How to Craft the Perfect Research Paper Thesis

How to Craft the Perfect Research Paper Thesis

I’m going to nerd out for a minute here, because creating a beautiful research paper thesis statement is truly a craft. Writing a great research paper is truly a craft.  Yes. Writing is an art, a craft, and you are a craftsman, an artist, a writer, even if you are a biology major writing the term paper for your US History class.  Unlike some things we learn in college, writing is one skill, one craft that you will need and use in any career that requires a college degree.  Treat writing as a craft, take pride in your work, and the difference will be noticeable!
This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper”, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish.
A great research paper thesis is truly a craft, and it can make or break your paper. | thecafescholar.com
Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.
College professors often include the phrase “thesis-driven” in the requirements for research paper assignments.  If they don’t, they are assuming you already know this.  So know this: any paper or essay you write should include a great thesis statement and should be thesis-driven, meaning that the content is driven by and proves the thesis.  As we will see, however, the thesis itself is driven by the research you have done.

What is a thesis statement?

If you know the answer to this question, you’re probably wondering why I even ask it.  Well, here’s the story: I’ve taught college freshmen that didn’t know the answer, so I don’t want to make any assumptions here.  The thesis statement is a statement of your argument. Not like the one you had with your roommate last week.  What are you trying to convince your reader?  That’s your argument.  Every paper is, on some level, a persuasive essay.  When we write a research paper, we are going to be more subtle about our persuasion, and we’re going to let the evidence do most of the work, but we are trying to persuade our reader of something.  So what are you trying to say?  What are you trying to convince me? That’s your thesis.

What makes a good research paper thesis?The thesis is critical to a great paper. What are the key components of a good research paper thesis? | thecafescholar.com

It’s not rocket science to write a thesis statement, but writing a good research paper thesis takes some work.  It’s a craft.  A good thesis is usually one sentence, and usually the last sentence in the introductory paragraph or towards the end of the introduction.  It is beautifully worded, but not too wordy.  These should be the most carefully chosen words in your paper.  A good research paper thesis reflects the content and the organization of the paper.  And, it needs to be a sound argument supported by the evidence you will show in your paper.

So how do you craft a good research paper thesis?

It’s actually a circular process.  It starts at the beginning of your writing process and keeps coming back around, all the way to the end of the writing process.

Thesis in the Research Paper Proposal

When you write your research paper proposal, you’ve only done some basic research to get an idea of the question you want to answer.  But, at this point, you should have an idea of what you think that answer – that thesis – will be.  What do you think your further research is going to find?  Don’t spend too much time making this first thesis pretty.  It is going to change, possibly big time.  But this will give your research a direction, and your professor might be able to warn you off if you are trying to argue a thesis that will be difficult to prove.

Thesis in the OutlineYou will touch your research paper thesis several times: while writing your proposal, in the outline, after the outline, and on each draft. | thecafescholar.com

When you get to writing your research paper outline, you now have a good deal of the research done.  You know by now what the evidence shows, so one of the first steps in writing your research paper outline will be rewriting your thesis to match your developing argument.  Write that new thesis (or rewrite the old one), and use that to give your outline some direction.  But, don’t be surprised if, as you work on the outline, you decide to change things up.  This is normal – this is really good, actually, because you don’t want to just write a paper to prove what you think the evidence shows; you want the evidence to tell you something true that you will argue as your thesis.
When you are done writing your outline and have it organized the way you want, you’ll want to circle back on that thesis again.  Here is where you’re going to put the time in.  Start asking questions.  Does your outline represent a strong argument for that thesis statement?  Does it support your thesis?  If not, you will need to change either your thesis or your outline.  Hint, hint. It is much easier to go back and change your thesis now that you know what the evidence shows.  Once you are sure what you want your thesis to say, make sure it includes or reflects the structure of your paper. For example, one version of my thesis for a research paper on the causes of the American Civil War went like this:
The Second Great Awakening was a major driving force behind the American Civil War, especially as it contributed to religious sectarian division between North and South, increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and the growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement.

The Breakdown:

What I want to convince my reader: Second Great Awakening was a major cause of the American Civil War
Supporting evidence that I will use in my paper: it contributed to sectarian division, it increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and it fueled the growth of the abolition movement.  Each of these is a section in the paper, and this is the order they show up in the paper.
When you have your thesis in the order that reflects the organization of your paper, start trying out different ways to say the same thing.  You want a thesis that is succinct, not too wordy, and it needs to be super clear what you are trying to say.  This is where you get to make it prettier.

