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Planning Your Research Paper

Always make sure you understand the assignment. Determine exactly what your instructor wants you to do and how s/he wants it done—ask questions if you are not certain what is required. If you have a choice of topics, pick a couple of ideas and do some preliminary research. Some considerations:

  • Your preliminary research should include broad and general reading about your topic, e.g., articles from journals, newspapers, magazines, and book browsing (you may end up using only some of these resources in your actual project)
  • There must be sufficient information and the correct kind of resources to fulfill the requirements of your assignment
    • what kinds of resources are you required to use or forbidden to use
    • how many sources can you use (always obtain more than is required—an article that looks good initially may turn out to be unsuitable)
    • if you locate an overwhelming amount of information, your topic is too broad and you will waste time trying to decide what to use—narrow or re-focus your topic
    • if you find very little information on your topic, it is probably too narrow—broaden or expand your focus
  • Familiarize yourself with associated issues, events, or key players to "flesh out" your topic, if needed
  • There must be a clear focal point to your research project—state what it is you want to investigate, discover, question, compare, argue, etc. You must present a well-defined idea or assertion capable of being supported by your research: this is your thesis statement. Examples of thesis statements:

Give yourself sufficient time to do a thorough job. Do not wait two days before your paper is due to start doing your research.

  • you may need to revise your original search strategy
  • you may need a resource that is not available in the library and an interlibrary loan may take two weeks to arrive
  • you will need plenty of time to write, edit and polish your paper, and cite your sources, after you have finished your research

Identify the key concepts in your thesis statement, as these will become your search terms.

  • think up a few synonyms for your search terms; they may yield more results than your original search terms. All databases use "controlled vocabulary" which dictates what results will be retrieved—if the database does not recognize the search term you use, it may offer few results, even though there may be a lot of information on your topic. Use "See also," "Refine your Search," and "Find More Like This" links to further target your search
  • when searching for scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles, make sure you check those boxes on database search screens