Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to Write a Research Paper.

So you have to write a research paper for the science class that you had to take. Now what!?

First, what is a research paper? A research paper is a way of synthesizing information about a topic from a variety of sources in a coherent fashion. You will want to have enough information written in an organized manner to demonstrate to your professor that you learned something about the topic. You will want the paper to be well written and organized so you get a good grade and you don't bore your professor (this may not seem important but remember that she will be determining your grade and may have a lot of papers to grade. So make the paper stand out in a good way!)

1. Pick a topic that's interesting to you. Sometimes your professor will give you a list of topics; other times you will be given some general guidelines and have to come up with your own topic. Since you will be spending a fair amount of time doing research and writing for this assignment you should find something that may be of interest to you. Many students have no clue what to write about. You could start with your text book and see what jumps out at you. Perhaps you have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a disease that you could learn more about. Or you can look over the short articles at ScienceDaily where recent research papers are summarized.

2. Make sure the topic is appropriate to the assignment. Your topic should be within the parameters of what your professor wants. Read the instructions (you will see this statement many times because far too many students fail this part of the assignment!) or check with your professor. Listen to what she says during class about the requirements of the paper and write it down! You will want to make sure that your topic is not too broad so that you can include details and real information in your paper. Glossing over topics and writing a superficial paper will make it a boring paper for your professor to read and will likely result in you earning fewer points.

3. Use appropriate sources for the information for your paper. There is a lot of information on the web that can be used to write a research paper. Many of it will not be appropriate, some will. Your search for information should always begin at the library. Your library will have subscribed to a variety of databases that can be searched. Think of databases as a smaller version of Google. The database will be a collection of research papers or books that can be searched. Searching databases is more focused than doing a Google search. Google should not be your main way of looking for information for your research paper!

Some good sources of information:
  - an encyclopedia. Some good ones are Encylopedia Britannica, Tree of Life
  - articles in Scientific American
  - books
  - review articles in scientific journals. These have summarized the research results from a large number of labs. They are written for other scientists but many non-scientists should be able to read and understand it.
   - research papers in scientific journals.
   - some information from organizations such as American Cancer Society or similar organizations is ok but they should not be the main source of your information.

What is not appropriate?
  - Blogs
  - Wikipedia!
  - Videos or news pieces. Some professors may allow documentaries but you should always check first.
  - News articles. A single news article can be used as a starting point for a research paper but should not be a main source of information.

*** Be wary of web sites and organizations that claim there is a conspiracy or scientists are bought by companies to keep information hidden. Most of your information for a research paper should be coming from scientific articles and books. Do not rely only on web-based information from sources that are not familiar. If you are getting information from an organization that is not recognizable make sure to check the validity of the information presented! 

4. Write the paper in your own words! A research paper is not a collection of quotes connected together by a few words or sentences of your own. Once you've started gathering your sources, you should first read the source without taking notes. This will give you a good idea of what information is there and what is likely to be relevant to your paper. Then you can take your notes. Note at the top of your paper, the source, include all the information that you will need for your bibliography/end notes/work cited. Do not write in complete sentences and write the notes in your own words. You will find that there are some things that can't be rewritten in your own words. This does not mean you should quote the material. For example, many papers on AIDS and the virus that causes it has this sentence: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is caused by human immunodeficiency virus. There really isn't a way to write this any differently so you don't need to quote it. If you take notes in your own words then you will have to worry less about plagiarism.

When using information from a research paper, you do not need to write many details about how the experiment was done. What you should include is the relevant results and conclusions. Do not fill up your paper with extraneous words and information.

5. Organizing your notes will result in an organized paper. After writing notes of all the information from different sources, you should organize them so that the various pieces of information fit together. Often your professor will suggest that you make an outline. Here is a good explanation of an outline and how to put it together: What is an Outline? When writing your own outline you don't have to be so formal with Roman numerals, etc. but you should organize your thoughts before attempting to do any writing. Make sure you include your sources in your outline. You don't need the full reference but enough so you know where the information came from. This will help you to properly cite the sources when writing your paper (see #7).

6. Use transitions. When you are writing your paper, remember that the various sections should be linked together so that the paper flows. The last sentence of a paragraph should lead from that paragraph and into the topic of the next paragraph.

7. Properly cite your sources. Only listing your sources at the end of the paper is insufficient for a science research paper. You need to use in text citations. Make sure you use the proper format for your citations. Your professor will let you know what is required. For a science paper this will often be APA or AMA format. Here's a good resource of How and When to cite in a paper. And make sure to include your list of references at the end of your paper and in the proper format! Make sure you have the correct information. LOOK for the list of authors. If the source is a research paper in a journal you should have authors, title of the paper, year published (the month and day should not be included), journal name, volume, and page numbers.

8. Use correct spelling and proper grammar. This is a critical skill to learn. When you are out in the workforce, you want to be able to demonstrate that you do know what you are talking about! A poorly written letter/email/report will suggest that you do not. If you struggle with this, you should consult the tutors in the writing center. Also, read the paper out loud. You will often find your own mistakes when you actually hear them yourself!
      a. Avoid use of vernacular language. This is every day type of language. Words such as lots, a lot, got, gotten, etc. should be avoided. And it goes without saying that using texting type shorthand should NEVER be used!
      b. Make sure your tenses match. If you use the past tense make sure to use it throughout the paper. Generally when talking about research that was done in the past, the past tense should be used.
      c. Your subject and verb should match. This means that if you have more than one subject, the verb should be also for multiple subjects. For example: Chimpanzees have opposable thumbs. But also remember that inanimate subjects can't do anything. For example, when referencing a source, authors can state or conclude. The institutions in which the research was performed or the journal in which the paper was published cannot state or conclude.
       d. 15 words you should refrain from using!

9. Proofread your paper! Once you've written your paper you should set it aside for a few days. Then go back and reread the paper. You may even want to read the paper out loud. If it sounds weird or not right, correct it!

1 comment:

Brittany Caldwell said...

Thank you! It's very helpful for you to mention just writing down everything first, then organizing it. This really helped me to get started with the paper and continue making progress.