One of the most complex parts about writing a college-level research-based paper is the research process itself.
Finding and organizing good source material, using that source material correctly, and then citing it can all be pretty daunting, eating up valuable time that you could be spending doing other work or enjoying college life.
At College Choice, we’re all about helping you thrive in school, so we’ve put together this quick, image-based guide to conducting research, using source material, and citing it right. All you have to do is take a look.
In our previous guide, How to Write a Research Paper… And Get an A+, we taught you how to:
- Understand what your professor wants from your writing
- Organize your paper writing process
- Use prewriting to generate ideas and create an excellent draft
- Write a thesis and transition sentences
- Revise/edit your paper before handing it in
So, if you’re still trying to figure out how to actually write a paper, head over to our fantastic resource for help.
But, more likely, you’re here because you need help:
- Understanding source credibility
- Conducting research quickly
- Organizing the research process
- Integrating sources into your work using paraphrases, summaries, or quotations
- Citing sources correctly
Here, you’ll learn how to save time and energy on what many people consider to be the most dull and time-consuming part of the paper writing process. Let’s get started!
How do I Know if a Source is Good or Not?
In our other guide to paper writing, How to Write a Research Paper… And Get an A+, we helped you understand how to actually write a paper—generate ideas, create thesis statements and transitions, and edit a paper a prof will actually want to read.
Here, we’re going to focus on making the paper credible.
How do I know if a source is credible?
That important aspect—credibility—all begins with one thing: research.
You might know that this brilliant old guy, Aristotle, came up with three different things that folks needed to balance while they created written or oral arguments:
- Ethos – a writer or speaker’s ability to establish credibility
- Pathos – a writer or speaker’s ability to appeal to the imaginative mind
- Logos – a writer or speaker’s ability to appeal to the rational mind
To make a good presentation, you’ve got to keep these things in balance—too much ethos and the paper is stilted and insincere, too much pathos and the paper is overly emotional and ineffective, too much logos and the paper is cold and dull.
It should look like this:
Or, if you’d like it put another way, like this:
What you’re shooting to do is put your paper squarely in that little space in the middle—where all the circles intersect.
As well, the research you collect for your paper should connect clearly to one or more of these categories.
To be clear, strong research is integral not only to developing and supporting the ideas of your paper but to developing your connection with those who will experience your paper.
Here’s how good research shapes your ideas and the paper you create around those ideas:
- For Ethos, strong research will help you fully understand your topic, which will give you credibility with your audience.
- For Pathos, strong research will help you understand the nuances of a complex issue, which you can use to craft a stronger emotional appeal.
- For Logos, strong research will help you understand the data that supports your claim, which you can use to form support for your main argument.
You’re going to want research that can help you in each category so that your paper is well-rounded and interesting.
Choosing the Right Piece of Research
But how do you know if you should use a particular piece of research in your own paper? It’s actually quite simple to figure out.
Here are some questions that you can ask yourself as you comb through the research to help you narrow your focus and guide you as you go:
- Are the ideas, concepts, and data simple to translate for my paper or do they require a lot of technical knowledge?
- How does this information reinforce my view? If it doesn’t, how can I acknowledge its importance to my topic without giving up ground on my argument?
- What credentials do the authors have and how does that strengthen my argument and perspective?
- How can I leverage the anecdotes from this writing for use in my own paper?
- If I use this research, do I risk undercutting my ability to persuade readers through emotion?
- How can I use metaphor to help explain overly technical aspects of the concept to my audience?
- Can I boil down the main points of this article for use in my own work, or does the source cover too much ground?
- How can I adapt the data and numbers found in this article effectively, allowing me to prove my point and not bore the reader out of their mind?
- How is this research credible?—from what institution/s does it come, has it been peer-reviewed, and is it both recent and relevant?
Only use a piece of information/research if you can easily answer the above questions.
Otherwise, move on. There’s plenty of research out there, and there’s no need to waste time on one thing if you can find something simpler and more effective elsewhere.
