to assess each website.

Be sure to take notes on any source you think you will use. Note cards are helpful but not required. For any information, be sure to note the source and the page. For Internet sources, also write down the date on which you got the information.

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WRITING AN OUTLINE

Once you have a topic and have started getting information, you will soon be ready to write an outline of your paper. An outline lists the most important things you want to say in your paper in the order in which you want to say them. An outline organizes your paper.

To write an outline, you must first have enough information so that you know what you want to say. It is important that you read a lot and take notes.

The most difficult and important part of your outline will be the first part--the introduction. The introduction is where you state what your thesis is. The thesis is the main idea you want the reader to learn from your paper. A thesis is different from a topic. A topic is the general subject about which you write--for example, "the Manhattan Project." The thesis is what you want to say about the Manhattan Project--for example, "the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did not really think about the moral consequences of their work." The thesis states an argument. The rest of the paper tries to prove the argument.

The rest of your outline will consist of the evidence you use to prove the thesis. You might organize the paper chronologically by major periods or topically by the different kinds of evidence you use. An example of organization by chronology would be as follows:

THE MANHATTAN PROJECT

  1. Introduction: The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did not really think about the moral consequences of their work.
  2. The Beginnings of the Project, 1942-43.
  3. The Work in Full Swing, 1943-44.
  4. After the Defeat of Germany, 1944-45.
  5. Conclusion.

An example of a topical organization would be,

  1. Introduction: The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did not really think about the moral consequences of their work.
  2. University Scientists
  3. Industrial Scientists
  4. Military Scientists
  5. Conclusion.

You have to decide which is the best way to organize your paper.

Each part of your paper will have several points. Put as many of these into the outline as you can. The standard way to do this is as follows:

  1. Introduction: The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did not really think about the moral consequences of their work.
  2. The Beginnings of the Project, 1942-43.
    1. Deciding to build the bomb
    2. Recruiting scientists for the job
    3. Finding a site for the laboratories
      1. The rejected sites
      2. Los Alamos
        1. Oppenheimer's stay at Los Alamos
        2. Convincing Gen. Groves
  3. III. The Work in Full Swing, 1943-44.
  4. IV. After the Defeat of Germany, 1944-45.
  5. V. Conclusion.

You can put as many points as you want into the outline, and the more you put in the better organized your paper will be.

Your outline will change as you work on your paper. But if you try to make an outline soon, it will force you to think about what information you need to make your argument. You may find that you do not have all the information you need to write the paper and that you need to do more research before you write.

Hint: If you use note cards, it will be easier to organize your information.

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WRITING AND REWRITING THE PAPER

After you have found a topic, gotten sources and information, identified a thesis, and made an outline, you are ready to write the paper.

The paper will follow the order of your outline. You start with an introduction, which tells the reader the topic (what you are writing about) and the thesis (what you want to say about the topic). You can also say why you are writing about this topic: because it is important, because you like it, etc. Finally, you can tell the reader the order in which you are going to write about your topic.

The main part of your paper shows why your thesis is true. It is an argument, and everything you say should help your argument. You may want to divide your paper into parts that correspond to your outline. Each paragraph should also have a topic and facts or ideas to support your topic.

You should count on rewriting your paper. Write your first draft on a computer, and show the draft to the instructor or to someone else who knows how to write a research paper. Ask that person to check the paper for style and content. Use the comments to improve your paper.

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CITING SOURCES

You can help your argument a great deal by using information from a variety of sources. This shows that you know your topic. It also helps if the reader wants to know where to get more information on the topic.

Try to quote all relevant sources in your paper, and try to support all major points with a quotation. At the same time, do not make your paper consist entirely of quotations. Getting just the right balance of quotations and your own words is not easy. It takes practice, and this is one good reason for showing your first draft to your instructor.

