The most important way to make your research fun is to choose the right topic. Choose something that you find interesting, and will enjoy. If the topic makes you want to find out more, your research will take on a life of its own and take you for a ride full of exciting discoveries. If you are told to write a paper on American history, choose something you will enjoy searching. Perhaps the economic and social impacts of the great dust bowl.
Make sure that you don’t choose a topic too broad - say like marine mammals. This can frustrate you as you try to make sense of the vast amount of material you find. Focus it to something easier to handle - perhaps polar bear. Even this may be too broad and you might want to focus it a little more, to something like the impact of global warming on the lives of polar bears.
But you don’t want to choose too narrow a topic, or a topic that is too new. This is because you will find little information. So you may want to avoid the recent discovery of a cross between a polar bear and a brown bear, at least till there is more information out there.
Next write out your research topic as a full sentence or question. Doing this forces you to see the key concepts you need to include in your searches.
Let’s look at an example. How are dams impacting the spawning of wild salmon? You don’t want everything about dams. You only want articles or books that include information about dams and salmon and spawning.
Once you have a topic you need to choose the aspects you want to focus on.
Do you want a specific timeframe? Perhaps the impact of horses on the plains Indians pre-1900.
Do you want a specific geographic location? Are you looking for information on tsunamis, but only in Sumatra?
There are also discipline-specific parameters. Let’s take genetics. Are you interested in genetics as a factor in medical disorders? How about it’s role in evolution and speciation? Or perhaps police use of DNA to identify criminals?
Once you know the details of the type of information you are looking for, you need to think about what academic disciplines would be writing about the topic. This will tell you where to look for information.
Which academic disciplines will be writing about the archaeological remains in Chaco Canyon?
Of course archaeologists are going to be writing about these sites. anthropologists are also interested. But don’t forget that geologists will provide information about the area. Botanists are looking at local plants. Not only those found in the present, but also found in the older strata of the dig site. Zoologists will be looking at the animal remains found in the site. Each of the professions will contribute information for my paper, so I will need to look at resources designed for each of the disciplines.
Next is the second hardest part of research: setting your timeline, and then keeping to it. It is so tempting to underestimate the time involved, or to procrastinate then do the paper in a rush just before it is due.
- How long will it take you to find books and articles?
- Then how much time will it take to get them from whatever library owns them?
- Leave yourself enough time to read and consider them.
- Then there is the time to synthesize the information you have found into the main ideas of your paper.
- How much time will it take to write your report? Draft 1 - Draft 2 - rough final - then the final report.
What are your information-seeking strategies? What research sources will you use?
Encyclopedias, general texts, specialty dictionaries can get you started by showing you major subtopics, and words to search with. Wikipedia is a great tool for getting started. I would never cite Wikipedia in a paper, but I often use it as it a starting point to get a handle on my topic
One good way to start research is to talk to specialists - faculty, advanced graduate students, professionals in the area, or practitioners. These people can steer you past some of the pitfalls, and help you focus your research.
Next you need to think about the words that your authors will be using. The computer can only find strings of letters and strings of numbers. It does not know what they mean, so you need to choose the words your authors would use so the computer can find them for you.
Let’s say you are looking for information about the role of hazing in Greek life. If you type in the term Greek Life, you will miss all those articles where the authors talked about fraternities and sororities but did not use the phrase "Greek Life".
Now that you have your topic and your search words, you need to do your literature search. You need to find books and articles about your topic.
What tools are available to you to do this?
Search It "Articles, Books, and More" will give you a list of books and other resources owned by WSU. If you use the "WSU Libraries + Summit" option to search, you can learn about resources owned by other academic libraries in the Pacific Northwest."Worldcat+ beta" expands you to what books are owned throughout the world. We can borrow books outside of our sharing group. It just takes more time.
- We have over a hundred specialty indexes to help you find articles. Each index has a specific subject focus. Their job is to find every article out there in that subject area. Look at the list of indexes and databases that cover the subject area you are interested in. You will probably want to use Biosis for a general biology topic, Agricola for an agricultural topic PsychInfo for a psychology topic, Insepec for an engineering topic, and so on.
- Articles can give you both primary and secondary information. Primary information comes directly from the researcher; secondary information is other people writing about the same information.
The key to a good research experience is to:
- Keep track of your search process
- What terms did you search already?
- Which databases and indexes have you already tried?
- What new search words did you find? Have you tried them yet?
- Are there new directions you want to explore? This happens frequently to me. I start looking for one thing then get lured into a more interesting aspect of my topic.
Take notes and keep them organized in a manner that works for you.
- I was taught to use 3 x 5 cards, but that never worked for me. I print out articles and highlight sections, then scrawl notes in the margins.
- Make sure you keep citation information with your notes, so that you are not searching for proper citation information long after you saw the article.
See! It’s just a matter of process. Follow these steps and your research will be smooth and productive.