Identify the Research Question
Before you can start research, you must first identify the research question. Your instructor will either assign a specific research question or a research topic.
If you are assigned a question or can select from a list of questions, it is easy to identify your question. You can start with focused research looking for sources that would help to answer the question. Don’t select a source by the title. It is critical that you read through possible sources to see if they will help with the question. For example, if your question asks whether pesticides in foods are harmful, don’t just select any source that has to do with pesticides. There are pesticide issues with the environment, for example, that have nothing to do with this question.
If you are assigned a topic, you will start with exploratory research. Exploratory research is where you explore various aspects of the topic and after learning something about it, you focus on a particular question of your choice. This is called narrowing the topic. Then, your research becomes focused research on that particular question.
Either way, before doing research for a research paper, you must identify a research question. The research question is critical since all of the content of the research essay follows from the question.
Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source is where the author is presenting his or her own information either based on professional knowledge or research. This is the best type of source to use when conducting research.
A secondary source is where the author is reporting information presented from other people. This means that there could be a misunderstanding or misinterpretation or the information, and it is not considered as reliable as primary sources.
Traditional Sources, Electronic Library Resources, and Internet Sources
Traditional sources are tangible sources as existed before the Internet: books, newspapers, magazines, film, interviews, works of art, and so on. Then with the Internet, a new source of information has become available in the website. In addition, many traditional sources have been collected and made available online. Electronic Library Resources (available to PHSC students through a link in Canvas) provides many originally hard-print sources electronically.
It is important to first make sure you understand your assignment as to how many sources are required and any restrictions on where they may be from. There might be a requirement to use at least one type of specific source such as a book, article from a journal, magazine, or newspaper, or page from a website.
Don't simply select a source by the title. You must review to be sure the content will help answer the question. For example, if your research question or topic is about how the moon affects earth's tides, the source must have information on that specific area. Some articles on the moon might talk about space exploration or its geography or its climate, none of which will help with a paper about tides.
Once you have screened for appropriateness, the content should be reviewed for reading level. If the paper is too technical, it may not be understandable enough to work with. You should be able to understand it and make notes on the main points.
Then, a closer look is needed.
The term critical doesn't always mean finding the problems or being judgmental. A movie critic, for example, reviews a movie for strengths and weaknesses. We have to be critics ourselves when we review our own writing and when we review information for our papers. We shouldn't just believe everything we see, hear, or read. We have to be particularly careful when that information comes from a purportedly legitimate source. We generally think that documentaries have true and accurate information, but sometimes they don't present all viewpoints or are biased towards one. Here are a number of considerations:
- credibility – is the source believable?; is the source created by a person or organization that knows about the subject matter. Determining credibility of online sources can be a challenge since it is not always clear who created or published what we are looking at. If a person is named as author, is that person a professional in the field?
- facts – does the source include the truth; is information based on evidence
- opinion – is the content a personal evaluation of the author and not necessarily based on specific, accurate, or credible evidence?
- evidence – is there support such as examples, statistics, descriptions, comparisons, and illustrations; evidence is also called proof, support, or supporting evidence.
- bias and slanted language – is there a preference for one side over the other; is there slanted language which is language shows a bias or preference for one position over another.
- tone – what is the tone? Words can be used to create a feeling such as a happy tone or sarcastic tone or angry tone. Tone can be used to persuade.
- stereotype – the generalization that a person or situation in a certain category has certain attributes such as because a person is old, he or she is a bad drive. Stereotyping is faulty logic.
- preconceived ideas – ideas that we already have; in doing research, it is very important to look for sources that present all of the perspectives on a question, not just those that prove what we think we know.
- logic – evidence should be evaluated for logic; does the evidence have any logical fallacies.
- valid argument – is the argument valid? A valid argument is based on logical analysis of information, but if the information is not accurate, the conclusion is not necessarily true.
- sound argument – an argument based on a syllogism that has accurate major and minor premises. An argument can be sound, but it is not necessarily true since the information on which it is based may not be accurate.
- Toulmin Logic – a form of logic that uses claim, grounds, and warrant for analyzing the logic of an argument.
- logical fallacies (flawed logic) – faulty logic; includes sweeping generalization, argument to the person (ad hominem), non sequitur, either/or fallacy, begging the question, and bandwagon argument.
- appeals – use of language to sway the reader by appealing to emotions, logic, or ethics.