Strategies for Using Research
In order to construct a research project effectively, you must be fully aware of the issues that need to be addressed and the obstacles that need to be overcome in order to be a strong, credible writer. Writing projects, particularly ones involving research, cannot be done properly without the right set of strategies and skills. Forming good writing habits and overcoming detrimental mindsets are your starting tools.
Forming Good Habits
The research process can be rigorous. Not only is finding good sources a challenge, but reading through it all can be more time consuming than anything else in the writing process. The first thing to remember about collecting research is to be organized and to keep track of where and how the search was conducted. Select and consistently follow a system that will become habit, using it every time, for every class and every project. The system that works for you may not work for another, though, so be aware that finding a good system might take a few trial runs. Ideally, by the time you reach university-level courses, you will have found the method that works for you, but here are some tips and guidelines that can help you stay organized, collect data effectively, and avoid plagiarism.
- Start fresh: If possible, you should begin the writing process not with research but with notes about what you know about the topic—without research. Ideally, the chosen topic will be one that you know at least a little something about (if not, then that’s probably not a good topic to use); write that down. This could be something as formal as a rough draft or something more casual like headings or brainstormed ideas. The goal is to use whatever method is natural to have a record of what you know before the project even really begins. It might also be a good idea to save this file and e-mail it to your account. This will keep a time-stamped record illustrating your knowledge that can be used to distinguish prior knowledge from ideas acquired through research if you are unsure later in the writing process.
- Log it: Keep notes of how/where sources are found. Note what database or what library system was used, what search engine was used, which search terms generated the search results, and other important information. This is extremely important as you will often find it necessary to access the source again later in the project, either to find information needed for citation or to print/view a fresh copy of the source. If you don’t note where the source came from, then finding the source again will be difficult, if not impossible.
- Be organized:Once results have been found, keep the information organized with a system, something that separates the sources clearly but collects them in a convenient spot. Often, your first instincts might be to keep all your notes in one Word document, but this can lead to mixing up source ideas and also make finding/accessing the right material less efficient. Use folders instead. Have a “Project X Research” folder and then have each source or topic clearly labeled and separated inside that folder. Alternatively, you who prefer to work in paper form can keep separate note cards or a notebook that can be separated into specific sections. The goal is to have some system that makes accessing and locating the desired information easier.
- Organize by topic: A common way to gather materials is to keep them by source. For instance, you might keep all of your notes about Source 1 in a file. However, it’s important to consider how an essay is organized. Is it organized by sources or is it organized by topic? The paragraphs of an essay are constructed by major topics or concepts, so consider analyzing a source and taking notes organized by topic as well. After taking notes about the source, separate the notes by concept and then create different files for each: Topic 1, Topic 2, and so on. As you read and evaluate all your sources, you can then disseminate each source into those topic files. This will gather together ideas from a variety of sources that all fall under the same related topic, which makes them easier to use in the drafting process when it comes time to write a paragraph. This also helps you see more clearly which topics have little to no research support (indicating more is needed) or where one topic has too much (indicating it may need to be split into subtopics or excess research may need to be removed). Important: if this system is used, careful citation is vital.
- Cite early: Yes, cite, even in the notetaking stage. As you write down ideas from your sources, ideas and conclusions of your own might come to mind. It’s best to keep those ideas in a separate place, but sometimes the ideas just flow right there in the notes about Source X. If the notes clearly cite Source X’s ideas, then anything uncited should indicate your ideas/conclusions. Further, citing in the notetaking stage serves as a reminder to you that the information came from a source; you may accidentally use information from your notes thinking that the ideas was yours when in reality it was a paraphrase or quote from source material. Lastly, citing in the notetaking stage also helps you keep track of which ideas came from precisely which source, particularly if you organize your research by topic instead of source. If these details are taken care of as you write your notes, it makes using the material correctly in your draft much easier as well.
- Keep it simple: Don’t attempt to write down everything. Omit extraneous parts of the source and focus only on the ideas that can logically and directly contribute to your discussion. To make this most effective, have at least a rough idea of what major topics the project will address. If you are unsure of the points you will address or if you attempt to write down too much, then finding specific ideas or slogging through all those notes can be more troublesome than simply re-reading the article, defeating the purpose of the notes entirely.
- Paraphrase: Ideally, notes should present the most important ideas in the source as a paraphrase of the source’s words. Your notes should be your words. Make sure the notes fully paraphrase the source, however; paraphrasing can’t be done halfway. See the Using Sources section for more detail about paraphrasing.