So, to review—the importance of balancing Aristotle’s rhetoric can’t be understated.
Be sure you’re aware of how your writing is working in each of these three categories, and that it achieves a sense of continuity and focus by working evenly in each.
Yes, research is complex, but it doesn’t have to be time consuming. Here, we’ll show you a few simple ways to master the research process and save time, all the while writing a killer paper that will shore up a good grade for you!
What Are the Most Important Parts of the Writing Process?
One reason that students write crappy papers is because they fail to spend the time developing the right parts of their writing habits.
The three places where you should spend the most writing time as a college student are:
- Prewriting and the First Draft
- Final Draft and Editing
In our fantastic writing guide, How to Write a Research Paper… And Get an A+, we showed you how to master number 1 and number 3.
Here, we’re going to show you how to find the best research with amazing speed, so that you can get onto other important things.
How Should I do Research?
Many moons ago, research involved going to the library, combing through the card catalog, thumbing through stacks of books, writing down notes and then typing a paper over and over and over again. No more!
We have simple, user-friendly tools of convenience, though we often aren’t aware of them.
In the Digital Age, research should be a cinch, but—too often—students don’t understand how to use the tools available to them. So they take the path of least resistance (which also happens to be the path to a mediocre grade).
For example, when you have to do a paper, you probably head right to Google and type your subject into the search bar, right?
You then work through the first page of links, most of which are drastically similar, non-academic, or inadequate for a college-level research paper.
You take the info from these websites, slap them into your paper—sometimes paying attention to citation and quoting format—and hand that sucker in.
And you do all this the night before the paper is due.
But, for some odd reason, you’re still surprised when you get a D or failing grade on that paper.
This has got to stop! There are so many other simple ways to complete the goals your prof has set before you—ways that will get you that A+ you’re looking for.
And guess what, they’re pretty darn simple, too.
Where Should I Begin Researching?
The library will never steer you wrong, but it can be a bit of a time suck. Before logging into your campus library or heading over to work on site, we recommend getting a large chunk of your research done before you ever leave the dorm room.
When you start out on the path to research, you should begin by using Wikipedia. It’s a beautiful tool when used correctly.
Here are some sure-fire safe ways to use Wikipedia in your academic writing:
- Getting a firm grasp on the subject as a whole
- Getting an up-to-date or cutting-edge POV on a long debated subject
- Getting specific academic articles and resources cited with in your subject’s wiki
For a step by step look at this, take a look at this handy tutorial we put together. It will give you a great start to Wikipedia-based research.
Another place to go is Google Scholar. To say it plain: You should never do research for your college paper on regular ol’ Google. You should do it on Google Scholar.
This search engine combs the Internet for scholarly, credible materials—plain and simple.
Just about anything you find on Google Scholar will be fair game for you to use in a paper.
Is Google Scholar a Good Tool to Use?
It’s a fantastic tool. But there are a few things you need to remember while using Google Scholar, or any other research tool for that matter:
1. Never pay for research
Sometimes you will be prompted to put in a credit card to access a piece of research—don’t do it! If that happens and you feel like you need the article, note the author, title, publication, and year. Then bring that information to your campus or local library. They will more than likely be able to find it for you for free.
2. Always modify your search
Even with Google Scholar’s focused research algorithm, there are still thousands, even millions, of articles to comb through. Get familiar with tools that narrow your research, and use them every time. We’ll show you how below.
3. Keep track of what you want to use
Be sure that you’re printing off abstract pages with relevant information about articles or keeping another record of articles that fit your needs. It can be really, really easy to blow through a ton of articles and neglect to keep track about what you like or want to use from each one. Keep paper notes, or print off work and highlight as you go.
4. Use Primary and Secondary Source Material
Primary source materials are things like original documents, eyewitness accounts, data collected from the field.
Secondary sources are materials based on primary sources, like criticism, responses to original works, and other non-first hand evaluations of work.
If you’re writing about the Civil War, a letter about the Battle of Gettysburg written by a soldier would be Primary and an essay written about letters from the Civil War-era would be Secondary. Both are valuable to understanding the Battle of Gettysburg.
