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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Research Papers: Taming the Beast

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Research paper, term paper, thesis, dissertation, whatever term is used, it still describes the universal nightmare of just about everyone who ever sat in a classroom. The idea of this drawn-out, tortuous, labor intensive monster lurking on the academic doorstep is enough to deliver a host of sleepless nights. There are few words in the student lexicon that strike more fear into the heart.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a systematic way to approach such a project that will make things less complicated and generate a quality paper.

Notice that I didn’t use the word “easy.” No matter how logical the process, a research paper is still hard work. And surprise, surprise, it’s supposed to be that way.

Language is the means by which humans convey messages and ideas. It has rules that must be obeyed. In every culture, the basic language gets altered (some would say “polluted”) by the use of slang.

The e-culture we find ourselves in today has rendered that distortion even further with the introduction of abbreviations arising out of instant messaging, and cell phone texting. When you write a paper, you need to omit slang. Slang. While it is colorful and fun, colloquial expression is inexact and certain words can have regional variations, the use of which can leave your audience completely baffled. I have a friend who is the editorial page editor of a newspaper. He moans often about the state of writing contained in the “letters to the editor” that end up in his inbox. Often, he says, “I have to send the letter or email back and ask for the writer to translate.”

As you do your research, spend some time studying the style of academic writing. Look at how sentences are constructed; how words are used. See how paragraphs are organized into ideas and how the paragraphs are knit together to craft the writer’s point of view. Yes, academic writing can be very boring to read, but that’s done on purpose. The ideas brought forth have to stand on their own merits, and not given false fronts by using emotional or excessively superlative words. If you can’t make those ideas stand on the strength of your research, then you either need more research, or a different set of ideas.

If you are able to write seriously, you will be taken seriously. If you don’t, you’ll be laughed at.
Let’s talk a bit about plagiarism. According to the APA guide…

“Plagiarism is the taking of someone else's words, work, or ideas, and passing them off as a product of your own efforts. Plagiarism may occur when a person fails to place quotation marks around someone else's exact words, directly rephrasing or paraphrasing someone else's words while still following the general form of the original, and/or failing to issue the proper citation to one's source material.
In student papers, plagiarism is often due to...
  • turning in someone else's paper as one's own  
  • using another person's data or ideas without acknowledgment 
  • failing to cite a written source (printed or internet) of information that you used to collect data or ideas 
  • copying an author's exact words and putting htem in the paper without quotation marks
  • rephrasing an author's words and failing to cite the source 
  • copying, rephrasing, or quoting an author's exact words and citing a source other than where the material was obtained. (For example, using a secondary source which cites the original material, but citing only the primary material. This misrepresents the nature of the scholarship involved in creating the paper. If you have not read an original publication, do not cite it in your references as if you have!)  
  • using wording that is very similar to that of the original source, but passing it off as one's own.
The last item is probably the most common problem in student writing. It is still plagiarism if the student uses an author's key phrases or sentences in a way that implies they are his/her own, even if s/he cites the source.” (APA Guide CCJ 5606 “Instructions for citations and references” http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/apa.htm).

Read the preceding section very carefully. One of the common tricks used by lazy students is to lift a paragraph out of a published source, changing the words around, and plugging it into their own paper, passing it off as their own. Let’s be clear on this. The whole reason for writing a paper is to publish your own thoughts on a subject. The whole process of researching, and then writing builds knowledge, from which you can draw your own conclusions. And that’s the whole reason for school: To learn facts and draw conclusions.

In class, the people who are most tempted to steal are those who didn’t do their research. And as the Internet has made resources available to the researching student, it has also made it ridiculously easy for teachers to spot plagiarism. Teachers and professors now have software which “reads” papers and then searches the ‘Net for identical or similar text, including sites that sell term papers. If you’ve used someone else’s work without giving due credit, you will be caught. Guaranteed.

Also, teachers are very sensitive to "style." Every individual writes differently, using phrases, sentences, and words in a way that is uniquely theirs. Also, there is the issue of quality. If you've spent the entire semester writing like...well, like a kid, and all of a sudden you come off sounding like a Master's Degree candidate, even the densest educator is going to sit up and opine, "Egad! Something evil is afoot!"

