Research Papers For Dummies book cover

Research Papers For Dummies

By: Geraldine Woods Published: 07-05-2002

From blank page to final draft, this is your straightforward guide to research papers

You're sitting at your desk in a classroom or in an airless cubicle, wondering how many minutes are left in a seemingly endless day, when suddenly your teacher or supervisor lowers the boom: She wants a research paper, complete with footnotes and a list of sources. She wants accuracy, originality, and good grammar. And – gasp! – she wants ten pages! You may be 16 years old or 60 years old, but your reaction is the same: Help!

Take heart. A research paper may seem daunting, but it's a far-from-impossible project to accomplish. Turning research into writing is actually quite easy, as long as you follow a few proven techniques. And that's where Research Papers For Dummies steps in to help. In this easy-to-understand guide, you find out how to search for information using both traditional printed sources and the electronic treasure troves of the Internet. You also discover how to take all those bits of information, discarding the irrelevant ones, and put them into a form that illustrates your point with clarity and originality.

Here's just a sampling of the topics you'll find in Research Papers For Dummies:

  • Types of research papers, from business reports to dissertations
  • The basic ingredients of a paper: Introduction, body, conclusion, footnotes, and bibliography
  • Note-taking methods while doing research
  • Avoiding plagiarism and other research paper pitfalls
  • Defining your thesis statement and choosing a structure for your paper
  • Supporting your argument and drawing an insightful conclusion
  • Revising and polishing your prose
  • Top Ten lists on the best ways to begin your research online and in print

Research Papers For Dummies also includes an appendix that's full of research paper ideas if you're stuck.

If you're tasked with writing a research paper, chances are you already have a lot of demands on your time. You don't need another huge pile of papers to read. This book can actually save you time in the long run, because it gives you the easiest, fastest, and most successful methods for completing your paper.

Articles From Research Papers For Dummies

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Research Papers For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-04-2022

Before starting a research paper, arrange the information and notes you’ve gathered. Pick one of the basic structures for organizing your research paper and start writing with a strong introduction. Before you turn in the final draft of your paper, go through a grammar checklist — and be sure to cite your sources.

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Notetaking on the Computer

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

As far back as stone slabs and as recently as handheld computers, human beings have found ways to take note of information that they do not want to forget. And now that we're officially in the Information Age — which might be better named the Age of Too Much Information — good note taking is even more important because of the ever-increasing number of sources and amount of information available to a researcher. But the method that suits someone who cherishes a fountain pen and a yellow legal pad is not the right method for the person who can't travel more than four feet from a computer without experiencing withdrawal. Do your fingers cramp up when you write more than three sentences at a time? Don't despair. The computer is your friend. If you take notes on a computer, you may be able to Download information from Web sites or other electronic sources directly into your note file Cut and paste quotations or data from your note file into the paper Move the information around electronically to create an outline Have a perfectly legible set of notes, regardless of your handwriting skills Cut and paste bibliographic information into the bibliography and footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes Alas, computers have their disadvantages. Taking notes on the computer means that you have to Work wherever the machine is, unless you have a laptop and are willing to lug it around Discipline yourself to back up all your notes every single time you end a session at the computer (Paper Assigners greet "the computer deleted my notes" the same way they welcome "the dog ate my homework.") Scroll around the file and see only a portion of your notes at one time, until you have a chance to print the file out Spend a lot of time moving bits of information around with the "cut" and "paste" commands, until the ideas are in an acceptable order Interrupt your reading of a book or an article to go to the computer to type in a note Writing notes by hand can be such a pain that more and more people are taking notes on the computer. If you choose this method, a couple of things make life much easier: Whenever you begin using a new source, give the source a number. Keep a master list of sources in a separate file. Back up the master list every time you enter new information and print it out from time to time, storing the paper in a safe place. If you're researching from a book or article, don't type the notes into your file right away. Keep a pad of self-stick paper at hand. When you find something valuable, stick a piece of paper over the spot. (Or, if you own the book or have a photocopy of the article, highlight or circle the information.) When you finish a reading session, go back to each spot where you found something worth writing down. Type the notes, placing the number of each source and the page number next to each idea. For example: #B6 p. 2: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston — two of the best-known writers of the Harlem Renaissance.#B6 p. 6: During the Harlem Renaissance, many whites paid attention to African-American art for the first time. The notations indicate that these two facts came from source #6, a book. The first note comes from page 2 and the second from page 6. When you find information online, select it and use the command to "copy" the information. Then open a note file and "paste" (another command) the information there. Label every fact with a source number (perhaps with the prefix "W" for the Web). In a separate master-list file of sources, create a bibliographical record for that source. Write down the URL (uniform resource locator, also known as the Web address) where you found the information and everything that you can find on the Web site about the date, author, original publisher, and so on. Also note the date and time you accessed the Web site. When you have plenty of information in your note file, print it out, read it through, and begin to think about subtopics. Go back and place a keyword at the beginning of each fact or idea. For example, if you are writing about Shakespeare's Hamlet, your subtopics may be the concept of honor, the idea of revenge, and the hero's flaws. In front of each idea in your file, type "HONOR," "REVENGE," or "FLAW." Then by using the "cut" and "paste" commands, sort your notes into those three sections. You can also sort notes with the help of a database program. Databases allow you to create categories called fields. Suppose you're researching the Greek gods. You may have a field for Zeus, Hera, Athena, and others. As you take notes, you tell the computer that a particular item belongs in the "Athena" field, perhaps, and the next item is part of the "Zeus" field. When you're done, a couple of clicks will tell the computer to sort your notes and retrieve whatever you want. So when you're ready to write about Athena, for example, all the "Athena field" notes and none of the unnecessary information will pop up on the screen. When you write the paper, use the "copy" and "paste" commands to insert quotations into the text. Every time you insert a quotation or a reference that must be documented, "copy" and "paste" information from the master source list. When you're done writing, open the source-list file and put the entries into proper bibliographic form.

