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Researching a Research Paper Quickly and Effectively

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During high school and even during undergrad, I don't think I was ever properly taught how to quickly and effectively find research for writing a research paper.  I was taught some tips here and there, but it was challenging to find useful research and information for papers.  I had a knack for finding all sorts of research and information for stuff that was sorta-kinda related to my papers, but I struggled to find research that really helped me connect all the dots and was the best source to cite for whatever I was writing.  I shudder at all the hours I wasted, and I suspect that my teachers and professors simply took the ability to find research for granted and did not consider it to be a process or a skill or maybe they had wrongly assumed that we had been taught how to do it by a previous teacher.

This Instructable shows how to find research and information for writing a paper without wasting time and without struggling to force sorta-kinda-related research into your paper.  There is some time and effort necessary, but putting in the little bit of effort at the start will make your life a whole lot easier and will save A LOT of time and effort in the end.  Finding research and searching for information is most certainly a skill - don't be fooled.  By following this process, not only will you be able to find the research that you need for your paper, but you will also be able to write your paper more easily and with greater confidence which will make for a better paper.  Reading through this Instructable may be helpful to high school students, undergrads, and potentially first year grad students since this was a skill I honed during my first year of grad.  Developing and practicing this skill as early as possible in life will make you a better student and more than likely a better citizen since this skill spills over into other aspects in life beyond just school work.

Overview
  1. Prepare:  Initial idea for research, creating initial questions to answer in the paper, and starting a research journal
  2. Determine Keywords:  Using broad searches and generalized information to develop search keywords
  3. Find the Granddaddy of the Field:  Finding the base to build the research upon
  4. Find and Understand Your Research Base
  5. Find Researchers Who've Cited the Granddaddy Authors
  6. Reevaluate Your Questions and Start Writing
  7. The Process Is NOT Linear
For this Instructable to be as useful as possible, it is important to begin this process as soon as you are assigned the paper.  You can write a paper quickly, but pulling research is dependent upon libraries and availability.  So far as I know, public libraries in the US have Interlibrary Services (ILS) which includes interlibrary loan.  If your local public library does not have the actual research on hand, they can request the research from another library.  This takes time but will make for a better paper.  If you HAVE to procrastinate on something, procrastinate on writing the final paper, but obviously it's best if you don't procrastinate at all.  Plus gathering research, in my opinion, is a far less painful experience than writing the paper.

Approximately half of the time between the assignment and the due date should be spent on researching the paper, and the other half should be spent on writing it.  If you are conducting an experiment or a study, you must allot time for that as well.
 
I'll be using organizational clothing and gender as an example because I'm somewhat comfortable with that topic though I'm not an expert.  It's just a convenience example (please groan if you get the semi-pun).

Note:  If you want to discuss the subject I'm using as an example, please talk to me via pm rather than through a comment on this Instructable.  I'm more than happy to answer any questions.
 
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Step 1: Prepare

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First, you need the idea or what you're supposed to write about. This will probably come largely from what you already know. Keep it flexible. Don't get your heart set on an idea and try to force conflicting research to work. It's easier to change your words than to change what the research says.

Example: Are women treated unfairly when it comes to expectations about clothing at work?

Tip: Stand out from the crowd when selecting a topic. Professors and teachers will often give a list of recommended topics - select the one that you think others won't tackle. By standing out from the crowd, your paper will be more special, and there won't be an in-class comparison. You will have the additional benefit of learning about something you might not have considered. Remember that anything can be interesting once you learn something about it. If you select a topic that someone else is also covering, you better make sure you write it better than your classmate.

Second, you need a list of questions that you will have to answer in some manner. This list will grow as your research progresses, but at the start you should have a pretty good idea of what you'll have to say. Keep a running log of the questions you need to answer. The questions can be answered in anything ranging from half a sentence to 30+ pages. By using questions, it's easier to keep an open mind about your initial research idea, and they won't limit you as much as hard statements. This is probably why I don't like traditional outlines until a paper has been finalized and about to be submitted. There are just too many unknowns unless you are the expert in your field.

Example: What do women wear to work? What do men wear to work? Does clothing affect promotion and hiring? What impact does clothing have socially?

At this point, you should start a journal of your research, questions, and thoughts. This "journal" can literally be a Word file, a yellow legal pad, post-it notes, or whatever will work for your situation. You just need some sort of log to keep track of what you're doing and what you're thinking. You do not need to catalog a full and proper bibliography as you go because that will get tedious and frustrating VERY quickly. Generally, you can find the paper you need so long as you scribble down the title and authors. Sometimes you just need the title because many titles are unique, and a title works as a good memory jog in case you forget why you wrote down that particular publication.

