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How to Do Academic Research

Few high school students or college underclassmen are prepared to conduct the type of academic research their instructors expect. While many institutions offer library orientation sessions, the information is rarely at hand when students are dealing with midterm or finals panic. Furthermore, those sessions generally focus on finding resources, and often fail to teach students how to use those resources effectively. This guide contains links to resources, exercises, and assignments that will help instructors fill these gaps. It also includes tips and responsible shortcuts for students who don't have access to good library resources, or are panicking because they have a lot of material to sort through and don't know how to begin.

Academic Research Fundamentals

Students often want to know the quickest way to get the minimum number of sources required, and many of them cannot see the connection between a slapped-together bibliography and an unfocused mess of a paper. The resources in this section encourage students to think about what they're doing when they write a paper. These resources can also help students understand why a good bibliography is the foundation of a good paper.

What is Academic Research?

"Overview of Research Process" (Univ. of Nebraska)

This resource discusses how the overarching process of research should guide the writing of a research paper. It also includes separate attachments that provide specific guidance for thinking about research questions and proposals.

"Qualitative Research vs. Quantitative Research" (YouTube)

This video introduces students to two basic approaches to conducting research. Understanding basic methodological approaches will help students evaluate whether a scholarly source is appropriate for their research project.

"The 'Realistic' Research Paper" (Chronicle of Higher Education)

This article from the CHE asks whether the formal academic research paper can be made more relevant while still preserving academic rigor. This could be a very good discussion starter for a class of advanced high schoolers or college underclassmen.

Types of Academic Research Sources

"Types of Sources" (Purdue OWL)

The reliable folks at the Purdue Online Writing Lab provide a basic introduction to the types of academic research sources, with section devoted to both traditional print and online-only resources. 

"Articles, Books, and...? Understanding the Many Types of Information Found in Libraries" (UCLA)

This guide breaks down categories of scholarly sources (they are all listed in the sidebar on the left). It defines terms like "scholarly source" and "secondary source," and its explanation of when to use certain types of sources is succinct and clear. 

How to Begin Finding Academic Resources

Many students have no idea where to begin looking for books and journal articles. Students, here's a tip I always gave my students when I was a professor: begin by looking at the works cited in your assigned readings. You'll probably notice that certain authors, books, or articles are cited frequently. It's safe for you to assume those are the type of respectable sources that are the foundation of any good bibliography. The links below will help you navigate the process, one step at a time.

First Steps

These resources will aid you in time management, and will introduce you to the best places on the web to start the research process.

"Research Paper Planner: Timeline" (Baylor Univ.)

This tool generates a responsible timeline for the research and writing process based on the current date and assignment due date. It is useful to budget extra time for obtaining books and articles through Interlibrary loan (for more on ILL, see "How to Deal with Hard-to-find Sources"). 

Google Scholar 

Anyone who does not know where to begin should start here. Google Scholar searches across the internet for various kinds of scholarly resources. Use the "cited by" option to narrow down articles. NOTE: Users may not be able to access resources' full text if they are not connected to a library, or college or university network.

"Basic Guide to Google Scholar" (YouTube)

This tutorial demonstrates how to perform basic searches, save search results, and generate MLA, APA, and Chicago-style citations.

"Intermediate Guide to Google Scholar" (YouTube)

This tutorial, led by a STEM Ph.D., goes into more detail about the workings of Google Scholar. 

Google Books

Google Books permits searches of millions of books. Even when the full text is not available, users can still find the pages where a particular keyword is mentioned. This can be a valuable shortcut if a user needs to identify the most relevant chapters of a large book quickly.

How to Judge the Quality of a Source

In the age of Fake News and Stupid Algorithm Tricks, being able to evaluate a source's credibility is more important than ever. This section's first two resources help students learn to evaluate the credibility of a variety of sources. Since studies suggest that many students struggle with evaluating non-academic internet sources, the last two resources focus on those sources specifically.

"What is a 'Good' Source? Determining the Validity of Evidence" (Univ. of Maryland)

This webpage gives students tips on evaluating the author and the content of a potential source. NOTE: Be sure to click through all the modules.

"Research 101: Credibility is Contextual" (Univ. of Washington via YouTube)

This brief video (2:56) helps students learn to evaluate web and social media sources. NOTE: All the Research 101 videos are helpful for students who are new to academic research.

"The C.R.A.P. Test in Action" (Portland State Univ. via YouTube)

This video (5:00) shows how to evaluate websites using the Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose or Point of View test. The video gives specific examples of high-quality and low-quality websites.

