Surviving Research Paper Disasters

Fifteen books, seven Web sites, and over a hundred articles after you started your research paper, disaster strikes. You find the perfect idea in your notes, but no source or page number. Or, you've got the perfect thesis and evidence, but you suddenly find one new fact that contradicts everything you had planned to write. Or, you've got the perfect thesis and evidence and you find one more source — with your thesis and evidence.

The research equivalent of fire, flood, and earthquake, these three disasters are difficult, but not impossible to overcome. The following sections show how to survive.

Disaster #1: Missing source

Careful researchers record the title, author, and publishing or broadcasting information of all sources. But even careful researchers slip up sometimes — dripping cappuccino on a note card or omitting a page number in the heat of the chase for research gold. If you're missing any source information, try these tactics:

  • If you know where the information comes from but not the page number, go back to the source and skim read until you find what you're looking for. If you have other notes above or below the problem item (or, in the case of cards, before or after), you may be able to narrow the range of inquiry. For example, if the problem item is on the same page as notes from pages 12 and 15 of the source, chances are the missing material is somewhere in there also.
  • If you've already taken the source back to the library and can't return there easily, call. You may encounter a sympathetic librarian who will pull the book from the shelf and tell you the copyright date, publisher, or whatever else you need.
  • In the case of material from a Web site, try to recreate the research path you originally used, re-entering the search terms and clicking on the logical connections. You may recognize the screen when it pops up.
  • Present the problem to your Paper Evaluator, well before the paper is due. He or she may know where the material comes from.
  • If nothing works and you can't find the source, write the paper without that bit of information, because not crediting information to a source opens you to charges of plagiarism, the research-paper equivalent to Murder One.

Plagiarism is intellectual dishonesty — taking another person's idea or research and claiming it as one's own. Plagiarism is stealing in the same way that swiping a wallet is stealing. The only difference is that plagiarism is the theft of thought, not of goods. No matter: As you heard first in the sandbox, taking something that doesn't belong to you is a no-no.

Disaster #2: Contradictory information

You've worked out a startlingly original thesis — that Oliver E. Oolong started the infamous Pekoe Wars because he couldn't find any other way to get a decent cup of tea during his tenure as ambassador to Greenland. You've read military dispatches, diplomatic records, and the memoirs of Oolong's five former wives. As you type page 29 of the research paper, Oolong's former butler finally agrees to an interview. Ten seconds in he mentions that Oolong loved a good cup of espresso and detested tea. Panic time! Here's what to do:

  • First, come clean with the Paper Evaluator. Bring your notes, the pages you've written so far, and your outline. Explain what happened and ask for time to recast your thesis.
  • Review all your notes in light of the new information. Is there a way to reinterpret the material? For example, could Oolong have started the war because of his tea phobia?
  • Reword the thesis and reorganize the proof. Don't throw away your previous research. Simply use what is relevant for the revised thesis.
  • Reread the draft to see what is salvageable. You may be able to recycle paragraphs or whole sections. Descriptions of the Pekoe Wars, for example, will not change.

Disaster #3: Duplicate ideas

After reading Hamlet 12 times and scouring the literary criticism section of your local library, you decide that something is missing. All those essays ignore Gertrude's feelings! None of the critics you've read discuss the role of women in Shakespearean times and relate that information to the play. You set to work, convinced you're filling a major gap in the world's understanding of the Bard. Then, just at the last moment, your mom e-mails you an essay on the role of women in Shakespearean times and specifically, on the character of Gertrude in Hamlet. Before you pour poison in your ear, try these fix-its:

  • Read the new essay extremely carefully. Figure out how it resembles your paper and how it differs. For example, it may discuss the same topic but interpret the issue in another way. Or, it may have a similar thesis (which you should acknowledge in the source list and in the essay itself) but different evidence.
  • Reread your own paper. Look for spots where your ideas and arguments diverge from those of the published essay. Can you expand on the differences? Highlight what is truly original? If so, alter the outline and rewrite as necessary. Be sure to cite the essay appropriately in the text and in the source list.
  • If necessary, change your thesis so that it doesn't match the thesis of the published essay. For example, if the published essay concentrates on Gertrude's physical desires, write about the social and economic aspects of Gertrude's life with and without a life partner. Or, do a little more research and contrast Gertrude with Lady Macbeth, assuming of course that the published essay doesn't address Macbeth.
  • Running out of time? Take all of your work — notes, outline, draft, and source list — to the Authority Figure and explain exactly what happened. Most Paper Assigners have done a lot of research themselves and know the pitfalls. Unless you're working for a truly heartless person, you can probably work something out.

The worst research disaster — loss of notes or drafts — is the easiest one to avoid. If you're working on a computer, back up early and often. If you're working with pen and paper, photocopy your work, also early and often. Remember to store the backups in a separate, safe place. (One unlucky student kept everything in the trunk of his car — which was stolen two days before the paper was due.) If you lose even your backup material, explain the situation to the Paper Evaluator and ask for time to re-create your work.

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