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Writing the Research Paper

Unit III: Researching Your Refined Topic

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Unit III: Focusing Your Research

Gerard ... was trained from childhood at the centers of philosophical study and had come to a knowledge of all of this that was known to the Latins; but for love of the Almagest, which he could not find at all among the Latins, he went to Toledo; there, seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language, in order to be able to translate. In this way...he continued to transmit to the Latin world whatever books he thought finest, in many subjects, as accurately and plainly as he could.

Gerard of Cremona's students' "Introduction" to his translation of Galen's Tegni, c. 1187. Gerard is responsible for the translation of more than 70 major works from Arabic to Latin; his translations spurred the growth of academic debate that gave rise to the medieval Universities.

Introductory Remarks

We've now identified not only the general topic, but the key questions and some probable resources that may help us answer those questions. Now we need to start getting the facts together. We may or may not have a pretty good idea of the answer to our central question — that will depend on the source materials available during our initial research efforts last week. But even if we have a good idea about the answer to our question, at this stage we should still keep an open mind and try to check the range of facts available. If we prejudice our research, or if we look only for data to support a preformed opinion, we run the risk of producing not objective research results, but propaganda.

If we want to be honest about our research, and really look for the truth — not merely to do a good job, get a grade, and move on, but to find out what happened for ourselves — we do not need to be afraid of “debunking” someone's favorite theory, even if the theory is our own.

So now we need to go back to those sources we identified, and begin to read through them.

Points for this Unit

Research: Finding the Facts

To answer your research question, you need both the facts and an interpretation of them. Facts generally come from primary sources, from eyewitness accounts, from the words of the individual you are researching (for a historical person or a work of literature), or from experimental data (in a scientific question). Opinions and possible interpretations come from authoritative secondary sources, where the author has been recognized as an authority in the field on the basis of wide scholarship. You are about to become a secondary source yourself, an authority on a particular area of human experience; some of the interpretation you produce will be your own work.

When you use primary sources, you are describing the basis for your argument, the observed facts on which your claims rest. Your key responsibility to these sources is to identify them unambiguously, so that the reader knows exactly which text, work of art, or experiment you refer to. Your interpretation of this data is your own.

When you use secondary sources, you are borrowing someone else's opinion to bolster your own. Here you have not only the responsibility to identify the source of your citation (so that the reader can find it for himself, if curious), but you must also properly give credit to the originator of the opinion you express. There are two reasons for doing this. One is that you need to give credit for ideas you use that aren't your own; this is fair and it avoids the awkward stigma of plagiarism. The second is that if your reader also accepts the authority of the person you cite as at least equal to or greater than your own, you can “borrow” that authority to simplify the process of making claims. You will not have to go through the work of explaining how the authority arrived at the conclusions you cite.

You do need to be aware of controversies surrounding various authors or positions. You can sometimes undermine your argument by citing an authority of dubious reputation.

Identifying Primary Sources

Primary sources are the backbone of all research; and without these sources, we really have nothing but speculation. Where you can possibly do so, you need to use these kinds of sources. The form they take will depend largely on your field of study.

Historical Records

Obviously, if you are writing on a history topic, you need to look at the historical records. These will include the writings of eyewitnesses of events, their descriptions as well as their opinions, and the documents that they produced in the course of carrying out their lives. The documents may be important public statements, like Luther's 95 Thesis, or the Declaration of Independence, or they may be less momentous sources, like the statutes of the universities of medieval Europe, which list the books to be read for the Master of Arts degrees, or the Domesday Book's castle inventory of medicines to be purchased for the treatment of common illnesses.

When you use such a work, you need to cite the original source for it. This may be a library or museum collection, or it may be a modern reproduction or printed collection of sources. You should use the common book citation formats required by your teacher or publisher, and the names of the editors of the collection, and the name of the translator, if you quote the work in English and it was originally in some other language.

Literary and Dramatic Works

When you are writing an interpretation of the importance, themes, or influence of an author, or of a particular literary genre, you will need to cite examples from works. Where possible, you should use the author's own words, but in some cases, you will need to summarize the content of longer passages, or provide a list of multiple examples to prove a point. It is important here that any summarizations you make can be unambiguously identified, so you will need to give information that would allow your readers to look up the source material themselves. Often with literary works, the edition is crucial. Authors may revise sentences, paragraphs, or entire chapters, as J. R. R. Tolkien did for later editions of The Hobbit.

Scientific Data

If you are citing experimental data, you will need to give the information in the appropriate “lab report” format. Numerical information should be presented with the name of the collector, the date and time of the experiment, and enough information to allow the reader to find the original data, repeat the experimental observation, or at a minimum, repeat your calculations from that data.


Artifacts are non-verbal objects. In historical contexts, they are the kind of objects you would find in a museum display. In using an artifact as evidence to substantiate a claim, you will need to describe it carefully, and you must give enough information to identify the specific object and its current location, such as “bone 17 from the Canyon de Chelly archaeological site”, or “the mask of Agamemnon now in the Berlin Museum.”

Using Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are summaries or distillations from the basic primary sources. Textbooks are secondary sources (unless your topic is the textbook itself!); so are encyclopedias, reviews, and just about any kind of analytic or explanatory publication.

When you read a secondary source, make a note of the author's “source of authority”. Is he or she an expert in the field (an academic such as a professor, or a well-known practitioner of some art or craft)? As you read other works, is this person cited? Respected? Especially when your research involves a controversial area, note the people who respect the particular author's research methods even if they disagree with the author's conclusions.

