College Research Papers For Dummies
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Your success in college has depended on problem-solving and figuring out how to navigate the academic maze. For example, you’ve successfully learned to register online, interpret syllabi, find your way around campus, and communicate with your professors. An additional requirement for your academic success is evaluating the credibility of sources you find to support your argument in your research paper.

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Without good evidence for your paper, you will lack a good argument. This article explains criteria for evaluating sources you research and identifying the sources that please your professor. I also examine using Wikipedia as a starting point — but not as an ending point.

How to evaluate sources for credibility

You can’t prepare a good meal with bad ingredients, and you can’t enjoy good takeout without reliable delivery. Similarly, the strength of your academic entrée, your argument, is based on quality source ingredients and reliable evidence.

The source evaluation process starts when you begin searching — and if you begin with library databases and similar sources, you’re as good as getting measured for your cap and gown. Many searches expedite the source evaluation process by including filters for publication dates, peer-reviewed materials, and full-text articles.

If you’re using library resources, the following guidelines are a review. If you’re using the open Internet or academic search engine resources, the guidelines are a necessity.

Here’s a look at guidelines for evaluating sources your professors expect:

  • Currency: Review your assignment for professor restrictions on dates of sources. Publication dates are relevant to your topic, especially current topics. Academic search engines usually contain more current sources than databases.

    Age matters when selecting sources. For example, current topics (technology and current events) need current sources. Literary topics (classic literature and art) may be supported with eight-to-ten-year-old sources. Verification of the publication date answers the question: When was the source published and does the data have relevance to the topic?

  • Credibility: Author credibility includes demonstrating knowledge on the topic as well as being truthful, objective, and ethical. Credible authors are usually affiliated with credible institutions. Further investigate sources you’re unfamiliar with. Author credibility also includes the author citing similar credible authors and answers the question: Does the author demonstrate the credibility that’s necessary for the success of the paper?
  • Accuracy: Read a few paragraphs in the middle of the text and determine the accuracy of information. Ideas should appear academic, documented, and well supported. Information accuracy answers the question: Is information accurate and presented fairly, and does it fulfill the purpose of the paper?
  • Writing: Authors of scholarly sources should write like scholars. If they don’t, question their credibility — and also question the credibility of the source because scholarly journals are professionally edited. Validity of the author’s writing style answers the question: Is the information written in a scholarly documented style that contributes to understanding ideas in the source?
  • Relevance: Even though your source information may check all boxes, it’s useless to you if it lacks relevance answering your research questions. The relevance of information answers the question: Does the information contribute to the argument of the paper?

If you’re using library databases, almost all sources have been vetted for accuracy and credibility of information. Use database sources as models for what to expect from other sources.

Analyzing websites as sources for research paper

Many websites lack the vetting and quality control of databases and many academic search engines. Although most criteria for evaluating sources also apply to websites, one significant criteria of evaluating a source remains: the eye test or appearance of the website.

Here are questions to ask to evaluate the appearance of websites:

  • Is it regularly maintained and updated?
  • Are links relevant and functional?
  • Does it appear professional and express an academic tone (see tone in Chapter 10)?
  • Does it contain an academic, noncommercial extension such as .org, .gov, or .edu?
  • Does the text avoid promotion of outlier claims such as the 9-11 attack on America never occurred?
  • Is ownership of the website identified and credible?
  • Is information supported with cited sources and active links to those sources?
  • Is information sponsored by an organization with an unbiased interest in beliefs expressed?

Studies show that students lack evaluation skills to distinguish between factual sites and fictional sites. Critically evaluate every website you search.

Avoiding sources displeasing to professors

Evaluating sources is critical to the source selection process and to ensuring academic evidence that supports your argument.

Look at your source choices this way: You have about 12 to 15 source opportunities in a research paper to impress your professor. Why choose a nonscholarly questionable source that displeases your professor? Why chose Wikipedia when you’re also likely to find a scholarly library database (refer to the next section for more about Wikipedia)?

When you evaluate a source, you definitely want to avoid ones that your professors generally dislike. Use these criteria for avoiding sources:

  • Articles from nonscholarly popular magazines
  • Definitions from general dictionaries
  • References from your textbook
  • References from some self-published books
  • Unscholarly blogs, websites, and social media
  • Information-sharing sites that include open editing
  • Biased, unethical, and nonmainstream sources

Reckoning with Wikipedia

Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia may be the most controversial research source among professors in college classrooms. The issue is that information is edited by a community of volunteers — meaning the information lacks clear accountability. It’s like not having the adult in charge in the room.