Writing the Paper

After each draft of writing the paper itself, you are going to revisit that thesis.  Does your paper argue the thesis? (Do they match?)  Does the wording and tone of your thesis match the wording and tone of the rest of your paper?  Basically, now that you’ve written a paper to go with your thesis, you need to make sure that both the content and style of your thesis fit your paper. This will often mean tweaking your thesis yet again.  But hopefully, if you did good outline work, your argument won’t change too much when you write the paper itself, and you can focus on making it look and sound good.

Get Research Paper Thesis Feedback…Right Here!

Working on a research paper right now?  Drop your thesis and a short outline in the comments, and we'll give you some feedback!

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How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.  A good research paper outline will save you time writing your paper, and it will help you create a focused, well-supported argument and a stronger paper.
This post is part of The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing Awesome Research Papers. Before you get started on your outline, make sure to check out the posts on planning your research paper and finding great academic sources!
A good research paper outline is key to writing an A+ paper. | https://thecafescholar.com

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

#1 Start with the Thesis

Yep - that means you should spend a lot of quality time working on your research paper outline - maybe even more time than writing the paper itself! | https://thecafescholar.com

Any work you do on your research paper outline needs to start with your thesis.  Now, your thesis is going to evolve and get refined as you complete your research and writing, but you need to start with your thesis so you know where you are going.  The thesis is your argument – not like the one you had with your sister last week, but rather, what are you trying to convince your reader?  How are you going to convince them?  Another post in this series will cover how to refine your thesis and make it shine, but for now, come up with the answers to these questions.  Then, break down the steps of how you will convince your reader into categories.

For example, for a paper I wrote last year about the religious causes of the American Civil War, my thesis towards the beginning of the project was  “The Second Great Awakening was a major driving force behind the American Civil War, especially as it contributed to religious sectarian division between North and South, increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and the growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement.”

My Categories:

– the religious sectarian division between North and South

– increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion

– growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement

#2 Map out your Research Paper

A mind map will help you organize and plan your research paper outline. | https://thecafescholar.com

When I plan a research paper outline, I find it easiest to use a mind map type brainstorm, although you could probably use your favorite brainstorming technique.  Start with a circle in the middle with the basis of your thesis: “Second Great Awakening was a major cause of the American Civil War.”  Then, branch out from there with your categories.  I usually add a category for background information, which won’t be listed out in my thesis but will come right after the introduction.  How much background information will depend on the length of your paper and the type of paper.  A history paper might have more background information, for example.  Sometimes your professor will give you guidelines in this area.

The research paper outline is probably the most important part of your paper! Once you have a good thesis, start mapping it out with a mind map. | https://thecafescholar.com

Then, add subcategories for each of those categories.  Each category will become a section of my paper, and each subcategory will be its own paragraph.   How many categories you have will depend mostly on how you can group the topics in your paper together, but how many subcategories you have will depend on the length of the paper.  A good guide is roughly 2 paragraphs per page.  Sometimes a subcategory might need two paragraphs, but I recommend planning out your paper as if each subcategory will only be one paragraph.  You may end up with too much material and have to trim some out later, but that is easier than having to go do more research later just to meet your page count.

Finally, I branch out from each subcategory with quick notes about a few sources I might use for that subcategory.

The research paper outline is probably the most important part of your paper! Once you have a good thesis, start mapping it out with a mind map. | https://thecafescholar.com

#3 Create the Research Paper Outline Structure

Next, on my mind map I number each of the categories based on the order I think I want to put them in.  I do the same thing with the subcategories within each category.  Don’t spend too much time on this step, because you can (and probably will!) change it later.

Now it is time to actually create the research paper outline.  Open up a Word document, create your header information (name, course, etc.) and a tentative title for your paper.  Don’t worry too much about the title either; it will probably change as you write the paper.  Now, write out your research paper outline using the structure below and the information from your mind map.

Here is a sample of how to format your research paper outline. | https://thecafescholar.com

#4 Add the Evidence

Now, start pulling together the evidence you will use to argue (convince your reader) of your thesis, and add a few quotes under each subcategory.  When you do this, include the full quote even if you think you will paraphrase it in the paper.  That way, when you go to write the paper itself, if you decide to use the actual quote instead of a paraphrase, you have it right there and don’t have to go find it again.  Also, you want to include your citation information just as you would in the actual paper.  So create the citation as a footnote or parenthetical citation depending on which format is required for your class.  This is going to save you time later.  Study smarter, right?