"Evaluating Internet Content" (Georgetown Univ.)

This resource gives students some very specific questions they can use to evaluate the quality of a source.

How to Deal with Hard-to-find Sources

Sometimes, you cannot access a particular source because it isn't in your library or your library doesn't have the right database subscription. In that case, you can see about an Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Every library system does ILL somewhat differently, so ask for a librarian's assistance when using the system for the first time. 

WorldCat

WorldCat is an immense catalog of books, articles, reports,  and more. To locate a source, copy and paste a title into the search bar. By entering a ZIP code under "Find a copy in a library," users can see if any libraries in the area have access to the scholarly source. 

"Interlibrary Loan" (Wikipedia)

This Wikipedia article provides a general overview of the interlibrary loan process. Many students are not well-informed about how ILLs work. Knowing how the system works is especially important for students at rural colleges or colleges without large budgets.

How to Use Scholarly Sources Once You Have Located Them

Even if an instructor can get students to build a substantial and relevant bibliography responsibly, there is still another major hurdle. Students must learn how to read, annotate, and incorporate sources efficiently. Many students operate under the assumption that they must read every prospective source cover-to-cover. This is overwhelming and frustrating, and it's no surprise that students start doing shoddy work under these conditions. The resources in this section expose students to effective shortcuts and organizational tricks to help them make sense of their scholarly sources.

How to Do Effective Reading, Annotation, and Note-taking

"How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper" (Science Magazine)

Science asked leading scholars to describe the shortcuts they take when reading journal articles. The lesson here is that using shortcuts is absolutely OK. In fact, researchers who use the right shortcuts often build the most effective bibliographies.

"Tips for Reading Scholarly and Journal Articles" (Brandeis Univ.)

The general tips on the first page are helpful, but the most valuable part is the chart on the second page. It explains how to read an article depending on whether it was assigned in class or whether you want to test its suitability for your research paper.

"Student Worksheet: Analyzing a Journal Article" (Univ. of Guelph)

This template will help students break down any article that has a specific, testable hypothesis. 

"Reading in the Humanities and Social Sciences" (Trent Univ.)

This reading guide is tailored specifically for the humanities and other fields where scholars write both books and articles. Be sure to click on the reading template link on page three.

How to Integrate Scholarly Sources Into an Essay or Research Paper

"Incorporating Sources into Research Writing" (Germanna C.C.)

Pages five through nine of this guide provide clear, detailed instructions for using scholarly sources in an academic paper. There are also two examples provided. 

"Integrating Sources into Your Writing" (James Madison Univ. via YouTube)

This guide to integrating sources includes numerous examples and illustrations. In addition to discussing incorporating sources, it touches on evaluating the credibility of sources.

"Paraphrasing Exercise" (Purdue OWL)

Instructors can use this exercise to help students practice the sometimes tricky technique of incorporating sources via paraphrase.

"Incorporating Sources Exercises" (Wilmington Univ.)

This webpage links to nearly 20 resources for students who are struggling with quotation, paraphrase, summary, or similar techniques. 

How to Avoid Academic Integrity Issues

Everyone knows copying and pasting from the Internet or directly lifting material from a book constitutes cheating. But what makes a good paraphrase? What is "common knowledge," and what needs to be cited? Can you plagiarize yourself? These are all legitimate, good-faith questions students might have about using scholarly sources. These online resources can help address those challenging gray areas.

"Incorporating Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism" (UC Irvine)

This detailed, example-rich presentation (helpfully written from a STEM perspective) dispels some common myths about what does and doesn't count as plagiarism.

"How Students Commit Academic Dishonesty: Plagiarism" (Northern Illinois Univ.)

This webpage contains links to lots of plagiarism examples. These examples are useful because they illustrate the difference between things like good and bad paraphrasing.

"Paraphrasing" (Univ. of Guelph)

Paraphrasing is a difficult skill and honest, well-meaning students sometimes commit academic dishonesty unintentionally by not paraphrasing correctly. This presentation discusses the elements of a good paraphrase and provides examples.

"Citation Builder" (NC State)

This webpage generates citations in MLA, APA, and Chicago format.

Here are the citation guides for the three major academic writing formats:

Databases of Scholarly Resources

Included here are links to resource collections that are free of charge to any user, or that students can access through their  public or academic libraries. Remember, if you can't get access to a particular scholarly source because your public library or educational institution doesn't have access, be sure to investigate the Interlibrary Loan option mentioned earlier in this guide.