In the academic world, intellectual property is given the same weight as any other kind of property. To them, theft of ideas is just as serious as the theft of a car. Think about it.

The best way to avoid such a situation is simply to do the research, and then take the time to learn what you’ve uncovered. If you know your subject, and the basis of that knowledge, your paper will almost write itself.

The whole idea of a research paper is providing a forum where you can express your own ideas and concepts, and even propose solutions to a particular problem. By merely using someone else’s work, you not only steal from them, you also cheat yourself.

What to Write About

The first step is, of course, the topic. This could be assigned by your instructor, or something you’re expected to generate yourself. If you’re lucky enough to be able to choose, pick a subject that you find interesting, something that you may already possess some knowledge about.

If, for example, you’re nuts about your cell phone, you might do a paper that follows the development of mobile communications, from bulky walkie-talkie radios in World War II, to the most modern and capable smart phone, not only writing about the devices, but the networks they run on. You could end that particular paper by forecasting what type of device might be the hot item in, say, ten years or so.

If you’re a football fanatic, you might do what a friend of mine did. He wrote a paper comparing and contrasting the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He started with structure and history, explored how the two defenses work against the run and the pass (breaking down the responsibilities of all 11 players), and what type of offenses worked well, and struggled against them. By the time he got all that down on paper, he had written about 23 pages on a 10-page assignment. His teacher later told him that paper completely changed the way the teacher watched football.

Those are two examples, but many times, it boils down to the question you have to ask yourself: “What in my world interests me the most?”

Getting a topic assigned can feel like being put in jail, particularly if the subject is something you know absolutely nothing about. But if you follow this process, you’ll find that this is not the mountain climb you may think it is.

Fundamentally, a research paper exists to answer a question, or a series of questions, about a certain topic. Instructors will usually assign topics that have been already covered in class, or offshoots thereof.

Let’s say your teacher has spent the semester talking about the island nations in the Caribbean Sea. (FYI, that’s the big patch of blue on the map between Florida and South America.) Now, he assigns you the topic of Haiti. He might give you a more specific sub-topic, or just leave you to your own devices. Let’s say he’s abandoned you to the wolves at this point. You spend a little time looking over your class notes that you took between naps, and you come across an interesting snippet of information. Back in February, he told you that Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “Hmmm,” you mutter to yourself. “Why is it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?” Somewhere in your head, a starter gun fires, and you’re off and running.

Asking Questions

The next step is to formulate a series of questions that help define the topic and give some direction to your paper. This is an important step, because when you answer those questions, your paper gets written.

Using our example, start by asking yourself about the history of Haiti. For countries, as well as for people, where we’ve been defines where we are now. You can include a sense of geographic place, identifying the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Talk about the historic importance of Caribbean trade routes. Politics is vital to Haiti’s history, so spend some time talking about the government, how it was established, and how it’s changed.

What is the nation’s economy based upon? What is the state of education, and how that impacts the ability of Haitians to access a better life? List your questions, keeping the list to no more than five or so.

Now comes the most difficult part.

Collecting Information

You will have to do some reading about the subject. Sorry, but the only way to swim is to get wet. The Internet makes looking for that information very easy. But be very careful with your sources. The Internet, while rich in resources, also has a lot of deadly traps. Anyone with a computer can go on line and write at great length on any number of subjects. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bloggers out there that deliberately write false and misleading things, hoping to create controversy that will drive visitors to their sites. A careful blogger will list their sources and that can give you some additional sources. But beware the bear trap of context. A writer can very easily, by careful editing, lift a sentence out of a source and make it sound completely opposite of what the originator intended. Therefore, follow up the sources and read the whole thing!

Journalists used to be reliable sources, but again, on too many occasions reporters have been caught committing any number of sins. Inventing stories, cherry-picking quotes to ensure the support of an agenda, ignoring or minimizing the opposing arguments, and de-contextualizing statements are just a few of the tricks that have been turned.

