Effective Research Methods: A Focus on Web Tools, Search Engine Techniques, & Research Writing

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At some point within your college career, you will be required to write an agonizingly difficult research paper. The dreaded research paper usually weighs heavily on your grade in a class and requires weeks of effort. While many students may be tempted to procrastinate and write the paper shortly before it's due, writing a shining research paper or thesis cannot be done in one sitting. The material should come from several legitimate sources, the points well thought out, and the paper should be structured with a good flow and an easily deciphered point. There's no way to avoid the work required of successful research, but a little preparation can save you a lot of stress along the way. With the correct tools at your disposal, you should be able to write an interesting, well-informed paper on virtually any topic.

Research Writing Basics

In the fledgling stages of research, you should be concerned with merely collecting information. You may have a basic idea of where you want to go with the paper, but often collecting information and reading materials associated with the topic will help you develop an opinion or train of thought to further explore in your paper. Your professor may give you a basic theme to expand upon, such as gender roles in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. With that in mind, you may want to scour through books on Shakespeare, gender roles, basic psychology, and any other notable essays, books, journals, and newspaper articles. One book may lead to ten or so other books if you flip back to the bibliography for further reference. You may find a quote within a book that particularly rings true to your thesis — be sure to follow that quote to its origin to garner even more usable information for your research. While reading through the materials, it can be helpful to take notes and highlight points that interest or inspire you. This will help you to develop a thesis statement. The thesis statement should tie up the paper's point, and is typically composed of one or two sentences that summarize the paper as a whole in a concise, clear way. If your thesis gets right down to the point, the rest of the paper can explore the ways in which you came to the conclusion expressed in your thesis. You may be arguing a point or merely elucidating information, depending on the type of paper. It's important not to be too broad with your thesis, but to narrow it down to a digestible statement. From there, your outline may be derived. Everyone has a different method for constructing an outline and some professors may require certain types of outlines. You may create a web diagram or state your paragraph ideas in bullet points; either way, you achieve the same goal of planning your paper's intention. A common type of outline is called a topic outline, in which paragraph headers and supportive ideas are broken into roman numerals, regular numbers, and letters as needed. Many papers will benefit from obtaining interviews with experts in the field. You may weave their quotes into your paper, citing them as sources along with the quotes and textual references found in your books, essays, magazines, and so forth in the data collection process. After you have arranged a suitable outline, you may begin writing the paper, filling in the gaps found in the outline little by little. You might place your citations in as needed and pad each quote or reference with your own observations and thoughts. You should evaluate the information you've been given in a way that supports your thesis using several, distinctly different points. Each paragraph within the body of the essay may take a different approach to further make your point. Meanwhile, the opening and introductory paragraph should both serve to summarize your paper as a whole, wherein the opening paragraph piques the reader's interest and the closing paragraph resolves the paper with a note of finality. After you've completed the initial writing of your paper, do not be under the misconception that you've finished it. The best research papers are written and revised several times before completion and often it helps to sleep on it before reading it over a second or third time.

Search Engine and Browser Tips

Search engines are powerful machines if you know how to use them, and there is a craft to the skill. If you know how to properly utilize Google, you can weed out your web results to the best possible matches, saving time and effort. In order to impart more specific web results, you should learn how to use search terms known as "operators." Operators are symbols and phrases that perform functions in your search to hone in on a designated result. For example, by placing "site:gov" after your keywords, the search engine will only provide web results that are found on government sites. This would also apply to "edu" for educational sites, "org" for organizations, and so forth. Likewise, if you place your search in quotes, the search engine will provide websites that have the exact phrase matched from within the quotes. A "-" symbol excludes the aforementioned phrases or words from the search, whereas a "~" symbol will search for related terms to a given word or phrase. Furthermore, you may want to search for information from within a set of dates, such as between 2006 and 2010. By adding a ".." between the two dates in your search engine bar, all dates between the two will be considered in the results. You may also desire to find a specific file type within your search. Maybe your research paper can only be gleamed from PDF files. If so, you would simply include the operator "filetype:pdf" at the end of your search terms. If you can recall only part of the title of a book you need for your research, tack on the operator "intitle:" followed by the phrase from the title that you can remember. Still yet, Google has its own search engine designed specifically for scholarly work, which will come in handy if you are trying to include only academic references within your research paper. For such tasks, Google Scholar comes to the rescue. Within Google Scholar, you may use the operator "author:" to search for works by a specific author, or "define:" for a quick dictionary definition of a term. There are even shortcuts for a calculator and a unit converter for easy reference. Internet shortcuts can also be extremely helpful when conducting research. You may be searching for a particular phrase within a lengthy document. Reading the entire document may be a waste of time, particularly when you know exactly what phrase within the document you're looking for. For such instances, pressing "ctrl" button followed by the "f" key brings up a search bar. As you type in the requisite phrase, it scans the document for all instances in which the phrase is mentioned. When you're writing your paper, you may have to toggle between several windows and minimizing and maximizing them repeatedly can be frustrating. To move freely between them, press "command" followed by the "~" key. The shortcut works on Mac computers and not PC varieties, but you may find it helpful. Some web browsers come with plug-ins and add-on features that can be helpful within your writing process as well. OpenITOnline is an add-on that is compatible with FireFox, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Opera, and enables you to open your documents in a web browser from anywhere and edit them right on the spot, which can be helpful if you intend to work on your paper at a public library's computer as well as your home computer. With OpenITOnline, there's no need to use Microsoft Word or other word processors.

