How to Do Research

After a successful start it’s time for actual researching. Doing research will occupy most of your time on the research paper. Actually, you will be performing three overlapping tasks: reading, research, and writing. As your reading becomes increasingly focused, it becomes integral to your research. So does your writing, which includes book notes and periodic research reports to discuss with your adviser.

These written reports blur the bright line between research and writing. Research is not something you do after you finish reading and before you start writing. It includes both, with a very happy result. It means that when you finally sit down to draft your research paper, you won’t be starting from scratch. Large chunks will already be in place.

Beyond this focused reading and preliminary writing, what is your research? It is the work needed to provide information, context, and contending perspectives about your topic—the work needed to answer the questions you have posed. You may acquire this basic information by reading primary documents, watching films, downloading survey data, conducting interviews, running tests, or finding still other sources to analyze. To provide a context for your research paper, you need to know the relevant secondary literature, that is, the analysis and interpretation scholars have already done on your topic.

These writers will not speak with one voice. They will ask different questions and often suggest different interpretations of the same basic data. They will offer varied perspectives and promote alternative theories. That’s true no matter what your field is. To understand your topic fully, you need to understand these debates and then look beyond them to see what the debaters have in common and what their most fundamental differences are. Once you’ve grasped this literature, you may even choose to enter the debates yourself, adopting one stance and rejecting others, or perhaps finding a synthesis. In any case, you want to learn from the best work, engage it, and build on its findings.

Consider, for instance, a history research paper about African slaves arriving in South Carolina during the mid-1700s. Using primary documents such as ship manifests, bills of sale, and perhaps letters by slaveholders, you intend to study the slave ships and their human cargo arriving in the port of Charleston between 1740 and 1760. You would certainly want to read the best narrative histories about eighteenth-century slavery in general. That literature covers the triangular trade that brought slaves to America, the cotton plantations where they worked, and so on. These secondary works on slavery and Southern agriculture permit a richer interpretation of your primary documents because they situate the Charleston slave market within a wider social and economic context. As you read, you may discover gaps in the literature—questions not asked or topics not studied—which you can explore in your research paper. You may discover, for instance, that several articles deal with the size of slave families in Virginia and Louisiana, but rarely those in South Carolina and never for the decades you are studying. If that question interests you, you could fill an important gap in the scholarly literature if the primary documents reveal the data.

You also want to know which disputes surround your research paper topic. What concerns the scholars who study your subject? Do some assert, for example, that the data for individual ships is not very good or that these ships are not representative? Is the most serious dispute about the number of slaves who died during the Middle Passage from West Africa to America? Are there brisk debates about the prices paid, the slaves’ life expectancy, or their ultimate destination after sale in Charleston? Reading the secondary literature should alert you to these issues. You will learn which ones are well settled and which ones are hotly contested. Reading carefully should highlight the most interesting questions and the most vigorous debates. Some reflection about these issues and a little research may also reveal gaps in the literature, like the question about family size. When you discover questions and gaps like these, mention them to your adviser. She’ll be a good source of feedback.

From your reading and conversations with faculty, you’ll develop views on both primary and secondary sources. You’ll learn which documents are trustworthy, which should be treated with considerable skepticism, and which are entirely worthless. You’ll learn which secondary authors are reliable and highly regarded, and you’ll want to compare their views to see where they agree and disagree. This critical assessment is vital to your research paper, and it applies to every field.

With this background in the literature and some guidance from your faculty adviser, you can narrow your topic to a few closely related questions on the slave trade and focus your research paper. You will continue to work with primary documents and secondary sources to find the answers and, quite often, to produce still more questions for investigation.