A couple of years ago, a BBC reporter (who here shall go unnamed) broke a story to the world that the Colombian drug cartels had developed a “Super Coca Plant.” In a breathless manner, he described how these plants grew much taller with greater leaf density, and a higher concentration of cocaine alkaloids. Coca, as you may know, is the plant from which cocaine is produced. The entire process is complicated and requires several chemicals, specialized equipment, and the exploitation of peasants. Now, the news that a more dangerous source of cocaine was being grown was picked up and reported globally, from Harrisburg to Hong Kong. People panicked. Government leaders were hounded by the public demanding stringent measures to combat this new menace. And as it turned out, it was all much ado about nothing.

I called the expert on cocaine at DEA Headquarters in Washington to get the facts. When I finally spoke to him, he was exasperated beyond belief. His phone had been ringing off the hook that day, thanks to the BBC report. He explained the truth.
  • Coca plants will grow very tall if left unattended and unharvested. These particular plants had been abandoned by the drug trafficking group who owned them. Hence, they grew up.
  • The strength and purity of cocaine hydrochloride, the powdered form of this drug, is determined, not by the amount of alkaloids in the leaf, but in the manufacturing process itself. It actually has much more to do with the quality of the chemicals used, and how tightly controlled the process is.
The reporter had been “rolled” by a local Colombian police type, who, as a joke, fed this disinformation to the reporter. Apparently he figured that the reporter either knew better, or would at least check the veracity of the story before publishing. The reporter did neither, and as a result, thoroughly embarrassed himself in front of the entire world.

Now this was an example of carelessness. But there are many other instances where a reporter has deliberately falsified information in a story. At least twice in the last six or seven years, a reporter has been forced to return a Pulitzer when it was discovered that they had…well…lied. So be very careful when quoting news sources. Follow up on any quotes and citations listed. You can email the reporter if you need help. If they refuse to help you verify the story, then that should be all the answer you need.

By far the best source you can use are academic journals. While they are enormously dry and difficult to read (I had to have a Thesaurus with me), they are nonetheless of immense value. Articles for these publications are written by experts in that field, and peer-reviewed by other experts in that field, before being published. This ensures that the information contained is accurate. That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements.

I did a 30-page paper on the effect of economic sanctions as a tool for forcing governments to comply with international law. In digging through the journals, (Political Science Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, etc.) I found I could “follow the argument.” One academic would publish an article in the Spring edition, espousing a particular point of view. In the Summer edition, another professor took issue with those conclusions, offering her own take on what the data represented. In the Fall edition, another PhD. took yet another stance, and so on. Following these “conversations” is helpful in that it ensures that all sides of the discussion are being covered, elements that can add value to your paper. Again, this saves you a lot of time.

Make separate files for each of your questions, sorting your discoveries in an organized way.

Don’t just file and forget. Read each and every one of the articles and reports, and make notes. This is the part where you become an expert. While you’re at it, you can start constructing your bibliography by citing these sources as you read them. Not everything you find will be used, or even useful, but you can always delete them later. There are two recognized formats for citations, one called MLA (or Modern Language Association) and the other is APA (American Psychiatric Association). Ask your instructor which one to use. This will impress him or her to no end.

The whole point of this part of the process is that thing we call learning. The more you study, the more you’ll learn. And at some point, you’re going to start having ideas of your own. Write them down and file them in another folder. Take care of them because, from a teacher’s point of view, that’s the gold he or she will be mining for in your paper.

By the way, this part typically takes the longest, so have patience.

Organzing the Information

At some point, you’ll realize that your collection process is complete. I can’t tell you when that is, but for me, it’s when I begin to see a lot more similar or duplicate information. At that point, you’ve probably plumbed the depths of your particular subject. Don’t, however, confuse this with a poor research process. You have to be sure that you’ve uncovered everything pertinent. Nothing is more embarrassing that to get a paper back with “What about this idea?” written red in the margin.

Now go back to your question folders and look at their contents. Save the cites that address the question, lose the ones that don’t. Begin jotting some preliminary notes about how to approach the questions and the best way to present the answers. This can be hard mental work, so make sure you do this without your iPod or cell phone in the way. You’re not a Doctor. You can be out of reach for a few hours. This is the part where you need all your mental faculties on deck and working. At the end, you should have in your mind a very clear “picture” of your paper and where you’re going with it.