As you pull together all the supporting information for your argument, there is a good chance that some of your categories or subcategories will change, or that you will change the order you want to share them.  That’s good!  When you think you have everything pulled together, feel free to move around sections or rename them as you go.

#5 End with the Thesis

Writing a good research paper outline starts and ends with your thesis. | https://thecafescholar.com

When you have all the evidence pulled together and you think you have everything the way you want it, go back to your thesis.  Make sure that your research paper outline is arguing your thesis.  Your argument may have changed as you wrote the outline.  If so, that’s fine, but you just need to revise your thesis now that you have done all the research and prepared everything.

At this point, you have a research paper outline!  What that means is that your paper is basically written, in bullet point form. When it comes time to writing the paper itself, all you will need to do is fill it in by turning those outlined points and quotes into cohesive paragraphs.  If you do the research paper outline well, you will have done the bulk of the work and the next step will be so much easier!

Okay, time to get started!  Go ahead and start working on your outline!  Want some feedback?  Comment below and let us know what research paper you’re working on, and what you think your thesis and some of your categories might be!

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.

How to do your Assigned Reading if you're NOT a Reader?

Let’s face it: college reading is really hard. Grad school reading is super intense. This is coming from me, and I love to read. Always have. If strong readers get overwhelmed by a mountain of books, then what about those of us who struggle with reading, or just don’t enjoy it? How can you do your assigned reading if you’re just not a reader?

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How to Write a Terrific Annotated Bibliography

How to Write a Terrific Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a lot like the bibliography you would find at the end of your research paper or a book, but with more information.  Besides research paper assignments, you will find annotated bibliographies as part of a dissertation or thesis.  There are even published books that are extensive annotated bibliographies on a particular topic.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

What is the purpose of an annotated bibliography, and how do you write a really great one? This post will teach you how to write a terrific annotated bibliography for your next research paper. | https://thecafescholar.com

This post is part of The Cafe Scholar's Guide to Writing an Awesome Research Paper.  When you are finished working on your annotated bibliography, make sure to go back and check out the rest of the series!

 

What is the Purpose of an Annotated Bibliography?

What is the annotated bibliography used for and why do you need to create one? | https://thecafescholar.com

An annotated bibliography has a few different uses.  In a more extensive piece of academic writing, the annotated bibliography helps the reader who wants to dig deeper to find just the right source for his or her interest.  For the writer, the annotated bibliography will become a go-to resource to continue the research process.  This is true for anything from a shorter research paper to a full-length book.  You can refer back to the annotated bibliography to see what sources you found during the planning stage and why you thought they would be helpful, so you can have a better chance at finding the information you are looking for when you actually get down to writing.  Also, the process of writing an annotated bibliography will help you to evaluate your sources up front and make sure you are finding sources that will be useful for your paper before you get elbow-deep in writing.  This is really important.  What if you put all this work into writing a paper and then you realize there aren’t enough quality sources out there (or aren’t enough that meet your professor’s requirements, or aren’t enough in a language you can read…yes this has happened to me!)?  Since our mission is to study smarter, we obviously want to avoid wasting time like that.  The annotated bibliography will help you make sure you have what you need, so even if your professor doesn’t require one, you should create one anyways!
 

What Information Should you Include in your Annotated Bibliography?

What information do you need to include in your annotated bibliography? | https://thecafescholar.com

First, before you start working on your annotated bibliography, make sure to read any instructions provided by your professor, as he or she may have some specific requirements you need to satisfy.
 

Full Citation

First, you need to include the full citation for the source, properly formatted in the correct style for your discipline (such as Turabian/Chicago style, APA, MLA, etc.).  An app like Zotero can do this for you.
 

Classify the Source

You will want to categorize the source as a primary or secondary source.  This is especially important if your professor requires a certain number of primary sources for the assignment.  If you aren’t sure whether a source is a primary source or a secondary source, see my post about the difference between primary and secondary sources.  There are a few ways you can do this in your annotated bibliography.
Method one: You have a heading, “Primary Sources,” and list all of your primary sources, and do the same for the secondary sources.
 
Method Two: For each source in your annotated bibliography, state “primary source” right after the citation.
 
If your professor doesn’t state a preference, I prefer Method 2 because it is easier to do it this way if you are using a reference manager such as Zotero to create the annotated bibliography.  (I will share how to do this in a later post.)
 

