Analytic writing often requires research to support chosen ideas, arguments and claims. How you conduct your research will dictate how hard you will work to find reliable and credible sources. Many first-year students, during at least one of the General Education required classes, sits through a library module. During that module, a research librarian shows you the catalogue system and how to log on to and conduct general research on the library computers. However, the module taught is a general library research module and is not specific for analytical writing or critical analysis and research.
This hint deserves its own paragraph: do not begin any research until you have finished writing (a) your outline, or (b) the body of your essay. Your research should be for articles that will provide you with contextual information and evidence supporting your argument and analysis.
In our analytic writing course, we require a minimum of one essay and perhaps more with properly used (internally in the essay) and cited scholarly sources (e.g., a “Works Cited” page). The GE library module touches upon but does not cover how to find scholarly sources. Doing so is crucial to receiving a decent grade on research essays. For example, the third major paper in my class is required to be eight to ten (8-10) pages in length, plus a title page and a works cited page. When I grade these essays, I far too often find that several students (a) did no research, (b) did poor research and used unreliable sources (e.g., Google, book reviews, or Wikipedia articles), (c) did some research but do not read more than the abstract, using text there from, (d) improperly cite sources (internally and in Works Cited), (e) cite sources in a Works Cited page but not internally in the essay (using no textual evidence from them), (f) cite and use too few sources (e.g. one or two when five are the minimum required), d, last, (g) do it properly. One or two students enjoy the research and writing and use and cite more than the minimum required.
In the writing prompt for the research essays, it is stated in bold faced font that failure to cite and use the minimum number of scholarly sources will result in the grade being lowered from one to two grades, even if the paper is well written otherwise. In other words, we’re serious about research. There is no excuse for laziness and procrastination. I provide a schedule which, if used, will give a student time to produce a scholarly analytical research essay. Students cannot receive a passing grade on this essay (which constitutes thirty percent (30%) of their final course grade. Yet I see one or more essays in each of the failing categories listed above every semester.
What is a scholarly source? It is a text written by an expert in a field related to the topic of analysis which has been reviewed by scholarly peers before publication in a book or academic or professional journal. My syllabus admonishes students not to go near Google, Wikipedia, Cliff Notes, exampleessays.com, and other sources from which some students attempt plagiarizing matter. Plagiarizing causes an automatic failing grade of “F” for the essay and, if stated so in the syllabus (mine does) for the course. It is not tolerated.
What non-scholarly sources can be utilized? The essay requirement is a minimum of a number of scholarly sources. Non-scholarly sources can be used but do not receive credit as a scholarly source. One of my best students last semester cited a total of seven scholarly and six non-scholarly sources, plus the primary text. Quoted materials for non-scholarly sources should be kept to a minimum because they are of limited usefulness and may not be reliable. However, some might be considered reliable depending upon the identity and resumè of the cited author. For example, last semester’s research essay was based upon Sherman Alexie’s novel, Reservation Blues, and the reservation of which Alexie wrote is the one in which he was born and raised, the Spokane Indian Reservation in the State of Washington. The Spokane Reservation has an official web site, containing information about the tribe’s history, traditions, and culture.
A student quoted minimal but relevant text from the web site and properly cited in internally and in the Works Cited page. This is entirely appropriate and acceptable. He cited it as a non-scholarly source. When I reviewed the citations, as I do for every essay, I discovered that the specific text used in the tribe’s web site was an excerpt from an official book written by a Ph.D. in History. This was an acceptable scholarly source which the student did not know was scholarly because he did not check the biography of the reference author. When I gave him the essay back with his grade of “A” marked clearly thereon, I annotated the text accordingly. He learned from the experience and appreciated the learning opportunity.
Where do you find scholarly sources? Most campus libraries have actual copies of many academic journals. Personally, I love conducting my research through actual books and journals and use the internet to follow up on resources no available in print. The following resources are not usually acceptable under any circumstances:
Wikipedia and similar on-line encyclopedias and dictionaries (e.g., dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, exampleessays.com – purchased essays – and the like). Use or citation of a purchased work or Cliff Notes or Spark Notes will result in a failing grade.
Book reviews – students claim to use them for “ideas,” however, such ideas are based upon a non-scholarly review, not an academic analysis.
Magazines – Most magazines are not scholarly but, depending upon the identity of the publisher, writer, and the writer’s biography, may be a useful reference.
Newspapers articles – Not useful. Might be quoted from but such quotation or paraphrase should be brief.
