The first step towards writing a research paper is deciding on a topic. Your instructor may assign a topic or you may have to come up with one on your own.
Define Your Topic
Before you begin, make sure you thoroughly understand what you are being asked to do, and define your topic to meet the requirements of your assignment:
- Understand the assignment
- Do some brainstorming to come up with a general topic
- Think of the ways you could approach this topic. It may help to draw a concept map showing various aspects of your topic. Use one of these blank charts as a template.
- Try a preliminary search of reference resources to get some basic info. For starters, search on one or two keywords using the Cross Search Reference box.
- Based on what you've read, can the topic be narrowed or broadened?
Narrow Your Topic
The initial idea for a research topic is often too broad. If your first searches for resources are so general that you find too much information, you can focus on one of the following:
- a specific period of time
(present, Civil War era, 20th Century)
- a specific geographic location
(geographic location or place: city/town, state, world)
- specific individuals, group, population
(women, children, ethnic group, political group)
- a specific aspect of the subject
- the viewpoint of a specific discipline
(legal, social, political, economic, religious)
Broaden Your Topic
In some cases, your topic may be too narrow to find enough information on which to base a paper. Think about the bigger picture and how you can expand the scope of your topic. Use the topic narrowing criteria above in reverse; for example, look at a larger group of people or a broader time period.
Draft a Thesis Statement
Once you have selected a topic and determined how you are going to develop it, you should be ready to write a thesis statement. The thesis should summarize the argument or contention that you intend to make with your paper. In your research, you will collect evidence to defend, clarify or develop your thesis statement. For help writing a thesis, see the tips and examples on Purdue's OWL web guide.
Organize Your Topic into Concepts and Keywords
At this point, you should translate your topic into a search strategy that you can apply in the library's online catalog and journal databases:
- State your topic as a question.
- Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.
- Identify synonyms and other related words.
Put these keywords and synonyms into the chart below, or use our Printable Workform (PDF/18KB)
the keywords in Column One
The effect on children of watching violence on television
(children OR adolescents OR teenagers) AND (violence OR violent) AND (television OR tv)
Once you have developed your main topic and identified relevant keywords, you should begin your research by consulting reference resources. These resources will help you accomplish the following:
- Learn the basic facts about people, places, events, and ideas related to your topic
- Understand the broader context of your research topic
- Identify key terms or phrases that you can search as keywords in the library catalog and journal databases
- Discover the names of books and articles worth looking for, by consulting the bibliographies at the end of reference articles
The most common reference resources are encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks and companions. Geisel Library provides access to hundreds of reference resources in searchable online form, along with thousands of reference books shelved in the Reference section. Try keyword searches of relevant online e-reference resources, or look up your keywords in the index volumes of print encyclopedias.
Where to Begin
- E-Reference Resources: look for e-reference books in your subject area, or try searching for one or two keywords in the Cross Search Reference box at the top of the page.
- Subject Guides: On the guide for your subject area, see the Reference Resources section to find useful online and print reference sources.
Searching for Books
To get started, search Geisel Library's online catalog, which contains records for every item owned by the library. Begin with a Keyword search on the various keywords you identified in Steps 1 and 2. Keyword searching is most effective when you use the Boolean operators of AND and OR to connect your terms. For guidance on Boolean searching, watch our video tutorial on Boolean operators. Note that the asterisk (*) enables you to search for variations of a word; for example, deter* will find books that mention the words deter, deterrent, or deterrence.
- South Africa AND (women or female) AND rights
- (death penalty OR capital punishment) AND deter*
- Thoreau AND (natur* OR wilderness OR environment*)
When you find a useful book in the catalog, click on the Subject Headings in its catalog record to identify additional books on the same topic.
Finding Books on the Shelf
Each item in the library is cataloged and assigned a call number, using the Library of Congress Classification System. This system organizes materials by subject. To learn more about how these work, see our guide to Understanding Call Numbers.
When you find a useful book in the online catalog, make note of its title and call number. Look for the first letter of the call number on the Geisel Library floor plans to determine where the book resides. For help with this process, watch our video tutorial on how to find books in the library.
Watch for the red e-book icon in your search results, which indicates that the book can be read online in the Ebrary database. Ebrary contains tens of thousands of scholarly books on a wide range of topics.
Finding Books beyond Geisel Library
If you don't locate enough books in our collection, try WorldCat. By searching WorldCat, you can identify relevant books owned by other colleges and have them delivered to Geisel Library for your use. Try the same keywords that you used in the Geisel Library catalog. To request a book, open the book's WorldCat record, click the "Request via Interlibrary Loan" link, and follow the on-screen instructions. Allow 7–10 days for delivery. You will be emailed when your book arrives.
What Is a Periodical?
A periodical is a magazine, journal, or other publication having issues that appear at regular intervals (often monthly or quarterly). In other words, periodicals include everything from Time to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. To learn more about the differences among scholarly journals, trade publications, and popular magazines, see our guide to popular and scholarly sources.
Why Look for Periodicals?