Describe the Source

You will want to answer some questions, in a few sentences, to include the most important information about the source.   What type of source is it?  Is it a book, newspaper article, artifact, journal, etc?  Who is the author?  You already know the name from your citation above, but you want to identify anything about the author that will make this particular source helpful for your assignment.  For example, if the author was a black abolitionist preacher during the Civil War era, you are going to read the source differently than if it was written by a 20th-century historian.
 

Discuss the Importance or Usefulness of the Source

Evaluate the source: what is the usefulness of this source for this paper or project? | https://thecafescholar.com

Why is this source going to help you with this paper?  Does it provide a different perspective or a first-hand account of your research paper topic?  Is there a particular chapter or section that may prove useful for your paper?  Include this information here.

How Long Should the Annotation Be?

The annotation may vary from 1-2 sentences to a shorter paragraph, depending on the type of source and how much information is available.
 

Here is an example of a shorter annotation:

Essick, Abraham. “Franklin County: Diary of Abraham Essick (1849-1864; 1883; 1888).” Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 1998. Accessed February 25, 2017. http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/FD1005.
(Primary) This source is the diary of a Lutheran minister who preached before congregations all over the North, as well as in Winchester, Virginia.
 

And here is an example of a longer annotation:

McMath, Ann, and C. Stewart Doty. The Journal of Ann McMath: An Orphan in a New York Parsonage in the 1850s. Albany, N.Y.: Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, 2011. Accessed February 25, 2017. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=3407253.
(Primary) Ann McMath’s diaries chronicle her experience living in New York after it was “burned over” by religious enthusiasm. She was raised from the age of 14 in the home of her uncle, a preacher whose ministry reflected the values of the “Burned Over District.” McMath describes her conversion experience, reading habits, religious experiences, interactions with other religious traditions, and friendships with women such as Sarah and Mary Payne, who connected their religious beliefs with participation in abolition, feminist, and temperance movements. She also describes the involvement of her pastor uncle in both the abolition and temperance movements.
 

How Many Sources Should you Include?

How do you know how many sources to include in your annotated bibliography? | https://thecafescholar.com

If your professor does not specify the number of sources required for the annotated bibliography, then you want to aim for about 20% more than would be required or expected for the paper.  The reason is that there will always be sources that you thought you would use, but that didn’t work out in the long run.  If you include enough extra sources in the annotated bibliography, you won’t have to do as much extra research later to meet that minimum requirement if not all of your original sources work out.
 
Now you are ready to go write your annotated bibliography! Be sure to refer back to the post about finding good academic sources; the better sources you find, the easier it will be to write a great annotated bibliography and a great research paper.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.

How to do your Assigned Reading if you're NOT a Reader?

Let’s face it: college reading is really hard. Grad school reading is super intense. This is coming from me, and I love to read. Always have. If strong readers get overwhelmed by a mountain of books, then what about those of us who struggle with reading, or just don’t enjoy it? How can you do your assigned reading if you’re just not a reader?

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What is the Difference Between a Primary Source and a Secondary Source?

What is the Difference Between a Primary Source and a Secondary Source?

What is the difference between a primary source and a secondary source? When should you use a primary source, or when should you use a secondary source? | https://thecafescholar.comThis post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper” series, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish. When you are done figuring out the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, be sure to check out the rest of the series!
Do you know what a primary source is?  If so, awesome! If not, you’re not alone.  When I was teaching a freshman class last semester, I realized many of my students didn’t know what I meant by “primary source” on their research papers.  This is really important for academic writing, so I thought I would give you a brief introduction to the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

What a Primary Source Isn’t

Do you know the difference between a primary and secondary source? Learn what a primary source isn't...and what a primary source IS. | https://thecafescholar.com

Some of my students thought that the primary source was the most important source in their paper or the source they were going to base most of their paper on, and the secondary sources were any other sources they planned to use.  That’s not what primary source or secondary source means, so I’m hoping this post will clear that up.  Whether a source is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary has nothing to do with how you will use it in your paper.  Instead, it has to do with how close that source is to the event or subject being studied.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a source directly connected to the event that happened (or is happening).  For example, a letter or diary from the Civil War era is a primary source.  A photograph or piece of artwork would be a primary source, as would an interview or the writings of someone from that time period.  To go back to my American Civil War example, a collection of sermons from a preacher from that era would be a primary source.

Examples of Primary Sources from Different Fields

Are field notes a primary source or secondary source? | https://thecafescholar.com

If you are writing about science, math, economics or statistics, your field notes, data collected or a particular statistic would be a primary source.
If you are writing about literature or about an author, the literature would also be a primary source.  If I am writing a paper about the Hunger Games (yes, I did), I can’t get any closer to the subject than the books and movies themselves.  If I were to write a paper about Suzanne Collins, then the Hunger Games books would still be a primary source, since they are her writings.
If you are writing about art or an artist, the artwork itself would be considered a primary source.
If you are writing about religion, a particular scripture might be a primary source.