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Budgeting Your Time to Complete a Research Paper

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

In a perfect world, writing a major research paper would be such a delightful experience that you would eagerly jump right in and start writing a brilliant paper that's just the right length and completed on time. Unfortunately, real people living in the real world may have a tough time thinking about work that is not due for a month or so. (Actually, real people may have a tough time thinking about work at all. Life offers so many possibilities for fun!) Nevertheless, you should take a stab at creating a plan. This articles gives you guidelines for long (ten-week), medium (five-week), and short (two-week) assignments. There's even a plan to help you tackle a delicate question: What should you do when the paper is due tomorrow and you haven't even started yet? Don't assume that all weeks are created equal. Before you make a paper-writing plan, consider everything else that you have going on, including events that have no relation to the research paper you're writing. Read this section with a calendar or day-planner in hand — one that has events like "sister's wedding," "voyage to the North Pole," and "math final" listed. Now write start and end dates for each step in your research paper. Schedule a lot of work for weeks that look relatively free, and give yourself a free pass (or light duty) during busy times. Work habits are as individual as fingerprints. Be sure to adapt the following guidelines to your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the ten-week plan allots three weeks for research and three-plus weeks for writing. But if you are a jaguar when it comes to reading and a tortoise when it comes to writing, change the distribution to two weeks for research and four-plus weeks for writing. If you're reporting on the results of your own scientific experiments, figure out how much time you need to do the actual lab work and add that time to the schedule below. I've got all the time in the world: The ten-week plan No, you don't have all the time in the world. Ten weeks will become a memory faster than a survivor who's been kicked off the island. Get started right away so that you have time to polish that paper into perfection. Here's a solid plan: Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — two weeks Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — three weeks Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence, or formulating a hypothesis — three days Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — four days Writing first draft — three weeks Writing final draft — four days Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — three days The thesis statement is a declaration that you will prove in your paper. Don't confuse a thesis statement with a thesis, which is a type of research paper. Notice that there's a lot more time allocated for the first draft (three weeks) than for the final draft (one week, including the finishing touches). You will do better if you put most of your energy into a great rough draft, leaving the final draft for polishing your prose, checking details, and so on. Don't skimp on the rough draft! It's important. But don't skip the final draft, either. You'll be surprised by how much you can improve your paper if you give it two drafts. I can take my time: The five-week plan Depending on the length of the paper and the number of sources you plan to use, you may not be able to take your time at all. Here's a suggested budget: Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — one week Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — ten days Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence or formulating a hypothesis — one day Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — two days Writing first draft — ten days Writing final draft — four days Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — one day One day for finishing touches assumes that you have kept very good records and will not have to spend a lot of time worrying about the format of your citations (footnote, endnote, or parenthetical identification of sources). You should take care of those issues when you write the rough draft. I'm in a hurry but not in a panic: The two-week plan A two-week plan is called for because of one of two situations: Situation #1: The Paper Assigner gave you only two weeks because he or she wants only a limited number of sources and a fairly short piece of writing. Situation #2: The Paper Assigner gave you three months, and you spent the first two-and-a-half chasing the perfect wave on your surfboard. If Situation #2 applies to you, ask (actually, beg) the Paper Assigner for more time. If the answer is no, you're going to have to compress a lot of work into a short period. (Also, you're going to have to put the surfboard — and everything else that is fun — away for the duration.) Here's the timetable for either situation: Selecting a topic (includes preliminary reading) — two days Conducting research (finding and evaluating sources, note taking) — four days Creating a thesis statement, writing a topic sentence or formulating a hypothesis — one-half day Designing the paper (choosing a structure, identifying subtopics, outlining) — one-half day Writing first draft — four days Writing final draft — two days Making finishing touches (title page, bibliography, and so on) — one day It's due tomorrow! Okay, you're in big trouble. You've got two possible situations here: Situation #1: Your Authority Figure took part in the Spanish Inquisition and is keeping the old torture skills sharp by assigning impossible amounts of work in ridiculous amounts of time. Situation #2: You went surfing (see Situation #2 in the preceding two-week plan) and left the work until the last minute. Your only remedy is to come clean, confess that you can't do the job, and hope for mercy. If the answer is no, find out the penalty for late papers and work as quickly as you can. Load up on the major food groups — salt, grease, caffeine, and sugar — and unplug the phone. Turn off the instant messaging function on your computer, too. Pick a minimum number of sources (Internet or traditional) and read as fast as you can. You'll probably be able to create only one draft, but try (really, really, really try) to allow time — even an hour — to revise this draft. Your paper will be better in the long run. Also, after you hand the paper in, but before you go to sleep, take a moment to record your New Year's Resolutions: Resolution #1 (for Situation #1) — I won't take any more courses from professors who have trained in dungeons, or I will read the want ads every day until I find a new job. Resolution #2 (for Situation #2) — I will plan my time better so that I can avoid feeling as if my eyelids were glued to my forehead when the next paper assignment comes around. No matter what the temptation, don't fool around with artificial stimulants (other than a couple of cups of coffee or a few sodas). Little pills guaranteed to disrupt the usual human need for sleep are not worth the risk to your health. Take the rap — the lower grade or the boss's wrath — and do better the next time. Stay on the safe side so at least you know that there will be a next time.