5. Focus on the 5 W’s
So much can develop during the research process. It’s best to stay focused on the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why of your research. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the how 😉
Follow those rules and you’re golden. So, are you ready to get to it?
How do I Stay Organized While Doing Research?
First, let’s get practical. If we’re going to show you how to cut your research time in half, we’re going to need a tangible example to play with.
For continuity’s sake, let’s pretend you’re writing a persuasive paper about the death penalty and why it should be abolished.
Second, you MUST follow one simple rule: While you’re doing research, don’t get distracted! Only collect articles you need! Worry about the specifics of how you will use the articles later.
How do I Cut My Research Time in Half?
You head over to Google Scholar and type in “capital punishment”—the technical name for the death penalty. How much research is at your disposal?
Holy moly! That’s a TON of reading! Do you have time to read over a million articles? Oy vey—who does?
You’re clearly going to need to narrow down your research.
There’s a really simple way to do it, and once you understand how to use it, you’re going to want to send us a love letter.
Click this little button to get a handy drop-down menu:
Look at all those fields! They’re there to help you narrow down the search! So get started by thinking of words that pertain directly to your paper, like states where the death penalty isn’t active but also isn’t abolished, like Kentucky:
And more specific words that have to do with the topic itself:
And words that you don’t want to appear in the article, or words that you see popping up over and over again that don’t pertain to your paper:
And, lastly, the most important—the date range. This will help you pick up relevant and up-to-date material:
Now, hit that search bar again. How did we do?
Yes! Success! We just narrowed that search field like whoa!
Yes, a hundred articles is a lot to read, but it certainly isn’t a million. Pro tip: You don’t have to read nearly all of them.
Just scan, read abstracts, and take note of how the source will be useful.
What do you want to bet the first 10-20 you read will be immediately applicable and useful because you’ve narrowed that search so effectively? Almost all of them.
Those 10-20 will likely fit all your prof’s paper parameters. And now all you have to do is take care of the small issue of staying organized.
How do I Keep Track of All These Articles?
After a quick search on Google Scholar, you find this article from USA Today—not from a journal, but certainly credible:
It supports all three parts of Aristotle’s Rhetoric at work in your paper:
- Ethos (a well-written article from a nationally syndicated source)
- Pathos (a human interest piece about that demonstrated the cruelty of the state taking the life of a person)
- Logos (it contains facts and figures about death row that would be useful in helping drive home your point)
You should use it! But how do you keep track of it without derailing your research time?
There’s nothing wrong with a classic: USE NOTECARDS!
Note cards are cheap and simple. They have only a little space, so you can’t get bogged down in the minutia of each article. Use one note card for each article you want to use.
Here’s how these suckers should look:
See how simple that is?
You only list the title, author(s), date, source, and importance to your research. That last one is the only dissecting of the article you should do right now!
Once you’ve found the amount of articles required by your prof to complete the assignment, you should stop and move on to developing how you will use the material in your paper.
How do I Use My Sources in my Paper?
Once you’ve gathered all your research, you’ll need to integrate it into your paper. There are three simple ways to do this: Paraphrase, Summarize, and Quote.
Here, we’ll show you how to use each, parenthetically representing the citation by using that word.
What’s the Difference Between a Summary and a Paraphrase?
Simple: A Summary is a broad look at a piece of source material–taking a complicated idea and boiling it down. A Paraphrase is taking a piece of source material and putting it into your own words. Both involve citing the original source material.
Let’s say you want to take this piece of information from that USA Today article you found:
“The emotional and financial toll of prosecuting a single capital case to its conclusion, along with the increased availability of life without parole and continuing court challenges to execution methods, have made the ultimate punishment more elusive than at any time since its reinstatement in 1976.”
That’s a bit of a complicated sentence… We’ll cover Paraphrase first.
What is Paraphrase?
Paraphrasing is when you render the concepts of a specific idea into your own words. Simple enough, eh?