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source is a source written by a scholar based on a study of the primary source(s).  Secondary sources are very important because we don’t do scholarship in a vacuum; we want to understand what someone else has learned from a source.  Also, they can help us learn from primary sources we might not have access to, and bring together information from several primary sources and tie it together.

Examples of Secondary Sources from Different Disciplines

In science or education, a secondary source might bring together evidence from several research projects to come to a conclusion.
In literature, an analysis of the book, a book review, or biography of the author would be a secondary source.  (But an autobiography written by the author herself would be a…you guessed it, primary source!).
In art, a book, article, or review about the work of art or a biography of the artist would be a secondary source.
In biblical studies, a commentary or sermon on a scripture passage would be a secondary source.

What is a Tertiary Source?

Maybe you hadn't even heard of that one!  A tertiary source brings together information from multiple secondary sources to come to a conclusion.  The writer of the tertiary source isn’t accessing the primary source material; everything is coming secondhand, so when you read a tertiary source, you are getting it third hand.  Most lower level textbooks and encyclopedias fall into this category.  You can tell by looking at what the writer has cited.  Is she citing a combination of primary and secondary sources?  Then the article or book is a secondary source.  Is she citing only secondary sources?  Then the article is a tertiary source.

Can the Same Source be a Primary Source and a Secondary Source?

How do you know if a source is a primary source or secondary source? | https://thecafescholar.com

Yes, a source can be both primary and secondary, depending on the context, but not usually both at the same time.  It depends on how it is being used.  Here are a few examples:
Religious Studies: If you are writing a paper about the Gospel of John, a sermon on the Gospel of John from the 1950s is a secondary source; that sermon is talking about the primary source, which in this case would be the scripture itself. On the other hand, if you are writing a paper about religious views in the 1950s, a sermon from that time period would be a primary source, since it was written in a religious context during that time period for the purpose of teaching religion.
Literary History: If you are writing about Jane Austen, a review of one of her books might be a secondary source.  But if you are writing about how views of Jane Austen changed over time, that same review would be a primary source since it is a “real-time” depiction of someone’s view of Jane Austen.

In academic writing, you need to use a balance of primary and secondary sources. | https://thecafescholar.comWrite with a Balance of Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

When you wrote your first essays in elementary and middle school, most of your sources were tertiary: textbooks and encyclopedias.  You started to use some secondary sources, such as biographies, as well.  You might encounter some primary sources inside your textbooks, but you typically wouldn’t be expected to use them in an assignment. The only primary sources you might use would be in book reports, where the book you read would be your primary source.  (Also, no one calls it that in elementary school. 😃 ).
In high school, you were still using a combination of secondary sources and tertiary sources, but there would be more primary and secondary sources; the balance shifted.
In college and graduate level writing, the balance shifts again.  You should be using a combination of primary and secondary sources, with gradually more and more on the primary source side the further you go in your academic career.  You typically won’t use tertiary sources in academic writing at this point; you will use them to get a general idea of the topic and figure out which secondary sources to look into, but it will be the primary and secondary sources quoted and cited in your research.  On the other hand, you are pretty much always going to be using secondary sources.  As I mentioned above, we don’t do research in a vacuum; even at the most advanced level we always need to know what other scholars are saying about the topic.  And since we can’t focus on every single detail at once, secondary sources allow us to benefit from someone else’s research in a particular area.

One last thing.

I know I say this all the time (I think in every one of these research paper posts…), but when you are working on a research paper or project, you always want to check your professor’s requirements.  Some professors will require you to include a certain number or certain percentage of primary sources.  This will depend on the discipline and the level of the class.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.

How to do your Assigned Reading if you're NOT a Reader?

Let’s face it: college reading is really hard. Grad school reading is super intense. This is coming from me, and I love to read. Always have. If strong readers get overwhelmed by a mountain of books, then what about those of us who struggle with reading, or just don’t enjoy it? How can you do your assigned reading if you’re just not a reader?

Follow The Cafe Scholar:
How to Find Scholarly Sources for Research Papers

How to Find Scholarly Sources for Research Papers

How to Find Good Scholarly Sources

This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper” series, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish. When you are done finding great scholarly sources, be sure to check out the rest of the series!