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Forming a Thesis Statement

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

You've got a subject ("human-bear interactions") and a topic ("the relationship between Goldilocks and the three bears"). Now it's time to come up with a thesis statement — the point that you want to make about Goldie and the furry guys. A couple of possibilities occur to you — "bears that hang around people end up eating porridge and sleeping in beds," "both blonds and baby bears like medium-firm mattresses," and "humans and bears share forest resources." As you tease out a few more ideas, you search for the middle ground, avoiding a thesis statement that is too broad or too narrow. You want one that, like Goldilocks's porridge, is "just right." As soon as you've got a chunk of research, a deck of index cards, or a few files on the computer, take a few moments to reread your material. Think about what you might prove with all those facts and quotations. A couple of techniques will help you decide. Ask questions As you review your notes, do any questions occur to you? Is your curiosity piqued by anything you've written? If not, check out the next sections, "If only," "I recommend," and "Relationships," or go back to note taking and try again later. Any questions that pop into your mind arise from issues that are relevant to your topic, and issues are the breeding ground for theses. For example, suppose you're doing a psych paper on parental influence — specifically, how parental discipline affects children's behavior. You've read a ton of studies that attempt to describe the relationship between parents' actions and children's reactions. As you review your notes, you may find yourself wondering: Do children of very strict parents behave better? Does a child's reaction to strict parental rules change as the child grows older? Does spanking affect children's self-esteem? Does inconsistent discipline have a negative effect on children's behavior? Not one of these questions is a thesis, but each is a possible starting point. Possible because you can't cover them all in one paper. You have to choose. Right now, suppose that you select the second sample question. If the question of age interests you the most, read your notes again with question two in mind. Look closely at every note concerned with discipline, age, and rules. Put little check marks next to information about children's behavior — the behavior of those children identified as having trouble in school or with the law, perhaps. If necessary, go back to the library or the Internet for more research on the relationship between discipline techniques, age, and children's behavior. If you can, do some statistical analysis to see which factors matter and which are simply coincidence. After you've finished those tasks, you're probably ready to take a stand. Express that stand in a single sentence, perhaps this one: Children of very strict parents follow the rules diligently until adolescence, but not during the teen years. Now you've got the basis for your paper: the thesis statement. (By the way, the preceding paragraphs are just an example, not necessarily a psychological truth!) If only Another way to hunt for a thesis is to consider the "if only" spots in your paper. This method is particularly helpful for history projects. Again, start by rereading your notes. Look for moments when the entire course of historical events might have changed, if only one decision or one detail had been different. For example, suppose you're writing about a famous incident involving Humpty Dumpty. You've read eyewitness accounts, historians' analysis of the events, and doctors' descriptions of the injuries Mr. Dumpty suffered. Now you're ready to make a thesis statement. For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, here are the "facts" of the case: Victim: Humpty Dumpty, male egg Physical description: Round but delicate build, oval face, pale complexion Age: FreshDate of incident: Nineteenth century Place: King's walled courtyard Description of incident: Victim had a great fall from a wall approximately ten feet high. Bystanders called 911 immediately. King's horses and king's men arrived within ten minutes. Entire battalion of horses and men worked on the victim for 45 minutes, but could not put him back together again. After reviewing all your material, you think If only the top of the wall had been shaped like an egg crate, giving Humpty Dumpty more stability If only Humpty Dumpty had eaten a calcium-rich, shell-strengthening diet If only the king's men had had more training in re-gluing than in military maneuvers The last "if only" in the preceding list gives you an idea for a thesis, which you turn into a sentence: The emphasis on militarism in the training of the king's men led to the tragic demise of Humpty Dumpty. I recommend Depending upon your topic, another road to a thesis statement comes from the phrase "I recommend." This road is especially helpful if you're writing about science, social science, technology, or any area that looks toward the future. Review your notes and ask yourself what improvements you'd like to see in the situation or conditions. Then ask yourself what should be changed to bring about those improvements. Here's this method in action. Suppose you're writing about fatal accidents. One of your sources is the Humpty Dumpty incident, described in the preceding section, "If only." As you scan your notes, think about the improvements that you would like to see — perhaps the prevention of shattering injuries caused by falls. What should be changed to bring about that improvement? The addition of calcium supplements to the water supply, a change in the design of palace architecture, additional training in egg gluing for emergency medical personnel, or something else? One of those ideas becomes your thesis statement: To prevent serious injury, architects should design safer walls. Relationships Another thesis catcher is the relationship question, especially helpful when you're writing about literature. As you're poring over your notes, look for events or ideas that belong together in one of these ways: cause and effect, contrast, or similarity. For example, suppose you're writing about the murder of the king in a modern drama, Macbeth Revisited (not a real play). You delve into English politics during the Thatcher era and decide that the factions portrayed in the play reflect the conflict between contemporary English political parties. Now you've got a "relationship" thesis. The strife between the Googrubs and the McAgues in Macbeth Revisited mirrors the conflict between the Labor and Tory parties in the late twentieth century. Or, suppose you're writing about energy and pollution. You contrast fossil fuels with solar power, deciding on this thesis statement: Solar energy is less harmful to the environment than fossil fuels.