- Quote cautiously: As stated above, your notes should be in your words. If direct quotes of the material are needed, then it may be more effective to consult the source itself (this is where printing/copying the source can be helpful). Alternatively, keep direct quotes separate from your notes—maybe have a separate file for that source’s direct quotes. If it’s absolutely essential that direct quotes are gathered with your notes, then you must follow standard citation and quotation practices: include quotation marks and end the sentence with a proper in-text citation (including the page number/section for where the quote was found). If you don’t do this carefully and consistently, then this is where you confuse source words for your words—if you see it in your notes, you (falsely) assume that it’s your words when it’s actually the source’s. See the Using Sources section for more detail about quoting.
These notetaking tips will ideally help you keep yourself organized as well as illustrate how to handle source material properly, even in the early stages of your project.
Any adult will understand the importance of time-management; this is something that most adults also struggle with throughout their lives (unfortunately). For many of you, this becomes a challenge unlike any other: juggling classes, study time, homework and projects is difficult in itself, and adding in work, family, and social responsibilities makes this a complete and utter nightmare. Then a research project is added to all that. This means that you, more than anyone else, must manage your time. The most effective way to do this is to make self-imposed deadlines—and stick to them. Understand that writing (or other projects) come in stages; even if we want to do it in one day (or one night), it shouldn’t be. A paper, particularly a research paper, should come in a few basic stages:
- Generate personal ideas: evaluate the topic and what is known about it.
- Gather research: this entails not only finding sources but also reading and taking notes about them—this is often the most time-consuming stage.
- Plan the essay: this is where you will put together the personal ideas you started with, the ideas you learned from research, and the new conclusions or thoughts that everything combined lead you to. This can be done more formally, such as with an outline, or it can be done casually. Having notes developed by topic makes this stage much easier.
- Draft the essay: enact the plan and start putting ideas into full sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
- Revise/Edit: assess the draft and make changes as needed to improve the content (revising) and then to improve grammar and other mechanical details (editing).
You need to take these stages into account and ideally set deadlines for yourself about what stages you want to accomplish and when. This should be done as soon as you learn about the project. Whenever the instructor provides the handout or reveals a major project, start setting deadlines immediately: I want X done by this date, Y done by that, and so on. Set these deadlines and keep to them. Calendars are your best friend, and with calendar/task apps and notifications, you should ever have a deadline creep up without notice.
This of course leads to another problem with time management: procrastination and deliberate postponement. While most you know you should make deadlines, doing so and sticking to them is often a pipe dream. This is where plagiarism, either intentional or accidental, becomes a serious risk. If you put off assignments or think you can put off assignments you are most likely to commit plagiarism in some form, either intentionally or due to carelessness. Finding sources, handling sources properly, and writing an effective essay all take time. If you overcome your desire to procrastinate and devote adequate time to the appropriate stages to a project you will fall into unintentional or accidental plagiarism less often and will also produce generally more effective assignments.
One of the simplest yet more difficult methods to avoid plagiarism or other major issues in a research project is to correct misunderstandings or misperceptions. You might often think that paraphrases don’t need to be cited or you assume the paper needs to be in APA format. These misconceptions and others require that you educate yourself about research writing, source use, citation, assignment expectations, and more. The idea to remember here is that you are never alone—there are a variety of resources available to you that can get these misunderstandings addressed. Most important is the instructor. If you aren’t sure if the instructor requires citation (or what citation style) or if using a certain source is acceptable, ask the instructor. Instructors will be much happier to answer questions than to get a project that’s completed incorrectly or deviates severely from the requirements. Otherwise, there are plenty of other resources you can consult, such as the library. Check out the university’s resources to find the right help.
Avoiding Avoidance & Resisting Temptation
A challenge many people acknowledge is procrastination. Another aspect of avoidance, though, is a little bit trickier: cutting corners. A common saying we’ve all probably heard is to “work smarter, not harder.” This philosophy can inform our lives in a positive way—it encourage us to find more efficient, better methods of doing things and can generate creativity (developing new products or techniques). However, this philosophy also has a dangerous negative side—(in this case) it encourages you to work in ways that generate results expediently, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are done properly or honestly. Avoiding additional work simply because it’s easier to do so often leads to plagiarism as well as other issues in a writing project, particularly one involving research. Be fully aware of what work is expected of you and make sure to follow through with those expectations without taking shortcuts or avoiding necessary components to the process.
Updated Nov. 2015 by Laura Hardin Marshall
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