Step 2: Determine Keywords

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If you are starting off in a new field and don't really know much about it, it's very important to first determine the keywords (or jargon) needed for running effective searches. This requires roughly learning the field as a whole or figuring out what field will answer your big question most effectively, and it can be as simple as trolling through Wikipedia for a few minutes. Yes, you should not cite Wikipedia because the information cannot be verified, but you can certainly read it for your own personal edification.

Example: I want to learn more about professional clothing and differences between men and women, but I do not know how to search for that in a scholarly way. Searching for "professional clothing and differences between men and women" in Google Scholar pulls a bunch of nonspecific garbage as far as this particular research goes. It'd be even worse if I used PsychInfo or some of the other search engines. However, if I throw those words into Google, I see that "gender" is a big word to use, so I search for "professional clothing and gender". Still there's a bunch of garbage, so I eliminate the word "professional" and search for "clothing and gender". Google recommends searching for "clothing and culture" so I tack on "gender" and search for those three words. Again, Google pulls some recommendations, and this time the word "society" appears which makes me think that the research I need is probably within the general field of social psychology. I search for "social psychology clothing gender" and BINGO! Jackpot! The Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context by Susan Kaiser. That sounds like the perfect book to get the research started (and indeed it is).

The process might seem a bit drawn out, but as you get started into just figuring out what exactly you should search for, the word selection will tighten up. Start broad with what you already know. Switch out words. Find a starter piece that's very broad but one that will get you on the right track.

If you start this process as soon as possible, like you should, you can request research and keyword leads from classmates, teachers/professors, and strangers on the internets.

Step 3: Find the Granddaddy of the Field

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Whatever you're researching there will be a "granddaddy" paper or book on the subject that other researchers will cite. Your goal is to find what exactly that granddaddy paper is because you will also need to cite it and build from it. Start plugging keywords into your search engine of choice. I actually prefer Google Scholar when starting new research.

If you come across something that at least somewhat resembles what you want to write about, read the abstract and look through the bibliography which are generally two things you can get easily off any search engine. Rinse and repeat until you see a pattern in the bibliographies. Typically, you will notice 1-4 authors being consistently cited.

Example: Pratt and Rafaeli are the big wigs who write a lot about "social psychology", "organizational dress", and "gender".

Step 4: Find and Understand Your Research Base

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Once you have a good idea of who the bosses are in the field, start trolling through their published works. There will be at least one that will work as a basis for your research, but more than likely, there will be two or three. Many researchers will have their own homepage listing their published (and occasionally unpublished) works. You can find their homepage, which is generally on a university website, and look there, or you can search for them as an author using your preferred search engine.

Read them!!!!

And look through their bibliographies. If there are an additional 1-4 authors that they rely upon, check if it is necessary for you to cite those additional authors as well. Sometimes the person/people you thought were key turn out to be secondary to the true source. Often the works underlying the granddaddy authors are key to underlying theory, and you should at least understand those theories if it isn't pertinent to cite those authors specifically.

Example: There's the theory of fashion as communication and a function of culture.

Step 5: Find Researchers Who've Cited the Granddaddy Authors

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If you are correct about who you believe are the granddaddy authors, then more recent publications and their authors should have cited them. Run a search with the title of a key publication that will serve as a basis to your research. If you have more than one title, you will have to run multiple searches.

Read through the titles and abstracts of your search results and pull the pieces that you believe to be key to your research. For each one, read the intro and conclusion. Based on the title, abstract, intro, and conclusion, start finalizing the necessary pieces for your research and reading through the rest of the papers (method, results, discussion, etc.). At this point it becomes necessary to start cataloging the papers that you find.

It is necessary to know if the research you are trying to do has already been done. If it has already been done, don't fret. You are allowed to duplicate the study, change the methodology, or go in a slightly different direction. At this point in the research, you will start seeing gaps in what's been studied, but you need to double check if a gap truly exists. The list of keywords (and jargon) will be larger and more specific than when you started just by skimming through abstracts and titles, and you can double check the gap with these keywords that you have found to be most pertinent.  At this point in the process, you may start discovering research that you haven't come across yet, so be sure to continue keeping tabs on pertinent research as you come across it.

Step 6: Reevaluate Your Questions and Start Writing

Picture of Reevaluate Your Questions and Start Writing
Now that you have done a fair amount of reading, reevaluate your questions. There may be questions that you can eliminate, and there may be questions you need to add. More than likely, you will both eliminate and add questions.