- Articles in periodicals often provide the latest news or thought on a particular topic
- Scholarly journal articles typically analyze more specific topics than books do
- They are the primary means by which scholars in the natural sciences and most social sciences publish their research
Where to Begin
- Cross Search: Try searching one or two keywords, after checkmarking the subject area(s) that pertain to your topic.
- Databases by Subject: Search one of the databases in the General category, to find articles from a broad range of disciplines. Then search one or more of the checkmarked databases in the subject area(s) related to your topic.
Searching for Articles
Search commands vary from database to database. As with the library catalog, it is best to start with a Boolean-based keyword search. Once you find relevant articles, examine their subject headings and conduct Subject searches on the ones that seem potentially fruitful.
If the full-text is not available in the database, click the WebBridge button to see if it's available in another database, or to request it via Interlibrary Loan. If the journal is available in the library, you can find it on the Lower Level. For help with either of these processes, watch our video tutorials on how to use WebBridge and how to find journals in the library.
Websites can be an excellent source for research papers on current events or popular topics, particularly when scholarly perspectives are not needed. But there are also many authoritative, scholarly resources on the Internet. For example, there are a wide range of government publications and digital collections on the Web that might prove beneficial to your research.
Find out whether your assignment permits you to use web resources, and whether you are restricted to using scholarly websites only. To learn how to distinguish scholarly from non-scholarly sources on the Internet, see our guide to evaluating websites.
Where to Begin
- Subject Guides and Course Guides: These guides include a selection of websites hand-picked by librarians for being authoritative and relevant to student research.
- Google: Use the Advanced Search to refine your search or limit the results to particular document types (e.g., PDF) or domains (e.g., .gov for government websites).
- Specialized search engines
For more information, see the following guides:
- Choose a Search Engine: how to select the best place to start, given your information needs
- Recommended Search Engines: tips on using the three most common search engines
Evaluating your sources is an essential step that sometimes gets overlooked. Here are some reasons why it's important:
- Did your instructor ask you to use scholarly sources only? If so, you need to confirm that all your sources are scholarly in nature. Use this chart to help.
- Are any of your sources biased? For example, the websites of corporations or advocacy organizations may not give you the whole truth. Many newspapers and magazines are also widely acknowledged to exhibit bias in their reporting. It may be fine to use these sources, as long as you acknowledge their potential bias in your paper.
- Do all your sources take the same point of view on an issue? Unless you are writing an argumentative paper, it is important to consider differing viewpoints in your paper.
- Does the author of a source use an appropriate methodology and draw reasonable conclusions from his or her study? Think critically about how the study was done, and whether you notice possible red flags with the assumptions, statistics, or conclusions. You should address these issues in your paper when citing the study.
Although it is important to evaluate all your sources, it is especially crucial for information found on the Internet, where there is often no fact-checking or editorial control. Examine your sources carefully using the following criteria:
- Accuracy: As far as you can tell, is the information presented free of errors and omissions? Look for footnotes, which would suggest that the information can be traced.
- Authority: What are the author's credentials, and does he or she have expertise on the subject being discussed? If there's no personal author, check the "About Us" page to see if the organization has credentials. Documents on .gov, .edu, or .org domains tend to have more credibility than documents on .com or .net domains.
- Objectivity: Does the website only present one side of an argument, or use inflammatory language? Again, check the "About Us" page to see if the organization or author may have an agenda that would influence how they present the facts.
- Currency: Does the website seem up-to-date, and refer to recent developments? Does the time frame covered meet your research needs? Check for a "last updated" date.
- Coverage: Is the author's treatment of the material broad or narrow, and does he or she provide sufficient detail? Are footnotes and references to additional reading provided?
Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes. First, it gives proper credit to the authors of the words or ideas that you incorporated into your paper. Second, it allows those who are reading your work to locate your sources, in order to learn more about the ideas that you cite. Citing your sources consistently and accurately helps you avoid committing plagiarism in your writing.
Here are some tips to make documenting your sources easier:
- As you do your research, keep track of the citation information for every source that you think you may use.
- Many databases allow you to create, export or email citations in the style of your choosing. Paste these citations into a running list of sources in a Word document.
- Use note cards to write down specific ideas or quotes that you want to include in your paper, along with the citation info of the source of those words/ideas.
- Try using EndNote, a software program that helps you store citations and generate footnotes and bibliographies in Word. For info, see our EndNote user guide.
How to Cite Your Sources
For links to online resources to help you with this process, see our guide to Citing Sources.
Geisel Library also has a number of books that will help you cite, write and format your paper. These can be found at the Main Reference Desk on the first floor:
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
Ready Ref LB2369 G53
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
Ready Ref BF 76.7 P83
- The Chicago Manual of Style.
Ready Ref Z253 .U69
- A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, by Kate Turabian.
Ready Ref LB2369 T8
- A Writer's Reference, by Diana Hacker
Ready Ref PE1408 .H2778
- The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information.
Ready Ref QD8.5 .A25
- Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers.
Ready Ref T11 .S386
- American Sociological Association Style Guide.
Ready Ref HM569 .A54