Online and School Resources

Your own college library should not be ignored as an incredibly valuable resource for research material. Many university libraries have passwords to academic databases which you may no longer access outside of your time as a student there. JSTOR, for example, requires a subscription outside of the college experience, but most universities have access to it and provide their students with the necessary account information to log into its system. JSTOR is a nonprofit database with hundreds of scholarly articles and other published content for the purpose of providing academics, students, libraries, and other researching individuals with information spanning over 50 different academic fields. For the art history student, Oxford Art Online serves as a portal to thousands of curated art pieces and accompanying academic articles which, yet again, require a subscription unless you're a student at a university with access to it. Outside of the online realm, your college will likely have a personal library which may be utilized. If you're no longer a student, there are other website options to keep in mind. You should never use Wikipedia unless you can trace the sources used back to a legitimate place, given that anyone can contribute or alter articles within the site. Blogs also should not be trusted unless they are written by credible authors. Instead, stick to the tried and true academic sources. Infomine is a great information database, covering topics anywhere from biology to performing arts and everything in between. Your search results are each given a score based on how closely they match your searching terms, so you can be sure to receive the best results possible as long as you are specific in your query. Intute, although no longer updated as of July 2011, provides academic sources based on various subjects as narrowed down by specialists in the United Kingdom. The Library of Congress maintains the Virtual Reference Shelf which contains links to a number of information databases; some of which require a subscription, and some which are free to use. Likewise, the Dictionary of Open Access Journals is a search engine for scholarly and scientific journal articles, all of which are text-based and at your disposal.

Useful Research Apps

Truly successful research is done by approaching every useful angle, and you would be limiting yourself by not taking advantage of the wide array of mobile apps at your disposal. While it may seem counter-intuitive to conduct thorough research on an iPhone or iPad, there are a couple of apps that make the process of collecting information considerably easier, putting information at your fingertips. For example, Evernote is an app that allows you to collect information and access it from all of your synced devices. If you find something noteworthy, you can take a photo of it using your phone or tablet, record audio from it for quick retrieval, or take notes directly onto the app. The notes you create are tagged and searchable, and can be emailed, Facebooked, or Tweeted if you please. While perusing a book for your research paper, you might snap a photo of a useful paragraph within the text for quick reference. The app can also store and favorite relevant websites. It simply provides another outlet to conduct organized, convenient research, and it's completely free for download on iTunes. Similarly, Jotnot Scanner is an app that can convert scanned photos from your device into PDF files. While scanning the document, the app removes extraneous parts of the background, adjusts the contrast, and produces a crisp image of a document for your researching and citation purposes. It is also a free app.

The Final Touch

In order to make your research paper stand out amongst the rest, consider ways that you can deviate from the expected topic. Instead of purely analyzing a work of fiction, for example, challenge a misconception represented within the work or consider a connection that may be difficult to prove. If you're writing an essay on an idea that is typically accepted, find a way to restructure your claim such that it makes the reader engage a bit more. Provide a solution to a problem that has never been considered or address something you find problematic within a work or text. Take your research a step further by interviewing people connected with the research, perhaps which may be difficult to get in touch with. Each writer has a unique voice which sets their work apart from their peers — embrace this voice, so long as your work doesn't become too colloquial to remain academic in the process. One of the best ways to ensure a paper is complete is to have several people critically read your work. Not only will they be able to catch any marginal errors and spelling mistakes you may have not caught in the initial editing process, but they provide a fresh take on your work. It is always helpful to have an outsider's opinion, particularly if you've read and reread your work so many times that it has become stale for you. If you've followed all of these steps, your research paper should be more than up to par.

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