Pamphlets and government publications, including official government web sites – Some of these may be treated as an expert resource and cited as a reliable source, but not a scholarly source unless the on-line information clearly states the text is written by an expert in the field and has been reviewed by a government committee of like experts before publication. Databases, e.g., census, drug use or abuse, crime statistics, et al, may be cited as reliable but not scholarly.
Archival materials – The useful nature of these generally constitute authenticated photography works or duplicates of original documents of significant historical value. If a student intends to make use of something like this in a first-year course, I recommend checking with your professor to obtain advice on its usefulness before citing from it.
Database on-line research.
When accessing the library databases, you will find everything from Academic Premier to Wright American Fiction (of the 1900s). Use a major scholar’s search engine like MUSE, MLA or JSTOR. I used JSTOR for most research and its results provides me with many leads, especially using the bibliographies of articles I like. When you open JSTOR, right under the data entry dialogue box is “Advanced Search.” I strongly recommend using the advanced search feature because you can enter more specific key terms and obtain better results. Select “ADD FIELD” to add key terms to further narrow your search. In the dialogue box for “Narrow By,” select “Article” and, using the arrow scroll, select “English.” Do not select “Review” because that will give you magazine and book reviews which will not help you with analysis.
After the above choices, scroll down a bit and under “Narrow By Discipline And/Or Publication Title,” make intelligent choices that may produce relevant results.
In my research for cultural issues for the novel, Reservation Blues, I made the following choices, sometimes adding or deleting to meet my search ideas:
American Indian Studies Anthropology
Archaeology Classical Studies
Health Policy Health Science
History Language and Literature
Music Performing Arts
Philosophy Political Science
Psychology Public Policy & Administration
These choices were based upon my initial cultural issue searches for issues involving the Native American Indian cultures located in the United States and the Northern Hemisphere. Alexie’s novel introduced terms including: poetry, songs, music, myth, legend, conflict, traditions, Indian, Native American, reservation, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, alcoholism, oppression, whites, drunks, depression, despair, racism, shaman, medicine man, medicine woman, women, feminism, child abuse, elder abuse, crime, fighting, and others. Depending upon which theme I wanted to research, I made choices accordingly.
When you have a list of articles and you scan down the list, reading the article titles, author names and where it was published, watch for articles that have some relationship to your research and analytic themes. The key words you searched might be in the title or in the body of the texts, if you did not change the search choices when you started. Restricting your search to key terms in titles would limit your search badly and you would miss a lot of valuable articles. When you see an article that looks interesting, open the .pdf file and read the abstract, then scan the article. It takes time, patience, and skill to conduct research well so begin as soon as you have written your essay and have arguments for which you want to find support.
As you read articles, when you find one relevant to your analysis and arguments, you can choose what to print. You do not have to print the entire article! Some are four pages in length and others are fifty. Use caution. Print the first page, giving you the citation information; print the article first page (with title, abstract and author names; and print only the pages you want a copy of, then staple those together in sequence. On the other hand, you may find a few articles you want to study thoroughly and, in that event, print the entire article and staple it together. Stapling prevents getting pages mixed up and forcing you to re-research the article. As you read, highlight or underline everything you find interesting and relevant. Read carefully, not reading so fast you have little comprehension or perhaps just look for key terms. One can say “poverty” many ways and you can miss great material by looking only for “poverty.”
Other things that can be done to evaluate the relevance and reliability of a source are:
- Read the title and subtitled to consider the article contents.
- The publication date is valuable information. The more recent the publication, the more pertinent may be the information, assuming the articles is not a review of previous research.
- Read the foreword, abstract, introduction, or first paragraph to see if an overview of the article is available for a quick assessment.
- Headings and subheadings should reflect subject or topical content.
- Figures and illustrations may show information helpful to your analysis or argument.
- The conclusion of the article should provide an overview of the conclusions reached by the author(s) within the article.
- The index, if any, may provide key terms relevant to your research. (From Research Matters – A Guide to Research Writing, by Howard & Taggart, McGraw-Hill, 2010).
Organizing your research products is important because an article may contain information related to multiple analytic textual references. After studying your research closely, underline or highlights all quotations and, next to each, annotate the source with notes relating it to one or more analytic textual references or ideas. Give each highlighted or underlined quotation a number or a letter reference digit, e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., or a, b, c, d, etc. Once all have a reference digit, return to your outline and annotate each textual reference or idea with the digit that you believe is helpful to your discussion or argument. If you stuck a post-it with the digit printed on it on the edge of the page where each source occurs, it will be fairly easy to find each source as you are writing your essay.
This organization method works for analytic essays which you have outlined. If you are writing a research paper, you might want to organize the sources according to similarity of references as they relate to your planned focus for your paper.