Writing a Research Paper

The following steps outline a simple and effective strategy for writing a research paper. Depending on your familiarity with the topic and the challenges you encounter along the way, you may need to rearrange these steps.

  • Step 1: Identify and Develop Your Topic

    Here are some tips:

    • Often times your instructor will give you clear guidelines as to what you can and cannot write about. Make sure you stay within the guidelines.
    • Select a topic of personal interest to you and learn more about it. It will make the assignment more enjoyable.
    • Select a topic you can find a manageable amount of information about. Start by searching your topic to see if existing sources will meet your needs. If you find too much information, you may need to narrow your topic; if you find too little, you may need to broaden your topic.
    • Be original. Your instructor reads hundreds of research papers every year, so stand out from your classmates by selecting an interesting and off-the-beaten-path topic.
    • Still can't come up with a topic to write about? See your instructor for advice.

    Once you have identified your topic, it may help to state it as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about the epidemic of obesity in the American population, you might pose the question, "What are the causes of obesity in America?" By posing your subject as a question you can more easily identify the main concepts or keywords to be used in your research.

  • Step 2: Do a Preliminary Search for Information

    Before diving into your research, do a preliminary search to determine whether there is enough information out there to meet your needs. Start by looking up your topic's appropriate keywords in encyclopedias, dictionaries, the NHCC library catalog of books, periodical databases and search engines. You might also find additional background information in your lecture notes, textbooks and reserve readings. Depending on the amount of the resources available to you, you may have to adjust the focus of your topic.

  • Step 3: Locate Materials

    Now that the direction of your research is clear to you, you can begin locating material on your topic. There are a number of places you can look for information:

    • If you are looking for books, do a subject search in the Alephcatalog. If that doesn't yield enough results, try a keyword search. Print or write down the citation information (author, title, etc.) and the location (call number and collection) of the items. Also, note the circulation status. When locating the book on the shelf, remember to look at the books located nearby; similar items are always shelved in the same area. The Aleph catalog also indexes the library's audio-visual holdings.
    • Use the library's electronic periodical databases to find magazine and newspaper articles. Choose the databases and formats best suited to your particular topic; ask at the librarian at the Reference Desk if you need help figuring out which database best meets your needs. Many of the articles in the databases are available in full-text format.
    • Use search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.) and subject directories (such as the Librarian's Guide to the Internet) to locate materials on the internet. Check the Internet Resources section of the NHCC Library web site for helpful subject links.
  • Step 4: Evaluate Your Sources

    See the CARS Checklist for Information Quality for tips on evaluating the authority and quality of the information you have located. Your instructor expects that you will provide credible, truthful, and reliable information, and you have every right to expect that the sources you use are providing the same. This step is especially important when using internet resources, many of which are regarded as less than reliable.

  • Step 5: Make Notes

    When reading through your resources, note the information that will be useful in your paper. Be sure to document all the sources you consult, even if you there is a chance you may not use that particular source. The author, title, publisher, URL, and other information will be needed later when creating a bibliography.

  • Step 6: Write Your Paper

    Begin by organizing the information you have collected. Then begin writing a rough draft. Remember, the purpose of this step is to get your ideas on paper and help you organize your thoughts. This step will help determine the form your final paper will take. After this, you will revise the draft as many times as you think necessary to create a final product to turn in to your instructor.

  • Step 7: Cite Your Sources Properly

    Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes:

    1. It gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used
    2. It allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed as references. The MLA and theAPA Styles are two popular citation formats.

    Failure to cite your sources properly is plagiarism. Plagiarism is avoidable!

  • Step 8: Proofread

    Finally, make sure to proofread the paper you have created. Read through the text and check for any errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Make sure the sources you used are properly cited and the message that you want to convey to the reader has been thoroughly stated.

Evaluating the Credibility of Sources

Unlike most traditional sources of information (books, magazines, etc.), no one has to evaluate or approve internet content before it is made public. Therefore, due to a wide range of content accuracy, reliability and value, is your job as a researcher to evaluate your sources.

The CARS (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support) checklist is designed to assist researchers in evaluating information sources. Although few sources will meet every single criterion on this list, applying this criteria will help to separate the high-quality information from the low-quality information as you do your research.

  • Credibility

    Credibility is a measure of the authenticity or reliability of a source of information. To determine credibility you may ask, "Why should I believe this source of information over another?" or, "How does this source know this information?"

    Indicators of Credibility

    • Author’s Credentials - his or her training and education in a field relevant to the information. Look for the author’s degree or title or position of employment. Does the author provide contact information? If the source is an organization or group, is it a respected body (i.e., the Mayo Clinic, the American Dental Association)
    • Evidence of Quality Control - most scholarly information passes through a peer review process, where several experts within that field of study review the author’s writings to ensure that their conclusions are valid and in line with current knowledge in the field. Journals of this type are known as academic or scholarly, and are available both online and in print formats. Information presented on organizational websites is also generally peer-reviewed, since it is issued in the name of an organization (i.e. American Psychological Association).

    Indicators of a Possible Lack of Credibility

    • Anonymity (No Author Listed)
    • Lack of Quality Control
    • Poor Visual Presentation of Information - credible authors/websites present their information in a well-organized and professional manner. If the website is poorly designed and put together it can be an indicator that the information is less than credible.
    • Bad Grammar and/or Misspelled Words - educated people use grammar fairly well and check their work for spelling errors. An occasional error is not unusual, but more than two or three spelling or grammar errors is cause for caution.
  • Accuracy

    The goal of the accuracy test is to ensure that the information is correct, up-to-date, detailed, exact and comprehensive. Keep in mind, the more information you have on a subject, the better able you will be to make an informed judgment as to a source's accuracy.

    Indicators of Accuracy

    • Timeliness - a measure of how up-to-date information is. In many disciplines (i.e., the sciences, medicine, technology) timeliness is a very important measure of the relevance of information, and therefore, its accuracy. Be sure to note when the information you find was created and then decide whether it is still of value. Old information is not necessarily bad, for example, nineteenth-century American history books or literary anthologies can be highly educational when compared with what is being written or anthologized now.
    • Comprehensiveness - the ideal article or website presents a thorough discussion of the subject, which is why we rely on more than one source in different formats (books, scholarly journal articles, material from an online databases, etc.).
    • Lack of a Bias - by addressing all sides of an issue, the author ensures that you have a complete and objective treatment of the topic. Biased information is not completely useless, but the bias must be taken into consideration when you interpret and use the information.

    Indicators of a Possible Lack of Accuracy

    • Omitting Information - a source that deliberately leaves out important facts, qualifications, consequences, or alternatives, may be misleading or even intentionally deceptive.
    • Vague or Sweeping Generalizations - does not provide exact facts and figures.
    • No Date on the Document - or a very old document can be problematic when reporting on time-sensitive information.
    • One-Sided - a very one-sided view that does not acknowledge opposing views or respond to them.
  • Reasonableness

    The measure of reasonable information lies in its fairness, objectivity, moderateness and consistency.

    Indicators of Reasonableness

    • Fairness - look for a balanced and well-reasoned argument. The tone of the article should be factual and thoughtful. A good information source will possess a calm, reasoned tone, arguing or presenting material thoughtfully and without attempting to get you emotionally worked up.
    • Objectivity - pure objectivity is almost impossible to find, but a good writer should be able to control his or her biases. You need to be aware that some individuals and organizations are naturally not neutral.
    • Moderateness - a test of the information against how the world really is. Use your own knowledge and experience to ask if the information is really likely, possible or probable. If you find claims that are surprising or difficult to believe, use caution and demand more evidence than you might require for a lesser claim.
    • Consistency - the facts and findings in an article or website should not contradict themselves in other parts of the same article or website.

    Indicators of a Possible Lack of Reasonableness

    • Tone - a shrill or overly aggressive tone on the part of the author can mean a lack of reasonableness.
    • Overclaims - when the language is too grandiose, hyperbolic or exaggerated.
    • Sweeping Generalizations - i.e., "It is obvious to everyone that…".
    • Data that Contradicts Itself
    • Conflict of Interest - i.e. "The products our competitors make are dangerous and bad for your health."
  • Support

    Most information presented in an article comes from other sources. Ask yourself: Where did this information come from? What sources did the information creator use? Is there a bibliography or other documentation? How does the writer know this? By properly citing and acknowledging sources of information, an author strengthens his or her credibility.

    Indicators of Support

    • Corroboration - do other sources agree with the information in this source? Corroboration or confirmability is an important test. It's a good rule of thumb to find at least three sources that agree with each other. If your sources do not agree, you should do further research to find out the range of opinion or disagreement before you draw your own conclusions.
    • External Consistency - does the source agree or harmonize with other sources, or does it conflict, exaggerate, or distort? If is a source is faulty where it discusses something you already know, it is likely to be faulty in areas you do not yet know. Therefore, be cautious and skeptical about trusting it.
    • Evidence - the claims made in the article are supported by facts and/or figures, the source of which is clearly noted.
    • Citation - the writer uses proper documentation and the citing of the sources for facts and statistics. A bibliography or list of references at the end of the article or website, for example, is important.

    Indicators of a Possible Lack of Support

    • No Sources - numbers or statistics are presented without an identified source.
    • No Corroboration - you cannot find any other sources that present the same information or acknowledge that the same information exists.
    • No Evidence - claims are made by the author but are not supported with evidence.

Citing Your Sources

APA Style

MLA Style