You should always cite sources you use. If you get a fact or an idea from another author, you should say where you got it. For example, the following is from one of my papers:

In a review written upon publication of the dissertation the next year, one of the committee members praised the "abundance of facts analyzed, the extent of the learning (science), the sometimes specious rigor of the method" in Ribot's work--a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. [1] Another member of the committee was reported to have said that one could argue over the causes and consequences of psychological heredity, but Ribot's work had shown that it was a fact. [2]

 

NOTES

  1. Elme Caro, review of L'hérédité psychologique, by Theodule Ribot, Journal des savants 90 (1874): 58.
  2. Le Temps (Paris), 8 December 1873. The person reported to have said this was Charles de Rémusat.

I have used endnotes to cite in this example. This example shows two different cases in which you should cite. In the first note, I am indicating where I found a direct quotation. You must always cite direct quotations. The second note is an example of a fact that is not generally known. These should also be cited. You do not have to cite common facts (for instance, "the sky is blue"), but knowing when to cite is an art that requires the writer to know his or her audience and the conventions of the field. When in doubt, cite.

Another way to cite is to use parenthetical citation. With this method, you identify the author and page number in parentheses after the citation. To use the same example,

In a review written upon publication of the dissertation the next year, one of the committee members praised the "abundance of facts analyzed, the extent of the learning (science), the sometimes specious rigor of the method" in Ribot's work--a backhanded compliment if ever there was one (Caro, 1874, p. 58). Another member of the committee was reported to have said that one could argue over the causes and consequences of psychological heredity, but Ribot's work had shown that it was a fact (Le Temps).

 

At the end of your paper you would have a reference list giving more information about the sources you use:

REFERENCES

  • Caro, Elme. Review of L'heredite psychologique, by Theodule Ribot. Journal des savants (1874): 51-66.
  • "Psychology." Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th edition.
  • Ribot, Theodule. La psychologie anglaise contemporaine. Paris: Librairie Philosophique de Ladrange, 1870.
  • Ribot, Theodule "Philosophy in France." Mind (1877): 366-86.
  • Le Temps (Paris), 8 December 1873.

This reference list includes a book, a journal article, and an encyclopedia article. These are the main kinds of source you will be using. You should list all the sources you use in your paper. There are rules for how to cite each kind of source. Indeed, there are many different styles of citation. I do not care what style you use, but I do expect you to use one style consistently and correctly.

Most style books now include information on how to cite Internet sources. If your style book does not cover this, an excellent online source is Harnarck, Andrew and Eugene Kleppinger. Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources. 1998. 13 October 1998. <http://www.smpcollege.com/online-4styles~help/>.

This, incidentally, is also an example of how to cite a World Wide Web source in a paper.

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HOW I GRADE A RESEARCH PAPER

When I grade a research paper, I look to see how well you have done the things I have talked about in this handout. In particular, I look for the following:

  • RESEARCH
    • several sources
    • relevant and recent sources
    • sources incorporated into paper
    • facts correct and relevant
    • differences of authors noted
  • THOUGHT
    • topic well chosen--not too broad, not too narrow
    • facts weighed and judiciously used
    • clear thesis
    • argument
      • possible contrary opinions noted and refuted or modified
  • WRITING
    • mechanically correct: grammar and spelling acceptable
    • judicious use of quotations, correct citation, works cited
    • organization: introduction, body (possibly with sections), conclusion
    • introduction: topic, thesis, outline
    • body: supports thesis, paragraphs separated appropriately
    • conclusion
      • restatement of thesis
      • general remarks

If you have done all these things well, you may get an 'A' (no guarantees about A's!). If you are missing one or more of these items, your grade will go down accordingly. Some things are more important than others. I do not count off much for mistakes in citing sources, as long as the basic information is all there. However, if you copy a source and do not cite it, you will fail!!! See my Research Paper Rubric for more information.

Good luck on this project. Writing a research paper is difficult, but it shows that you can get information, assess it, use it to build an argument, and communicate effectively. In short, it proves that you have a college education. If you need help, do not hesitate to ask me.

Introduction | Choosing a Topic | Getting Information | Writing an Outline | Writing and Rewriting the Paper Citing Sources | How I Grade a Research Paper | Back to Contents