Different Kinds of Research

Because research papers differ so widely in substance and method, they require different kinds of research. Investigating slavery in South Carolina is radically different from interpreting Wordsworth’s poetry or studying charter schools. For historians, research usually means analyzing primary documents such as the Carolina ship manifests, often supplemented by other historical data and writings from the period. For students of comparative literature, it means close reading and careful appraisal of novels, poems, and plays in their original languages. For social scientists, it often means refining theories and testing them against empirical evidence. Some do that by building and testing formal mathematical models, others by exploring specific cases in depth. Still others analyze large data sets. Demographers examine population statistics; voting specialists look at surveys and elections; psychologists compare experimental test results; economists consider statistics on trade, prices, capital flows, and savings. For many social scientists, research not only means finding this raw material, it means actually generating it through surveys, tests, experiments, and more.

This varied data reflects the equally varied aims of research. For students of literature and history, the aim is to interpret and compare primary texts. For most social scientists, the aim is to construct and test causal models reflecting their theories of social life. For interpretive social scientists, the goal is to make human action, symbols, and communication intelligible, at both the individual and collective levels. Their work seeks to explain, but rarely in the form of causal explanations. They are more interested in exploring how social meanings are constructed. In fields as diverse as education, social work, nursing, and public policy, the aim is not only to explain and interpret but also to evaluate current practices—and frequently to suggest more effective ones. Their audience reaches beyond the university to policy makers and working professionals.

Given these varied aims, what can be said about research in general? At least a few things that can help students working on different kinds of research papers. Perhaps the most important is that your research should be tailored to your specific project and your individual skills. One size does not fit all. It does not fit all questions, and it does not fit all researchers.

Picking the method that suits your questions and your skills is a central element of the research paper. Several factors will influence your decision whether to work mainly with primary documents or secondary sources, with detailed cases or large databases. First, what type of question are you investigating (and in which discipline)? Second, what kind of explanation are you trying to develop and evaluate? Are you trying to interpret a novel, painting, or movie, or perhaps compare several from the same genre? Are you trying to understand the meaning of an important event or offer a causal explanation for it? Are you evaluating one or two cases in depth, or are you trying to find broad patterns encompassing many cases? Could your explanation be rejected if you found some confounding data? If so, then you need to search for that crucial data to test your explanation.

Third, what research skills do you bring to the research paper? To build formal models, you need higher mathematics. To test large data sets, you need statistical training. To decipher primary documents, you need to know the languages and perhaps even the handwriting. Different topics and different approaches have their own distinct requirements. That’s why you need to take advanced courses not only in your major but also in related fields.

Finding the Sources

At this point we suppose you did some early research to find a topic for your paper. Now it’s time to revisit those sources to explore them some more. You’ve already done some early research, taking a quick look at an encyclopedia and the Internet. Although you won’t take notes yet, these sources will help you gain important background information. This exploratory research tells you know where you’re going and what to look for when you do your actual research—a topic we’ll discuss next.

Searching the Internet

The Internet, with its speed and ubiquity, has made research much easier than it once was. Thanks to the Internet, you have a library of millions of sources at your disposal 24 hours a day. This abundance of research, however, can be overwhelming. Today the problem is not how to find research material but how to work your way through the thousands (or even millions) of documents that turn up in your search. Enter a search word or phrase about a topic, any topic, into Google, Bing, or whatever your favorite search engine might be, and in seconds you will be presented with pages upon pages of two-line summaries of articles that contain it. Google and other search engines “weight” the results by putting the most likely matches at the top, but the chore of finding the perfect source to meet your research needs is still left to you. Learn how to conduct online research.

Using Library and Database Resources

Many times instructors will recommend, or even require, that student researchers avoid the popular search engines and, instead, take their search for information to the library. A visit to the library can transform your research efforts from simple look-ups into an educational experience that reveals many more resources that are open to you. Learn how to use a library.

Conducting Original Research

Original research is research you conduct rather than find in books or articles. It is also called primary research because it starts with you. If you plan to conduct primary research, like an experiment, personal interviews, or a survey of people, you will need to devise a basic methodology for your inquiry. Learn how to conduct original research.

Read more on How to Write a Research Paper.

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