When your professor assigns a research paper, she might tell you “only use scholarly sources.” (If she doesn’t, she just expects you to already know this.) For any college level research paper, the only sources you should use are academic or scholarly sources – sources written by scholars (people with academic training and research in a specific field), for scholarly purposes (not popular consumption). You’ve probably heard that Wikipedia is not a good scholarly source. So, what are good academic sources, and how do you find them?

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Find Scholarly Sources for your Research Paper

What is a good scholarly source?

A good scholarly source is typically a journal article, essay, dissertation, book, or book chapter (but not any book will do!).  Here are are few characteristics of good scholarly or academic sources.

Scholarly Sources are Peer Reviewed

This means that while one scholar or a group of scholars did the research, wrote the source, etc., before publication it was reviewed extensively by other scholars in the field (the author’s peers) to make sure the work is up to snuff. So you don’t even have to decide if it is an appropriate source: those peer reviewers have done it for you.

Good Scholarly Sources have Extensive Bibliographies

Good sources cite good sources! It will be very easy to tell where the writer/researcher got his information, because it should all be clearly cited. A bibliography is the evidence for the research performed, credit where credit is due, and a resource for further study. In fact, we are going to use them below to find good sources, too.

Good Scholarly Sources are Written for an Academic Audience

They are not written for popular consumption. So, a magazine article you find in the grocery store, or a blog post, typically will not be a scholarly source. (There are exceptions, because there are magazines and blogs written for academics too, but typically these formats are not going to work as well for your research).

Some Exceptions:

Review Articles or Abstracts:

These are written for an academic audience, but they are a summary or commentary on the research rather than the research itself. When you see one of these that looks interesting, drill down and use the original source rather than the abstract or review. You might use a review alongside a particular source if the review challenges the source or looks at in a different way, but don’t use it in place of the original source.

Textbooks and Encyclopedias:

These are written for an academic audience, but they are tertiary sources (research about research), and they are generally written as an overview rather than for research purposes. These are another good place to find scholarly sources, but you will want to read the article or chapter for a general overview and then look at the bibliography to find sources to use. Note: There are some “encyclopedia” type books that actually contain peer reviewed articles that will be great sources. This caution is more for the general overview type encyclopedias. If in doubt, check with your professor.

What is NOT a good scholarly source?

Aside from the items noted above, there are a few things that are generally not considered scholarly sources except in certain contexts: fiction, Scripture, and popular media not intended for a scholarly audience.
These sources are not written for academic purposes, so they won’t generally make a good source unless you are using them as a primary source. If you are writing a research paper about Jane Austen, her books would be primary source material. The same would apply if you are writing a paper about a biblical topic. (Look out for a future post on good academic sources for religion classes!)
Most non-academic websites or anything where the author is not clear should be avoided too.

Does the writer’s discipline matter?

It depends. Different disciplines (history, religious studies, theology, geography, sociology, political science) often touch on the same subject, but they ask different types of questions. If you are writing a paper for an interdisciplinary class, you can look for sources from a variety of disciplines, but some fields look specifically for scholarly sources from their own field. History papers, for example, should typically cite historians but not necessarily sociologists or political scientists. If in doubt, check with your professor.

Where to Find Good Scholarly Sources:

Ask your Professor!

Current and former professors who have studied your research topic might make a connection to a source that you wouldn’t know. When you are discussing your research paper proposal with your professor, ask if they have anything they would recommend. After that, though, I wouldn’t go back to your professor for recommended sources until you have exhausted the items below and are stuck…do your own legwork first.

Librarians are trained scientists!

Ask your Librarian!

Librarians actually go to school to study research! They are a great resource, not just for finding things inside your library, but sources at other libraries, etc.

Your School’s Article Database

If you haven’t checked out your school’s article database, you should. This is where you will probably find most of the good sources for a research paper. Articles are shorter and easier to digest than books, they typically have abstracts to help you get an idea of the usefulness of the source, they may reflect more recent research (check the dates), and often they are available electronically. Check with your library’s website on how to access the database. Libraries often have workshops or tutorials on using Boolean search terms to search effectively. JSTOR is one of my favorite databases to use.

E-books from your school’s Library:

Schools that have strong online offerings tend to have extensive e-book collections available via the school library’s website. Typically you can filter your library search by “e-book” if a trip to the physical library is out of the question. Sometimes they can be downloaded and “checked out” electronically for a limited period of time; other times, they must be viewed online through your browser. Either way, use Evernote to clip your quotes (include the write citation information) so you can find it later.