If you are going to cite an author as an authority for a particular fact, check the author's own footnotes. Is he or she using primary source materials, or another secondary source? Do you know something about this other secondary source? Is it reliable? The “fact” that medieval people thought the world was flat comes largely from a simplified popularization of history for boys from the 18th century by a not-well educated English tutor who wanted to increase Columbus’s reputation. An examination of the most popular works read in the Middle Ages (Boethius, Isidore, Augustine, Aquinas) will reveal that the fact that all of these authors were well aware that the earth was a sphere, and had made observations to prove it. You want to be sure that you are reflecting a well-founded opinion, not merely something that sounds good.

Identifying the Major Questions

At some point in your research, you will begin to realize that you have run into the same set of questions or conclusions before. Finding that the same question puzzles several authorities is a good indication that there isn't a definitive solution that everyone agrees on. This may be because conclusive evidence is lacking, and you will need to do more research in primary sources to find it, or it may be because there are different interpretations of the primary source material, and you will have to decide which of the possible positions you want to adopt for your current paper.

As you take notes from your source material, you should make a separate set of “Notes to Self”, with comments on the questions that keep recurring, possible curious but interesting ways of interpreting the data, and new sources that you discover that might have bearing on the topic. You should also keep notes on things you run across that have no bearing on the paper at hand but that are still interesting; these will form the basis of later research you may want to pursue on your own.

The Practical Aspects of Taking Notes

The mechanics of keeping track of all this information used to be quite simple for the high school student. You went to the stationery store, bought a pack of 50 or 100 3”x 5”note cards, and started writing. On the top of each card, you would put the book title, the author, and the page of the work. In the body of the card, you would write a direct quotation of the work. When it came time to write your outline, you would organize the cards and put the main point and subpoint of the outline on the card. Then you'd write out in flowing English sentences the content for that point of your outline, and add the quotation or a summary, and a footnote number. You'd add the author, book title, date of publication, place of publication and any additional information for collections or separate volumes to the bibliography, and you'd be done.

If you are comfortable with this approach, then go ahead and do it: 3”X 5”cards are still available at the stationery store.

Now you have to worry about how to do this on computers, too. You will probably need to experiment, but here are some suggestions.

If you have a word program with an outline processor, make two documents. Document one will become your bibliography. In this, you may the bibliographic citations mentioned below (name, title, publisher, place and date of publication, etc.) Keep the citations in alphabetical order by author, which is the way you will need to order them for the formal bibliography. Each entry has a unique number. The best way to do the numbers is just to count: the first book you read gets #1, the second gets #2, etc.

There are other commercial products available for writers and researchers. If you have access to one of these and are comfortable using it, then do so.

Regardless of how you take capture the information, certain kinds of information are essential to document your research and give support to your conclusions.

Example: Bibliographic information

  1. Lindberg, David, and Westman, Robert. Reappraisals iof the Copernican Revolution (Cambridge University Press, London, 1990). [At time of publication, Lindberg was professor in Humanties at the University of Wisconsin, Westman was professor of the History of Science at the University of California, San Diego.]
  2. Cohen, I. Bernard. Revolution in Science. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts), 1985 [Cohen was professor of History of Science at Harvard.]

Document two becomes your “notebook”. As you read, make notes for each significant piece of information that you may want to revisit and use your numbering system to identify the source, along with the page number on which it appears. After your quotation (or summary of points), add your own thoughts about why you captured this particular point!

Obviously, some notes won't need much by way of comment. In the notes below, Cohen's opinion of Copernicus' goals could be used to substantiate several possible claims, but the details of Harvey's life may be simply used to establish when Harvey was influential.

Example: Notes

#1, p. 112. “Copernicus had two goals for his astronomy. He wanted agreement with the motions known to be produced by Ptolemy's models (and not really with observations); and he insisted on the physical principle that all celestial motions must be circular and uniform.”

Note to self: Goal aligns with Plato's citation of Socrates in the Timaeus: Copernicus is still thinking like a medieval astronomy; he isn't open to other possibilities like Kepler.

KEY WORDS: classical influence, medieval influence, Ptolemy, observational accuracy


#2, p. 187-188 William Harvey. b 1578; student at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. 1593-1599; at Padua 1602. Physician to James I . Died 1657.

Keeping Adequate Citation Information (bibliographic citation)

At a minimum, no matter what method you use, you will need the name of the person you are citing, the work cited, a way to identify it specifically for your reader (publisher, place and date of publication), volume and subtitle information (if it exists), and the page number within the work. The format that this actually takes will depend on your teacher's requirements or the publication requirements.

[For the purposes of this course, you should identify the source of your format, such as “the MLA stylesheets from EasyWriter”, and then use it consistently. You may use any specific format in Warriner's or in the EasyWriter* handbooks. If you are using this report for another course, and your teacher requires a format not found in either of those sources, please specify the format source.]

* Lunsford, Andrea A. EasyWriter (MacMillan: New York), 2021.

Assignment for this Unit

This is the crux of your work, and for a real research paper for a class, it will form the bulk of your work outside the actual writing. For our purposes, we need only to practice the skill of note taking, and so I will not require that you turn in all your reading notes.


  1. If you did not do so before, create a list of the source materials that you identified in Unit 2. This should include at a minimum some general source (encyclopaedia, almanac, etc.), a bibliographic source, a periodical article, 5-10 books, and 5 websites.
  2. Identify each of your sources as a primary or secondary source for your topic. If it is possible to determine, note the reason for the author's position as an expert in this field.
  3. Read at least one major primary source and one major secondary source, and take 15-20 notes from each source in an electronic format. Be sure to identify the source.
  4. Add your comment to the notes (you may not have a comment for each note, especially if the note is merely providing some fact).
  5. Turn in only your notes from #3 and #4 above, but continue with your reading until you feel that you have the information you need to form an adequate answer for your research.

Enter your response directly into the Scholars Online Writing the Research Paper Moodle forum for this unit. Review the submissions from your fellow students and offer constructive criticism to help them refine their ideas.