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A quick guide to research papers

Four important things to remember

  1. Writing a research paper is a process—so you sometimes have to backtrack.  It requires patience and time management.
  2. Start your research early.
  3. Ask for help from the Research Help Desk and the Student Learning Commons
  4. There is no such thing as a stupid question!

Understand the assignment

  • Determine the objectives and scope
  • Look for key words that describe main tasks for the assignment

Choose a topic that motivates you

  • Educate yourself … find something new. Originality does count!
  • Defend yourself … justify a position
  • Establish yourself … expand your expertise

Ask a research question

  • A sound research question (why? how? when? What if?) can help you work toward a solid thesis statement
  • Avoid too narrow a question, or you may not find many research sources

Focus/refine your topic

  • Break the project into chunks of work (Hint: schedule those chunks into your calendar -- the Assignment Calculator can help)
  • Review class notes/assigned readings
  • Use the Library databases to find relevant journal articles and other resources

Identify appropriate sources

  • Work from the general to the specific, e.g. find background information first
  • For background information – use encyclopedias, lecture notes, textbooks
  • For books – search the catalogue
  • For articles – search databases and indexes appropriate for your topic
  • For a definition – check a dictionary
  • Critically evaluate what you have found

Start thinking about a thesis statement

  • A thesis expresses your main position and forecasts what your paper will discuss
  • A solid thesis is debatable, requiring supporting evidence (e.g. your research)
  • You don’t need to finalize your thesis until you’ve gathered your materials and written at least one draft!

Use the catalogue to find …

  • Books (e.g. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham) | Films & Music | Reports
  • Journals (but NOT articles). For example, see if the library has International Affairs.
  • Search by Keywords (e.g. pregnancy AND alcohol abuse), not by Subject

Search article indexes and databases to find …

  • Full-text articles. Try a multidisciplinary database such as Academic Search Elite.
  • Citations of articles
  • For the best database for your topic, ask a librarian or browse the Research Guides for your area of interest.
  • If the SFU library doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you can request it from another library.

Evaluate what you have found

  • Found too many sources? You may need to narrow your topic
  • Found too few sources? Broaden your topic or choose other relevant keywords
  • Choose scholarly journals over popular magazines
  • Are your sources relevant? Biased? Too old?
  • Is the information you found on Google from a reliable source?

Make sense of your research sources

  • Use KEY WORDS to help you organize your materials logically
  • Refine your thesis statement based on research materials
  • Create a “working” outline to reflect your evidence and order of presentation
  • Draft your paper based on this plan

Revise your draft

  • Check for coherence …the overall “connectedness” of ideas; paragraph unity
  • Check for cohesion … logical connections between sentences
  • Check your style … is your tone appropriate for your audience?  Is your wording clear and concise?  Are you appropriately using terms and concepts in your discipline?
  • Proofread for common errors. Hint: print out your draft and go through it line by line, and/or read it aloud.

Cite your sources

  • Avoid plagiarism: take the plagiarism tutorial
  • Use one of the standard Style Guides: APA, MLA or Chicago
  • Record all your citations as you go. You’ll be glad you did when the time comes to write a bibliography!

If you get stuck . . .

If you’d like help with your writing process . . .

Visit the Student Learning Commons. Get resources, tips, and one-on-one assistance from a Peer Educator, and sign up for SLC/Library workshops on writing, learning, and/or research strategies.