Writing the Research Draft

The first time I put words on paper, I don’t pay a lot of attention to style or intellectual neatness. Singer Alanis Morissette calls this “stream of consciousness.” The point here is to throw down as many ideas as you have come up with, and a few more that may occur to you along the way. Open up separate documents for each question, and go to town. If you’ve done your research, studied the information, and organized in the proper way, you should find the ideas flowing freely, not only the thoughts of your sources, but your own as well. Don’t worry about length, either. That’s why we invented “editing.” In my professional life, the research draft is always the longest one. In one piece in particular, my research draft was 42 pages, while the final product ran only 6 pages.

Follow-on Drafts

As a writer, I’ve always found self-editing the hardest thing of all, sort of like taking out your own appendix. Fortunately, your questions give your paper an easy and obvious structure and path, so cleaning up the “stream of consciousness” clutter will be somewhat less burdensome. It’s important that you be as clear and concise as possible in your writing. Don’t use 15 words when 7 will do just fine. Don’t use $50 words just for the sake of using them, but only when they are absolutely required. And you better make sure you use them correctly. Go to the dictionary and make sure they mean what you think they mean.

How many drafts will you need? That depends. Your teacher will want to see your drafts as you work through them. Consulting with him or her will help you with editing, and also with clarifying your ideas and conclusions. At some point, find an educated adult who has time to read your paper. It’s more helpful if this is someone who’s not going to spare your feelings. Before your final product gets submitted you will need this kind of heartless review. Someone like that will look for correctable details your friends might miss or dismiss, for fear of hurting your feelings.

Every aspiring writer goes through this particular gate. The first time I had a professional editor critique my writing, I came away from that experience ready to slit my wrists. Writers get attached to words in the same way some people get attached to a puppy. They represent something deeply personal for you and it hurts to have them bruised in any way. But words are not puppies. And if you want to be taken seriously, you have to be able to endure what may seem like harsh treatment. Actually, it will probably be the most instructive thing you will ever do.

Having said that, you don’t have to make all the changes suggested. Nobody knows this subject as thoroughly as you at this point, and some suggestions may be the result of not understanding a core principal you put forward. So listen carefully and objectively. Change what makes sense to you, then move on.

At least one week before you turn in the final product, schedule some time with your teacher for a final read-through. Have her check your citations for format. Listen carefully for any suggestions or ideas she may have. Then go home, make those changes, and walk away from the paper for at least two days. Fill your mind with other things during that time. Then, go back to the paper and read it again with a fresh set of eyes. That’s when I usually find my stupid errors, dumb little things that I just didn’t see before. Fix them up and print it out. Make two copies, one for your teacher, and one for you. Save the paper to two different locations on your computer. If you have a web-based email (hotmail, or gmail for example) attach a copy to an email and send it to yourself. This ensures that you have a copy that won’t vanish if your hard drive crashes. (Actually two, since a copy will be in your “sent messages” folder as well.)

When you hand in the final version, ask the teacher to initial and date both the copy you turned in and the hardcopy you are keeping. That way, if the teacher loses your paper, you have proof that you turned it in on time. Teachers are human as well, and when a human has to take care of 30 or 40 large reports, occasionally one can be misplaced.

Final Thoughts

A research paper is all about you, what you think about a certain subject. Even as a teenager, your ideas are important. A well-prepared and well-written paper is something that college admissions people and perspective employers will find of great interest. Something like this definitely helps to make you that “tall stalk of corn in short field of soybeans.”

In anticipation of the labor involved in a research paper, most people get hung up on the writing part. I hope I’ve shown you that it is actually the research which is the most important step. Having done a good job on that, you may find, as I have, that the paper almost writes itself.

At the end of this process, you will discover that you’ve learned a lot. You will surprise yourself when this information bubbles up in conversations. Plus there’s the added benefit of seeing the world differently. Knowledge changes our view of things, and often brings answers to tough questions. Possessing this kind of knowledge forces other people to take you seriously as a thinking human being, one who understands the world in a far clearer way.

And be honest; wouldn’t you rather be treated with respect, than as just a dumb kid?
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