What are the Basic Steps in Doing Research for a College Paper?

Use sources responsibly.

In college, first year writing courses are a rite of passage for all incoming students. Writing from experience is the focus of Expository Writing, while the second required writing course, Research and Argumentative Writing, focuses on writing research papers. Although integrating outside sources into papers can be challenging, a bit of careful planning during the writing process ensures that writers can successfully meet the demands of writing research-based essays.

1 Determine your Purpose

Determine the purpose for writing before beginning research. According to John Mauk and John Metz in "The Composition of Everyday Life," ask yourself why this subject is important in people’s lives. Answering this question before beginning to write will help focus your research. Review your assignment sheet and know what the assignment requires, and shape your writing goals accordingly. Highlight the number of sources that must be used in the paper and stick to that number.

2 Take a Stand

Every research papers starts with a thesis. This statement, usually placed at the end of the introductory paragraph, informs readers what the paper is about and reflects “your way of looking at things,” as Pamela Dykstra explains in "An Easy Guide to Writing." Take a clear stand on an issue. Because there has been an increase in violence on campus, security cameras should be installed is a clear statement, while there are advantages and disadvantages to installing security cameras on campus is not.

3 Locating Sources

Consult academic databases to locate sources. Databases such as Gale InfoTrac, General One-File, and Academic Search Premier, offer links to credible scholarly articles and book titles. These databases can typically be accessed quite easily at any time through a college or local library. Use the Internet as a last resort because information found on the Web can be too general, and is best for personal use, like looking up the weather, sports statistics or entertainment gossip.

4 Evaluate Sources

Evaluate all sources for credibility. Determine the credentials of the article writer, such as degrees earned, professional affiliations or articles published. This information can be found in article abstracts, book introductions, or book jackets. Search secondary sources and online to learn how others view the author and whether the author is respected by others. Note any biases and use these to weigh credibility as well. Use recent sources to ensure information is still relevant, especially if writing about a current issue.

5 Organizing Sources

When finding a promising source, copy the search page with the article link into a separate document to retain the title and author information. Cut and paste the URL from the search browser to easily relocate the source for citing or documenting. Save as a digital file all articles that might be used in the paper to keep them on hand to refer to when borrowing information or to print out if needed. Annotate each source as a reminder of how it will be used.

6 Writing the Paper

Write the research paper before integrating sources. This keeps the focus on your argument and keeps sources in their proper place, as evidence that supports your assertions and thesis. According to Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook, “your voice remains the most important in the paper.” Avoid over reliance on sources, limiting the use of sources to less than 10 percent of the paper, or one source per page. Follow each quote, paraphrase or summary with an analysis of how the borrowed information supports your argument.

7 Documentation

While sources may be paraphrased, summarized, or quoted, all must be cited and documented. To cite means to enclose in parenthesis the author’s last name and page number at the end of the sentence in which borrowed information appears. Readers will use this abbreviated information to locate the sources listed at the end of the paper on a Works Cited or Bibliography page. There are various style guidelines; MLA for English, APA for Psychology, AP for Journalism. Each has its own rules for information order, punctuation and formatting. Follow the guidelines required by your discipline.

  • 1 The Composition of Everyday Life; John Mauk and John Metz; 2010
  • 2 An Easy Guide to Writing; Pamela D. Dykstra; 2006
  • 3 The Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook; Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray; 2010

Marie Brown is a Nashville-based writer who has been writing professionally since 2004. She began writing instructional articles online in 2009, writing articles about writing, business, home organizing and childcare issues. Brown holds a master’s degree in English, a minor in writing and has an associate degree in early childhood education.