Here’s how you would paraphrase the above source material from USA today:
In Texas, since the 70s, the pursuit of a capital punishment for any crime is becoming increasingly rare due to alternative punishments, like life in prison without the possibility of parole, and the extreme costs—both in money and energy—of trying to get a conviction. (CITATION)
See, not so tough… This Paraphrase doesn’t use any of the exact language from the above cited material, but does convey the same information.
Also, notice the citation, which tells your reader that you’re not making this up or stealing.
In your paper, you should be using Paraphrases to synthesize information 75% of the time.
So, what’s the difference between a Paraphrase and a Summary then?
What is a Summary?
Also quite easy to explain: A summary should be used to take a broad idea and make it into something very simple.
Here is how one might Summarize the above material:
In Texas, several factors contribute to the decline of the use of the death penalty in America during the latter half of the 20th century. (CITATION)
Again, no direct language is used. This author has taken the pith of the paragraph and simplified it dramatically, removing the specifics and qualifying the information to serve the purposes of their paper. And there is a citation to signal to the reader that the material is borrowed.
Summarizing also falls into that 75% rule. You should be doing far more than our next category, Quoting.
What is a Quote?
Of all three of these ways to integrate source material, Quoting is the easiest and should be used sparingly. Be sure you don’t forget to use quotation marks!
Only use a quote for one of two reasons:
- If the language is specific, memorable, or authoritative
- If the original language is necessary for making your claim or proving your argument
To quote material, follow a very simple order: Signal > Quote > Cite.
If we were using the above piece of material, we would quote it this way.
First, write a signal phrase:
In their USA Today Article, reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson write…
Now, add in the quote:
In their USA Today Article, reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson write that “the emotional and financial toll of prosecuting a single capital case…” has caused the death penalty to decline substantially in Texas. (CITATION)
You’re using a quote in this case because the language is powerful and concise, which will add to your paper.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
How Should I Cite My Sources?
You should use Word’s easy-to-use References Tools. Easy-peasy. Why haven’t you been doing this?
Use Word’s Reference Tools
Here’s how to do it:
First click the “References” tab in Word:
Next, take a look at that “Citations and Bibliography” section:
Click “Manage Sources”
Here, you’ll find a ton of options for citing your work and integrating into it your paper, while staying above board! No cheating, no slacking, no plagiarizing—intentionally or unintentionally.
In the “Source Manager,” you’ll be able to keep track of all your sources for everything you write in college. As you can see here, this person has been hard at work on other papers:
Imagine how helpful this is across all four years, especially when you think of how many papers you will write for your major, and how useful a single source might be to several different project.
In the section on the left, you’ll see all the sources you’ve ever entered into your version of Word. On the right, you’ll move sources from the “Master List” into the “Current List” to use while you’re writing.
To enter a source into the system, click “New”:
Then select the “Source Type” and enter all the relevant information:
You will now see the source appear in the list, in whatever order is preselected from the dropdown menu on the right:
You can also see how that source will be cited in your paper and on a citation page, in this case using APA:
Now, get to work. Use that Paraphrase from above:
Go to “Insert Citation” in the “References” tab and select the correct source. Be sure your cursor is at the end of the sentence you’re wanting to cite because the citation will appear where your cursor is:
Now, make adjustments if you need to. Hover over the citation when it’s highlighted to get the “Edit” menu. Click it!
Use the “Suppress” command to remove or add particular things depending on your sentence structure, signal phrase, or other factors that might create a citation redundancy.
But, wait! There’s more! Whether you’re working in MLA or APA will make no difference. In the “Reference” tab, select the citation method you’d like to use!
But wait again! Even more! You can also make a page that coordinates your parenthetical citations! By using the “Bibliography” tab:
Choose the correct format from the drop down bar:
Baddabing! You have a citation page! Alphabetized and everything! All clean and ready to go!
Now, all you need to do is make some format adjustments by hitting Ctrl+A and adjusting the font and size as you normally would.
Now, remove bolds and color:
And you’re all done! No more fretting about whether or not you did it right! 🙂