1. Be prepared to take notes. Have paper or note cards, and pen or pencil on hand for taking notes. Bring coins for the copy machine. And don’t forget your library card. Allow yourself plenty of time; don’t go ten minutes before closing time.
2. Get a big stack and skim. Pile your table with books, magazines, journals, etc. You want a variety of sources for a well-rounded perspective on your topic. How can you tell quickly if the source is relevant? Read the first and last page, or first paragraph and last paragraph. If it seems helpful, read further, then take notes, photocopy it, check it out, etc. If not, place it on a cart to be re-shelved.
3. Check the sources’ publication dates. You want to make certain the information is up-to-date, especially if you are writing about a current issue. What we knew about genetics in the 1960’s, for example, is very different than what we know now. The general rule of thumb for up-to-date sources is a publication date within the past five years. When in doubt, ask your teacher for guidelines.
4. Check the sources’ sources. The sources themselves offer a wealth of information in the bibliography. What articles or books did the authors cite? Check to see if your library carries any of those.
5. Check out the opposition. As you research, make certain you include materials that refute your any argument. At the very least, a good research paper acknowledges and often details opposition. An excellent research paper includes counter-arguments. If the assignment is to write on a controversial topic, you must present different sides of an argument. And you must do so with passion, not prejudice.
6. Beware of the Internet! Don’t rely completely on Internet sources. It is not a giant library. It is a compilation of information, some credible, some incredible. Anyone can post anything online. Some of the most scholarly-looking information is merely someone’s opinion without credible sources to back it up. You can miss some very important information when you rely solely upon the Internet. Seek a variety of sources for a well-rounded perspective.
7. Make sure sources are reliable. This is especially true of material found on the Internet. Information posted on websites is not always subjected to the same kind of editorial review or verification as other publications. Check questionable material against other sources. Published material should be reviewed by credible experts, editors or peers of the writer. For example, there is a significant difference in the information presented in a woman’s magazine like Cosmopolitan versus a scientific magazine like Scientific American. Ask yourself, “Who is this author? What is his goal? Who is his audience?”
8. As you research, write down the information you will need for your bibliography. You may need to go back to a source and you’ll definitely need to acknowledge your sources in your paper. Make it easy on yourself by writing the bibliography with the notes you take or on the top of any photocopies. You’ll need the following information:
For a book – Author, title, publisher, place and year of publication, and call number.
For an article—Author, title, periodical, volume, number, date, page number(s), call number.
Check with your teacher about which format is required for bibliography: Modern Language Association (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA). Use the correct format and you’ll save yourself even more time later.
9. Paraphrase, don’t plagiarize. Copying huge sections from your sources word for word is tempting, but it is wrong. It is called plagiarism. The best way to avoid plagiarism is by citing your sources in your paper (easy to do since you’ve followed #8) and by taking notes in your own words. You can pull out the author’s thesis, hook, persuasive or informational points, arguments and closing. That’s all you need for your background information. Close the book, set aside the magazine, turn away from the computer screen, then jot down what you remember from what you’ve read. You can quote a source for a statistic or sound-bite, if you enclose the statement in quotations and cite your source.
10. Use note cards. Take notes on 3×5 cards labeled with the subject title or key word. Later, when you are ready to type the paper, you can sort the cards according to subject and your paper will practically write itself.