For the questions you've decided upon, start arranging them in the order in which you will need to answer them so that your paper flows in a logical manner.  If questions are large, start breaking them down into smaller questions which will answer the larger question, but do not eliminate the larger question as a whole. Your arrangement of questions will serve as your outline.

Once you have your outline, start listing the authors you will cite to answer each question. There will be overlap.

Start writing.

Step 7: The Process Is NOT Linear

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Writing a research paper is not a linear process. I have yet to research a paper, pull all the necessary research, write the paper, and not return to researching some more. As you write, you will discover unanticipated gaps.

Example: Exactly how relevant is fashion to people? I must show that fashion is indeed important in a substantive way with at least some figures and examples. I know it isn't just important to "fashionistas" and researchers.

When these gaps occur, write a note to the side explaining the gap and what you need to discuss. You can fill the gaps as they occur, or you can continue writing and fill the gaps at the end, or you can do some sort of combination.

dchall84 years ago
It is all good but it is important to understand "The process is NOT linear." It is certainly iterative but sometimes comes with epiphany where you can fill the gaps by yourself instead of making leap of faith from concept to another.
AngryRedhead (author)  dchall84 years ago
It depends on what you're writing. I'm used to writing social science papers/research, so I reserve the analysis for the discussion or conclusion. The bulk of the research tends to go in the intro with only a few bits in the methodology for stuff like statistics and study design, so the intros are like short research papers. The discussion is where I tie the results/analysis back to existing research, but generally research papers are pretty darn dry in my opinion even if they are extraordinarily informative. You summarize the research and say something in conclusion to what the research has shown or not shown. I think one of the dryest (but really, really informative) research papers I read was on the psychometrics of the Beck Depression Inventory - it was 30 pages long, single spaced, excluding the bibliography. Basically, in the social sciences, you don't fill the gaps unless you can document it. You can just say that there is one and potentially hypothesize saying more research needs to be done. Filling the gap is what gets people in trouble (e.g., "Black women are like this because they're part black man and part white woman so there's no need to include them in research"). If you fill a gap without documentation, tread carefully.
Guess I should have explained myself better the first time. Often when doing research the researcher does not understand the leap from point A to point D, regardless of the fact that points B and C are fully explained in the research. By looking at it non linearly (repetitively and iteratively), it is often the case that the epiphany will happen where the researcher "sees" the connection from A to B to C to D. If you have not done your research, you can't see it.  I did not mean to say that you could just make something up to fill the gap.  Although such thinking could lead the researcher to look harder for events that are suspected to be missing from the current research. 

I like the idea of the post-it notes.  You can rearrange them as you see fit with some nomenclature that carries you from one to the other and a different nomenclature that carries you from one to another in a different arrangement of notes.  Such nomenclature might be "Wojohoitz needed to discover [a particular note] before she could discover [a different note]." 
AngryRedhead (author)  dchall84 years ago
Ahhhh!!! Got it! Sorry!

Well, I guess my reply might be worthwhile to someone who might not realize that filling the gaps on your own might not be such a good idea, but you're right about epiphanies and things not adding up until the research is complete. When it all starts falling into place, you know you're getting close to the end.

I'm glad you like the post-it's. I remember back in junior high school and high school, my English teachers would make us do crazy tedious journals that required far more time than what was helpful. It would have been better if they'd allowed us to scribble down stuff and write notes with ideas and such. That's become my method, and I have used a combination of post-it notes, legal pads, and Word files. The post-it notes were used mainly in library books so I could highlight passages and write down thoughts without destroying the books and getting in trouble.

Again, sorry for the misunderstanding!!
1tri2god4 years ago
It took 9 submissions to finally learn how to publish! My wife says she's gifted with only 3! And the buttkicker was always in the preparation! This is a great 'able. It will definitely shorten the learning curve for future journal authors! Awesome job!
kelseymh4 years ago

What a great I'ble! I am stunned that you actually wrote paragraphs with complete sentences, connected ideas, and punctuation! Did you learn that stuff in, like, school or something? ;->

Did you have your Post-It's left over from a previous paper, or did you create them specially just to take pictures? Either way, reading the notes is great fun.

AngryRedhead (author)  kelseymh4 years ago
Ha! I was particularly careful with this Instructable to have proper grammar and spelling. I even got an edit before publishing. Shhhh!

I made the post-it's special and scanned them, but I followed the same process I did while I was researching and writing the introduction to this particular paper.
Ninzerbean4 years ago
This is an excellent Instructable and a real keeper, wish I had had this know-how in school.
AngryRedhead (author)  Ninzerbean4 years ago
Thanks! I wish I'd known all this back in high school.