How To Research Your Term Paper Like a Pro

Finding Excellent References When Time Is Short

Your term paper is due tomorrow! You haven't done any research on it yet. What are you going to do now? Fortunately, information is easier to access now than ever before. Your library has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars providing online and print materials for your use. When time is short, there are a few power tools you can use to get the articles you need in a hurry. These tips will help you in a pinch, and will provide a good basis. For in-depth research projects, you'll want to be sure to give yourself plenty of time to find the best resources. But for now, we'll focus on what to do in a hurry.

  1. Choose your topic. You may not have any choice in your topic, but even if you do, topics are rarely as straightforward as they seem at first blush. "Oil Drilling in Alaska", for example, seems pretty straightforward, but which aspect of that topic is most interesting to you? The effect on the environment, political aspects, economic effects, or something else? I like to pick a backup focus in case I'm not able to find enough material on my first choice. Your topic should be something you find relatively interesting. Otherwise, researching and writing are going to be hard work.
  2. Brainstorm. Don't start researching yet. Take just a couple of minutes and brainstorm terms that you could use to search with. This process is sometimes helped if you have background information on your topic, which could provide you with helpful terms or phrases. Looking up your topic in an encyclopedia, such as Wikipedia, can help give you an overview and provide useful search terms. For our example topic, I found the terms "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge", "ANWR", "slant drilling", or "Prudhoe Bay". Coupling your terms with the focus you've chosen (e.g. environment, politics, economics, etc.) will drastically cut down on your research time.
  3. Use your library. All colleges and universities have very large libraries with an ever-increasing amount of fulltext articles available online. Make use of this. You will find much better quality articles by using the library resources than you will using internet search engines such as Yahoo! and Google (most public libraries also have a good collection, depending on your topic).
  4. Find the right database. This might be the most difficult part of the entire process. Your library likely subscribes to hundreds of databases; picking the one that will work best for you could be a little tricky. For most undergraduate students a good place to start is in general database such as Academic Search Premier/Elite or ABI/Inform. These names don't scream, "Hey I'm a good place to start," but they both cover a wide range of topics and are fulltext. From your library's homepage, look for links to "Electronic Resources" or something similar. This will lead to a list of databases. In an alphabetical list or under the subject pages, you should be able to find something. If you need something more specialized, ask your professor or a librarian for a suggestion.
  5. Be a power searcher. You want to spend minimal time researching, since you still have a whole paper to write. It's important to get your resources and move on to the next step. Learning how to be a power searcher will save you loads of time.
  6. Use the Advanced Search screen. There are more boxes available on Advanced Search screens, making it easier to keep your terms and concepts organized. Refine your results by using the terms you developed in step 2. Add, remove or change terms until you find citations that suit your need. To be really flexible, use AND or OR in your searches (called Boolean logic). For example, "Drilling" AND "Alaska" AND "environment" will bring back records that have all three of these terms -- you're effectively narrowing your search to just these topics. If you searched "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge " OR "ANWR" you would get records that had either of those terms. Use ORs between synonyms or substitute terms such as acronymns.
  7. Group your concepts using parentheses. Remember when we came up with alternate terms in step 2? Use parentheses to group like terms together. Everything between a set of parenthesis is grouped together (just like in math). So "(Arctic National Wildlife Refuge OR ANWR)" will group those two terms together. You'll notice the "OR" between the two terms. That means that whether the author used either term it will be retrieved. OR-ing synonyms or similar terms makes your search more flexible. You can combine a set of grouped terms with other search terms to make sure you get what you're after. A search on "(Arctic National Wildlife Refuge OR ANWR) AND Drilling" should bring back relevant results about drilling that is happening on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge OR ANWR.
  8. Use truncation to bring back all possible variations. Truncation will help bring back word variations: politic* will bring back politics, political, or politician. An asterix (*) and question mark (?) are the two most common types of truncation symbols.
  9. Ask a Librarian. If you have any trouble finding a database that is working for you, ask a librarian. They will know the best place to go for your topic. Most libraries have an online chat feature enabled, or another way to ask a librarian. If you feel like you're spinning your wheels, this can be a quick way to get on track and get things moving.
  10. Do your bibliography as you go. As you find articles that are useful to you, keep track of their citations. Email them to yourself, or cite them as you go. This will make putting together your bibliography (a necessary part of any research paper) so much easier. Online bibliography managers such as EndNote or RefWorks make saving and organizing citations a breeze. Check with your Librarian to see if your school has subscriptions to either of these products. Otherwise, EasyBib is a free online tool that will generate MLA- or APA-style bibliographies. 


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