When writing papers, a large part of the work will involve research — lots of it. A high level of writing skills can only get you so far. Without comprehensive research, there won’t be anything for you to write beyond conjecture and personal opinion.
Importance of Sound Research
Research is very valuable regardless of what you’re writing. It takes on even more significance when you’re producing content for school, since sound research is what will fuel your arguments and ideas. Papers earn their credibility by demonstrating that your ideas are backed up with information from experts and other authorities on the subject.
Additionally, performing thorough research allows you to gain a broader understanding of the subject matter. Even if you don’t use every piece of information you come across during your research, it lets you form a more complete picture of the issue at hand, making your arguments more informed and authoritative.
Categories of Research
There are three ways to categorize most research tasks. Your first task is to figure out which of these your paper belongs in, so you can focus your research on the appropriate sources.
- Hard. This involves performing research from scientific and objective sources. You’ll be scouring for data consisting of proven facts, statistics, figures and other measurable evidence. A paper on the impact of modern biology to medical advancement will likely require research along these lines.
- Soft. This involves performing research on more subjective topics, including cultural and opinion-based sources. Research for a paper on the influence of 90s hip-hop on today’s youth should fall in this category.
- Mixed. Papers on politics and economics, among other topics, tend to require this variety of research, which involves drawing from both hard and soft research sources. This type of research is necessary when facts and figures aren’t enough to make your case — you’ll have to argue against strong opinion as well.
Finding Sources: Soft Research
There are plenty of online sources for soft research topics. Provided a website isn’t a shady hack job created solely for ad income (e.g. article repository sites), there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use it as source. Good places to look at include:
- Product review sites (e.g. CNet Reviews, ZDNet)
- Discussion forums
Rule of thumb: as much as possible, stick to larger, authority sites, rather than obscure ones with a very small audience. Larger sites tend to have better quality control since they’re exposed to a larger group of people. As such, there’s lesser chance for false information and misattributed quotes (chances are, transgressions will be called out quickly in the comments section). Do note, though, that even large blogs are notoriously under-edited these days, so you might need to verify some information yourself.
Wikis (e.g. Wikipedia) are a great first stop for information, but don’t stop there. The real value of wikis are the links to sources at the bottom. Well-researched wiki pages usually collate some excellent sources for information, which you can use for your own research as well.
For the most part, soft research will involve collecting information from respectable and, hopefully, authoritative sources. While soft research sources are not as subject to scrutiny as their “harder” counterparts, positive reputation helps.
Finding Sources: Hard Research
For hard research, you need to cite material produced by scholars, professionals and industry experts who carry the proper credentials. The campus library is a great destination for this type of information. If you want to try your work online first, you can check out online libraries and academic journal repositories. Websites to check out include:
- Google Scholar
- Journal TOCs
- JURN Repository
- ROAR e-Prints
If you’re looking for current data and statistics for the US, these websites offer excellent sources of details:
- Public Agenda. This is a great one-stop source for finding out current public sentiments on a wide variety of subjects, providing access to press releases on hundreds of research studies. Even better, these aren’t reports from amateur surveys and polls — instead, these are professional-quality documents put together by highly-credentialed research centers and academic institutions.
- National Center for Health Statistics. For stats and figures on various health and medical issues, you can’t do any better than this website as a primary source.
- National Center for Education Statistics. For stats and figures related to education, such as student performance, literacy levels and dropout rates, this website should provide a definitive reference.
- US Census Bureau. We’re guessing you have a good idea of what “census” means. As you may have guessed, this is the definitive place to find information on national population, living conditions, economic standings and more.
For a list of official government publications, just punch “Uncle Sam” into Google Search and you’ll get a full list as the result. When seeking out peer-reviewed medical and scientific documents, the OJOSE facility is a great source for finding and downloading both free and paid journals.
For international statistics, you can look for agencies per country that correspond with the above organizations. You can also use GeoHive for geopolitical data, statistics on the human population and other interesting world facts. Same with archived news via Archive.org and Google News. Non-commercial consumer websites, like Consumer Watch, are also great for finding objective, unbiased information.
Filter And Validate
While researching, you’ll likely accumulate more information than you’re likely to need in your paper. That’s fine. After compiling a hefty amount of research notes, though, you want to filter the material, sorting out the legitimate and useful information from the rest of the pack.
Research that you end up using in your paper should be able to withstand close examination later. For information to do that, it has to come from a credible source and be relatively current compared to other findings in the field. You want to collect pieces of information that support, rather than contradict, each other.
Cite Your Sources
Every time you use a research item in your paper, whether paraphrased or in quotes, always cite the source. You might get away doing this when posting to blogs, but papers for school need to be properly cited. Not doing so is lazy at best and can be construed as plagiarism at worst.