Freely Accessible Resources

JURN

The academic world becomes more accepting of open-source journals with every passing year. JURN is a database of scholarly articles from over 3,000 journals in a variety of disciplines.

Library of Congress eResources

The Library of Congress provides access to a staggering number of databases across all academic disciplines. Not all the resources are free, but many are.

Library of Congress Map Collections

Maps are valuable resources for students, professional scholars, independent scholars, and interested amateurs. The Library of Congress has access to multiple collections of current and historical maps.

U.S. National Library of Medicine

This service is provided by the National Institutes of Health. The NLM includes PubMed, an important collection of journal articles and abstracts. Many resources at the NLM are free, but not all of them are. 

Resources Available at Public Libraries

Some public library systems may have no access or limited access to these resources. Please consult your local library system's website.

EBSCOhost

EBSCO allows users to search a wide variety of databases. The version of EBSCO available at most public libraries includes access to newspaper and genealogy  databases. Users who connect through a university library will access Academic Search Premier, EBSCO's scholarly database collection.

Learning Express Hub College Prep Center

This database has resources to help students prepare for Advanced Placement, the SAT, the ACT, and a variety of other exams.

LexisNexis Public Library Express

LexisNexis created this service to meet the needs of public library systems. Patrons can use this resource to search current events, business news, and legal news.

ProQuest Libraries

ProQuest's list of databases for public libraries includes searchable news databases, genealogy databases, and medical health databases.

Resources Available at Most College or University Libraries

Some colleges or universities may not have all these databases, or they may have limited access. If you need a source that your library doesn't have access to, use ILL (see "How to Deal with Hard-to-find Sources").

JSTOR

JSTOR is a leading database of academic journals from a wide variety of disciplines.

LexisNexis

LexisNexis is one of the leading databases for legal and business research. 

Project MUSE

Project MUSE is a database with strong offerings in the humanities and social sciences.

ProQuest Academic

This is another database collection that contains links to journals from a variety of disciplines.

PsycINFO

PsycINFO is hosted by the American Psychological Association. It is an important database for psychologists and other social scientists.

SAGE Journals

SAGE is a leading academic publisher. Its journals are sorted by four categories: Health Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities, Life and Biomedical Sciences, and Materials Science and Engineering.

Resources for Teaching Students How to Do Academic Research

The idea of doing "research" is daunting for many students. A good way to make students more comfortable with the process is to break the giant concept of "research" into smaller pieces. These resources help teachers break down the research process effectively. "Resources for High School Teachers" help instructors understand the context and challenges of teaching their students about research, and provide sample assignments and exercises. "Resources for College Instructors" are focused more narrowly on teaching undergraduate students about formal academic papers. 

Resources for High School Teachers

"How Teens do Research in the Internet World" (Pew Research Institute)

This 2012 Pew study summarizes the challenges high school teachers face when it comes to teaching students about responsible online research. The study's findings serve as a jumping off point for teachers to discuss effective strategies and probable obstacles and constraints.

"The 6 Online Research Skills Your Students Need" (Scholastic)

This article suggests classroom activities appropriate for freshmen and sophomores.

Questia School: "Teacher Guide for Research Tutorials" (Cengage)

This lengthy, free guide from a leading educational publisher provides teachers with nearly 100 pages of tutorials and exercises that introduce every element of brainstorming and writing a research paper. 

"Research Paper Complete Resource Pack" (Teachers Pay Teachers)

This resource pack (designed primarily for MLA or APA style) contains worksheets and exercises to help students learn annotating, editing, integrating sources, and more. 

Resources for College Instructors

"Creating Successful Research Skills Assignments" (Univ. of Pennsylvania)

This guide contains suggested assignments that help students become more comfortable with various aspects of the research process.

"Teaching Students to Write Good Papers" (Yale)

This resource discusses general strategies for teaching students to write well. Most importantly, it contains links to numerous worksheets and handouts that are useful for struggling students.

"Effective Assignment Sequencing for Scaffolding Learning" (Univ. of Michigan)

Many instructors are proponents of the scaffolding approach to research papers. This approach requires students to focus more carefully on the intermediate steps in the process, and is also effective against plagiarism. This guide from Michigan's Writing Center provides detailed instructions and suggestions for creating a scaffolded assignment.

"Keys to Designing Effective Writing and Research Assignments" (FacultyFocus)

This collection of short papers asks provocative questions and offers suggestions for new ways of looking at research paper assignments.