Google Books

This is one of my favorite ways to do find sources, but there are a few things to be aware of. First, you can often view many chapters for free, but you won’t have access to the whole book, and you can’t download it. Also, the pages available for free preview change sometimes, so if you go back to find that quote later, you might not be able to track it down. Use Evernote Web Clipper to screenshot the sections you want to quote, so that you have them when you start writing.
Also, be aware that not every book in Google Books is a scholarly source. I recommend researching the author and checking out what articles they have written (see above) to make sure you are getting good academic material.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar, on the other hand, will typically be limited to scholarly sources. But, they are not always available to access. If you find a source that you would like and it isn’t available, try looking for that source in your library’s database or looking for other material by the same author.

Go down a bibliography bunny trail to find great scholarly sources!Bibliography Bunny Trails

One of the best ways to find good sources is to check the bibliographies from encyclopedias, textbooks, and the sources you have already found. You may not have access to all of the sources cited, but you can use the methods above to locate those sources or others by the same authors.
Note: Look for “edited volumes:” books where each chapter is an essay by a different author. Book chapters may be easier to digest than an entire book as a source, and these will help you pull together many of the different thinkers on a topic easily.

Digital Archives:

Looking for primary sources? This can be especially challenging for remote students. You used to have to go find that letter, photograph, government document, or diary at a collection somewhere, so you would be limited in your research by where you go geographically, as well as the time of day you could go. This is still true at times, but now, many of these primary source documents are being added to digital archives such as the Valley of the Shadow Project. They might be managed by universities, historical societies and museums, or government agencies, such as the Library of Congress, they provide all the information you need to cite these (sometimes unique) sources, and many are available to access for free online. In some graduate programs such as the History MA at Cal State San Marcos, students complete digital projects that make primary source material available in online archives as well. Check out the Archives page for Ashley Atkin's project!

More Great Resources on Finding Scholarly Sources:

Massey University: Identifying Academic Sources

What about you? Where do you start when looking for scholarly sources? What is the hardest part of finding good sources?

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.

How to do your Assigned Reading if you're NOT a Reader?

Let’s face it: college reading is really hard. Grad school reading is super intense. This is coming from me, and I love to read. Always have. If strong readers get overwhelmed by a mountain of books, then what about those of us who struggle with reading, or just don’t enjoy it? How can you do your assigned reading if you’re just not a reader?

Follow The Cafe Scholar:
How to Use Evernote to Organize Research

How to Use Evernote to Organize Research

In my many, many years as a student, I have tried many, many methods to gather content and organize research papers. For some projects, I didn’t really have a system; I just typed it straight in as I was writing the paper. This only really works for simple projects, because you don’t have a way to organize and make choices about which sources to use and where.
One year I used an Excel file to collect quotes and information. But until recently, the most effective method of gathering my research was the note card system. Note cards were a great approach because I could label them, sort them, reorganize them, move them all around on the floor…and there were definitely papers that I wrote on the floor in front of the living room fireplace where there was room to spread all those notecards out!

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

Get a Grip on your Research Notes Once and For All!
The notecard system works. And sometimes it is fun to have notecards scattered all over the floor. But, it has its own challenges. Have you ever found a great source, recorded it, and then couldn’t find it later? For a cafe scholar like me, notecards all over the floor is a recipe for disaster. And writing all those notecards is very time-consuming! I needed a way to study smarter.
I had been using Evernote for years, but had never taken advantage of all the neat features that have been added. But I stumbled on a great ebook about going paperless with Evernote, and I realized I could apply this to my research as well as my home. Now, I use Evernote as an electronic version of the note card system. I can keep track of much more data, categorize the same quote multiple ways, organize in different ways until I find the best fit, and carry it with me wherever I go. No 3 x 5 cards required! The best part is that this data is fully searchable – even PDFs and pictures.* I am going to show you how to use Evernote to collect all of your sources in one place.

Setting up Evernote to Organize Research

First, you want to set up a framework to capture all of the great information you’re about to find. If you skip this step, you’ll survive, but you will have to go back and organize it later. Let’s just touch it once, right?
The framework is really simple. First, I recommend creating a new Evernote notebook for this project. I do most of my Evernote organizing with tags, but since there is so much involved with a research paper, it helps to have it all in one place.  You’ll want to use this notebook for more than just collecting sources, so to help you out, I have put together a set of 10 free templates for planning your research paper with Evernote.  You can save the templates and copy them into your notebook for each project.
Next, you will want to create some tags for your research paper. Tags are a great way to label notes in Evernote so that you can search for your work by multiple criteria.  You can create tags on the fly while editing a note, but if you have them set up beforehand, it will be easier to be consistent and avoid having multiple tags for the same idea. Go to Tags in Evernote, and then click + New Tag at the top of the screen to add each new tag.