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Surviving Research Paper Disasters

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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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Grammar Checklist for Your Research Paper

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

After countless hours of research and writing, you don’t want to turn in a final draft with grammatical errors. Use this handy grammar checklist to inspect your research paper for mistakes: Be sure that the subject of the sentence agrees with the verb — singular subject with singular verb, plural subject with plural verb. Write about literature in present tense. Write about history in past tense. Use the had form of the verb to show an action occurring before another action. Don’t change tenses unnecessarily. Be sure that every pronoun replaces one (and only one) noun. Be especially careful with that, which, and this. Never use these pronouns to refer to a loose collection of ideas. Be sure that the meaning of each pronoun is clear. Don’t place a pronoun where it may refer to more than one noun. Place all descriptions near the word they describe. End every sentence with an endmark (period, question mark, exclamation point).

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Note Taking Tips for Research Papers

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

While you’re working on your research paper, develop some savvy note-taking habits that will save you loads of time later. Use these tricks for taking notes and organizing your research: Keep a master list of all sources, including title, author, date, publishing information, and page numbers. Give each source a code number, and label each note with the code and page number. If the source doesn’t have page numbers, include any other location information. If you write the exact words you found in the source, enclose the words in quotation marks. If the source credits someone else, write that information in your notes also. If you highlight information in a book or article, keep a “table of contents” listing the main idea of each highlight and the page on which it appears.

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Useful Structures for Organizing Research Information

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Selecting the structure for organizing all the information you’ve gathered is part of writing your research paper. Try one of these basic structures for your paper: Chronological order Comparison and contrast Pro and con arguments Cause and effect Groups affected by the event or issue

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When to Cite Sources on Research Papers

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

A huge faux-pas in the world of research papers is stealing someone else’s ideas. You need to give credit for your sources of information when you’re writing your research paper. Use these rules for citing your sources: Provide a citation for all direct quotations from printed, electronic, or human sources. Cite the source whenever you employ someone else’s ideas, even if you express them in your own words. Cite the source when you use a train of logic or an organizational pattern created by someone else. Don’t cite the source for information that is common knowledge.

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