My suggestion as a professor is to use Wikipedia (and sometimes AI) as background reading and fact check information before considering it. I prefer not to see Wikipedia in a citation in a college course because it doesn’t show much skill as a researcher. It requires as much effort as enjoying a sunset on Clearwater Beach.

Clarify with professors their approval or disapproval of Wikipedia. Like all matters of authority in higher education, professors’ word is as final as your final course grade.

Uncovering stones: Foundations of evidence

You may have learned that when you’re looking for the truth you should go directly to the source. But did you ever learn what to do at the source when you arrive there? The following sections show you how to convert sources into evidence and make meaning — when you get to the source.

Reading for determining evidence

Reading is not only fundamental to your education, but it’s also fundamental to converting your sources into evidence.

Making meaning from your sources begins with skimming for evidence to evaluate usefulness of the source. In other words, read for information that answers your research questions and supports your argument. Here are some skimming strategies you can use for initial source evaluation:

  • Read large print. Survey the field of material by reading the title, major headings, and pullouts. Skim supplemental sections such as abstracts and appendices. Identify headings related to your argument.
  • Read subheadings. Read subheadings in the middle sections that connect to your purpose and look for cited sources in subheadings related to your thesis.
  • Get graphic. Identify graphic organizers (bullets, numbers, letters, and steps) that connect with your purpose.
  • Review the thesis and evidence. Determine if the thesis and argument show a connection with your questions.
  • Accept or reject. If the source shows value for your research, annotate and take notes as described in the sections that follow.

For much more on how to tackle a college research paper, including the details on all of the phases involved, check out my book College Research Papers For Dummies.

Reading journal articles

Recall your first day on campus, trying to locate buildings where your classes were held. But after a few days, your quickly figured out the paths and eventually the shortcuts to arrive at class on time. Reading most journal articles requires similar practice to become familiar with a unique style of reading.

Here’s the point about journal articles: You read scholarly articles for the purpose of answering your research question and acquiring information you can apply to your research. You’re looking for the thesis the author’s arguing and the connection between the author’s evidence and your argument. As you read, you’re deciding on the article’s value as evidence, background information, or new insights on your topic.

Preparation for reading a journal article begins with studying your research question and identifying the information you’re looking for. Reading journal articles also familiarizes you with research writing and organizational structure. Here’s a plan for reading scholarly articles:

  • Skim the complete article. Skim the article. Look for headings that identify major sections such as abstract, introduction, statement of the problem, review of literature, and so forth. Look for author authority and affiliation as identified in the beginning of this section. As you read, add to your list of key terms.
  • Read the abstract. From the summary of the article in the abstract, identify the thesis, argument, and the importance of the topic.
  • Identify the audience. Journal articles are written for the academic audience, and college undergraduates can consume most articles. But some journal articles are written for professional scholars whose reading background surpasses that of some undergraduates. If the topic is too complex and requires a technical background, give it your best effort and move to another article. Some scholars write exclusively to an audience of other professional scholars.
  • Read the conclusion. Reading the conclusion helps you understand the argument and its implications. Look for analysis and synthesis and points you may want to support and defend in your argument. Look in the conclusion for the greater application of the topic. What does the article add to the knowledge of the topic being studied?
  • Read the introduction. Look for background information in the introduction that adds to your understanding of the topic. Locate the thesis near the end of the introduction. Create a research question that the article answers.
  • Read the review of literature. The review of literature may appear as a separate heading or as a text discussion in the introduction. Literature reviews represent one of your best sources for identifying new evidence to support your argument. A review of literature includes analysis and synthesis of sources (see Chapter 9).
  • Read the discussion. The discussion (found in the body or middle section) illustrates the evidence that supports the argument. Look for evidence and sources that may apply to your research.
  • Read citations and references. Dedicate a reading to studying citations and references. Note the authors and publications of sources and file them as potential evidence for your research.
  • Identify the argument. Journal articles are academic arguments. Evaluate each argument’s importance and application to your research.

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