Create Tags for Each Potential Research TopicHere are some tags you might want:

A tag for the course name and/or number
Tags for type of source: journal, book, newspaper, etc.
Tags for primary and secondary sources
A tag for your main topic (such as “Civil War”)
Tags more specific to the possible sections of your paper.
These are the most important ones. You won’t know all the tags you want to create when you are first starting, but think about the parts of your paper and try to go from there. For instance, I wrote a paper about the influence of the Second Great Awakening on the American Civil War. Some of my tags might be “women preachers,” “abolitionism,” “new denominations,” “revivalism,” and so forth.

Scan your Research into Evernote

Collecting Research

This is the cool part – collecting all this information without copying it onto note cards! Here’s how:

Hard Copy Sources:

For hard copy sources, use the Evernote App on your smartphone or tablet. Create a new note, and take a picture of the page/quote you want to capture. I also take a picture of the cover or first page with citation information, so that I have everything I need when I go back to cite a source. Later, you can open that same note in Evernote and mark it up as you please.* The text within the pictures you just took is fully searchable, so even if there is something there you didn’t think to tag, you’ll be able to find it later. I also scan my written notes so I can find them later!
By the way, if you are having a hard time keeping your books open while you study or take pictures, a book stand or clip will save you so much grief – that whole trying-to-write-and-the-book-keeps-closing thing. I have this awesome book stand that I use at home (this one is heavy-duty enough to manage those really big “brick” books), and then this little clip that I keep in my purse or backpack. The clip works well if you are reading at the gym too!

Electronic Sources:

Here is where Evernote rocks. You are going to use the Evernote Web Clipper (your new best friend) to capture all of your source information.

Web Pages:

In the Web Clipper, do the following:

  • Choose Full Page
  • Under Organize, set the notebook to the notebook you have created for your research paper.
  • Add tags to categorize the source
  • Copy the source URL and paste into the Remarks section. (Since this is a web source, you need to be able to show the exact URL you retrieved it from so you can cite it properly in your paper later).
  • Click Save.

Use Evernote Web Clipper to Capture Electronic Sources

E-books such as Google Books:

This is one of my favorite Evernote tricks. Have you ever found a great source through Google Books or Google Scholar, but that page wasn’t available to view the next time you went back? Problem solved.

In the Web Clipper, do the following:

  • Choose Screenshot
  • Select the information you want to capture. Important: make sure to capture the author/title information on each screen shot so that you can cite it later!
  • Choose the notebook you have created for this research project.
  • Add tags to categorize the source
  • Click Save.

Drag your Downloaded Research Files into Evernote

PDFs Online:

 

  • If you are viewing the PDF in your web browser, Evernote Web Clipper will give you an option of PDF when you select the format of the note. In Chrome, a Save PDF to Evernote button also appears in the bottom right corner.
  • If you are not given the option to view the PDF in the web browser, but instead have downloaded it to your computer, you can create a note within Evernote and attach the file.
  • If you create a shortcut to Evernote in your Favorites (on Mac or PC), you can also drag and drop the PDF file from your downloads folder straight into Evernote.
As you are pulling together all this awesome information, feel free to make more tags if you think of more categories. Also, be sure to save your sources in Zotero so you don’t have to track them down later when it comes time to do citations!

Have you tried using Evernote to organize research? What has worked for you? (and what hasn’t?)

*PDF searching is only included with Evernote Premium. Students with a valid .edu email address can sign up for Evernote Premium for half price, and gain access to PDF and Word doc searching within Evernote, annotate PDFs, offline access, and no limit on the number of devices linked to your account.

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page.  It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.

How to Write an A+ Research Paper Outline

Did you know that a solid research paper outline is the key to an A+ research paper?  You’ll want to spend a good amount of time on this step, even more time than actually writing out the paper itself.  The outline is going to help you structure your paper in a way that makes sense and then pull together your research to fill in the details.

How to do your Assigned Reading if you're NOT a Reader?

Let’s face it: college reading is really hard. Grad school reading is super intense. This is coming from me, and I love to read. Always have. If strong readers get overwhelmed by a mountain of books, then what about those of us who struggle with reading, or just don’t enjoy it? How can you do your assigned reading if you’re just not a reader?

Follow The Cafe Scholar: