Types of Sources
Before getting started it's important to understand the different types of resources there are out there, and how/when this information is produced. Watch the Information Cycle Video from Penn State University Libraries. Purdue OWL has a great page on Types of Sources.
Timing your Research
Plan your time so that you don't leave thing to last minute. A research paper requires time to gather background information; brainstorm; create a preliminary outline; search and evaluate sources; read and analyze sources, and incorporate what you're learning into your working knowledge; revise your outline based on what you've learned; write first draft; do more research to fill in the missing gaps (if any) in your draft; and finally rewrite draft as many times as is required to meet the parameters of the assignment. Use the Assignment Calculator from Minnesota Libraries to plan your time effective.
Selecting the Right Sources
Let's face it, most of us start our research on the Internet rather than library resources, so it is important for you to understand that "[t]he World Wide Web offers information and data from all over the world. Because so much information is available, and because that information can appear to be fairly 'anonymous,' it is necessary to develop skills to evaluate what you find. When you use a research or academic library, the books, journals, and other resources have already been evaluated by scholars, publishers and librarians. Every resource you find has been evaluated in one way or another before you ever see it. When you are using the World Wide Web, none of this applies. There are no filters. Because anyone can write a Web page, documents of the widest range of quality, written by authors of the widest range of authority, are available on an even playing field. Excellent resources reside along side the most dubious. The Internet epitomizes the concept of Caveat lector: Let the reader beware." from John Hopkins University.
One method of evaluating websites is called PACAC - purpose, authority, content, accuracy and currency. While all of these are important criteria for evaluating websites, you MUST establish authority if you plan on using a source for an academic purpose. See the Evaluating Web Resources box on this page for additional guidance.
Using Sources: Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing
Understanding how to properly quote, paraphrase and summarize can help you avoid plagiarism. To learn more, try the Plagiarism Tutorial from San Jose State University (flash) or (no flash). Some useful sites include: Quoting, Paraphrasing, Summarizing (from Purdue OWL) and Avoiding Plagiarism (from GCC Library). A great site on notetaking skills is Taking Lecture Notes and Class Notes (from Darmouth); learning and applying these skills in your research process will save you time and frustration later.
Choosing a Topic
If you do not have a pre-assigned topic, select a topic of interest to you. Try to pick something you want to learn more about. For help on choosing a topic, try any of the Library Databases and select the "Topics" link for ideas. Also, the try the "10,000 Ideas" book found at the Reference Desk. Read more at Purdue OWL's Choosing a Topic.
Before getting started with your research, it’s important to have a clear idea about what you are seeking. This means you need to be able to accurately and comprehensively describe your topic. Do a quick web search to learn more about your topic and note different keywords used to describe your topic. Reference sources are a great tool for finding concise, authoritative information. Try the Credo Reference Library Database, which includes over 450 electronic reference books such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, quotations, and atlases, plus a wide range of subject-specific reference titles.
As you are doing background research, document related keywords and topics. Keywords are important concepts or descriptive words that can be used to describe what you are seeking when searching for information in databases, the online catalog, or on the web. Keywords are also referred to as subject terms, subject headings, descriptors, or index terms. All of these words mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably. When searching online, the results you end up with will only be as strong as the keywords used. If incorrect or obscure keywords are being used to describe your subject, chances are your search results will reflect this. Try some of the Brainstorming Techniques from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Creating an outline helps organize your ideas into categories and facilitates the writing process. Purdue OWL's Outline Components and How to Outline can help you get started. Your preliminary outline will likely change as you start your research and find out more about your topic
Finally! It's Time to Look for Sources: Searching and Researching
Make note of which databases you use, your search terms (keywords vs. subjects, topics, or descriptors), search results and relevance of results retrieved. This will save time in case you need to redo your search later.
Here's a simple table useful for keeping track of your research so that you don't repeat unproductive searches later:
|Search Terms Entered/Search Strategy Used
|Number of Hits
|Notes, observations, useful tips for further research
|vegetarianism / Subject Search
|definitions, historical overviews, encyclopedia entries on social issues such as diet, philosophy, religion, health*
|vegetarianism AND health / Subject
|Only a couple of useful articles here
|vegetarianism AND health risks / All text
|Too many results, the first page of results didn't look useful
|vegetarianism AND health risks/Subject Search
|Suggested subjects. Much more useful. Lots of information about different types of health risks associated with being a vegetarian.
Citing Sources in Modern Language Association Style (MLA)
GCC Library's Citing Sources Page
GCC Library's Citing Sources Page
Citation Generators: Easybib.com (make sure to edit automatically generated citations!)
Ebook: Easybib's Visual Guide to Citations including Parenthetical Citations
Purdue OWL's MLA In-text Citations
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