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.
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.
in the Commercialization
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.
the different types of references in the
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.
the range of years in the Commercialization
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.
that all the journal references in the Commercialization
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.
no article in the Commercialization
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.
for research hints in the references. Notice in the Commercialization
that Gould, F. is listed five times. This may indicate an authority
on the subject. Similarly,
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.
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.