Research: Evaluating Sources Summary Where Research will Happen Why do Research? Research: Using Databases High School Libraries and Academic Libraries Elements of Research Defining Research The Changing Nature of Information Research: Locating Sources Research: Techniques and Tools Research: What is It? The Changing Nature of Information

Elements of Research

What does the product of an expert researcher look like? To provide a concrete example of the research process, we will dissect a biology article in the field of genetic engineering and examine the research effort that went into it. This article is a significant piece of scholarship, something an expert researcher would write. While you would not have the subject expertise or time to complete such a project during your time in college, it provides an opportunity to learn from the experts.

The title is a gauge of how clearly you understand your topic and the benchmark for determining whether you are staying focused on your topic.

View this Example article entitled "Commercialization of transgenic plants" (hereafter referred to as the Commercialization Example).

The authors decided to focus on the genetic engineering of commercial plants, like corn or wheat, and not wild plants. Notice the subheading following the colon. This is an important technique for clearly narrowing a topic. Genetic engineering of commercial plants is the main topic of the study, but only the ecological risks will be dealt with fully. This means health issues and government regulation issues will either not be covered or be covered tangentially. If the authors had not added the subheading, "potential ecological risks," the topic would have been far too broad and unmanageable. On the other hand, if the title had been "Commercialization of transgenetic plants: Bacillus thuringiensis and herbicide-tolerant legume," the researchers might not have found enough information to build a paper of reasonable length. To write a successful research paper, the thesis statement must be clear and concise and neither too broad nor too narrow.
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Number of References
Notice in the Commercialization Example the number of references the authors used: seventy-one. The more sources you find, the easier it will be to write a high-quality research paper. As a general rule, collect twice as many sources as your professor requires. You can then evaluate them critically, and you will have the luxury of eliminating those that are inferior or miss the focus of your thesis statement. The authors of this article probably had hundreds of sources to choose from but felt that these were the most relevant.
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Types of References
Magazine and ComuterNotice the different types of references in the Commercialization Example. Most of the references are for journal articles (Adler, Arias, Bartels, etc.), several are for books (Anderson, Baum, Gatehouse, etc.), two are for websites (APHIS and NBIAP), two are for papers given at a conference (Gould 1992 and Krattiger), and one refers to a government document (Snow). Heavy dependence on journal articles is typical for most disciplines in the sciences and the social sciences. The humanities, as a rule, rely equally on books and journals. However, each discipline has its own unique sources of knowledge. Become knowledgeable concerning where information in your discipline is most readily found.
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Range of Years
Picture of an old bookNotice the range of years in the Commercialization Example. There are 31 references (44%) to material published in 1994, 1995, and 1996, the three years previous to the publication year. This is to be expected in a fast-changing field like genetic engineering. Expectations vary from discipline to discipline and topic to topic. In some areas, the definitive works might have been written three decades or three centuries ago. As a general rule, your professor will expect you to locate current scholarship on the subject as well as important historical sources. Notice the authors reference a number of "classics." To better understand how oats and millet propagate, the authors cited the 1977 books by Baum and Brunken on the subjects. It's important for the researcher to understand what has already been written on the subject. Also, there are nearly as many references to sources published in the 1980s as there are to sources published in the 1990s. To write intelligently on a topic today, you must understand what went on before. Successful scholars stand on the shoulders of those who went before them.

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Scholarly Sources
Notice that all the journal references in the Commercialization Example are from scholarly journals (in a later section we'll discover how to tell a scholarly journal from a popular magazine.) You'll be able to use a few articles from popular magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, but most of your sources will have to be from scholarly journals.
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Tangential References
Notice that no article in the Commercialization Example deals exactly with the topic. It's the rare article that covers a research topic exactly. Chances are you will need to look for articles that address your topic from a number of different viewpoints. For example, some of the sources look at only one type of plant, others deal with plant genetics, while others focus on resistance to viruses. It will be up to you to synthesize all that material into your paper.
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Research Hints
Look for research hints in the references. Notice in the Commercialization Example that Gould, F. is listed five times. This may indicate an authority on the subject. Image of Magnifying GlassSimilarly, if several authors cite the same author, then it's safe to assume that this person is an expert on the subject and that other books and articles by this author should be sought. Or, you may discover a useful phrase that may lead to other useful articles. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis might be a bacteria worth examining more carefully. Research requires that you pay attention to all the clues and hints scattered along the way.
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What's Missing?
Shakespeare spilling his ink in frusrtation
There is no evidence of the blood, sweat, and tears the authors shed! Everything is nicely polished, and arguments flow smoothly into each other. The introduction clearly identifies the issues, and the conclusion summarizes the findings. But if the authors were to stand before you, they would describe their journey, their long days and nights locating sources, the frustrating dead ends, and the continual revising and rewriting.
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These pages were written by Glenn Remelts. and edited by Jeffrey L. Nyhoff and Nancy Zylstra
©2005 Calvin College, All Rights Reserved

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