Using Research Sources Effectively
An overview about using sources when writing research papers in college, including issues of evaluating, using, and developing a system of organizing sources.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
When you are writing research papers in college, one of the hardest aspects of your research will not be finding the information you're looking for, but determining how -- or if -- you will use all the sources you find. A related issue is how to organize and work with sources.
A tried-and-true method for taking notes about sources is writing each piece of information you think you might use on a 3 x 5 card along with bibliographic information about the source. In this day in which you can access so many full-text source materials through your library's databases via its Website, you will likely find it more efficient and practical to print articles out and highlight the information you feel you might use.
Consider using different color highlighters to mark different aspects of your topic. Expenses for paper and printer ink cartridges make this method a bit more costly than taking notes on index cards -- and you may also need to pay a nominal fee for printouts if printing in the library or a computer lab. To keep the size of the paper containing your research uniform you may want to make photocopies of sources you can't print out on your computer, such as pages of books -- as long as you are not copying so many pages that the cost becomes prohibitive. Write a short evaluation on each printed article about the usefulness of the article to your paper; for example, you could write, "useful for self-esteem aspects of teen-pregnancy issue" or "probably not useful, but don't rule out."
Using the Page setup menu item in the File menu, you can set up your computer's web browser application (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, for example) to include the information you need on printouts taken from the Internet. For citing online materials, most citation styles require the URL (Web address) of the online source and the date of retrieval from the Internet, so be sure you set up your printouts to include that information.
Next, arrange your notes into categories that pertain to various aspects of your topic -- easy to do if you've color-coded your highlighted articles.
To avoid shuffling through a stack of papers every time you want to insert something from your research into your paper, you might type up all the quotes, paraphrases, summaries, and other information you think you'll likely use in the paper -- creating a separate document for each aspect of your topic and giving it a corresponding filename.
Critically evaluate each piece of research. To ensure your paper is primarily driven by your own ideas, be highly discriminating about your research, using only material that truly supports and adds to your argument.
Using the citation style dictated by your professor, begin inserting research material into your paper. Some citation styles call for footnotes or endnotes, while others require citations within the text.
The most commonly used academic citation styles are listed below with web addresses for more information. Note that the most comprehensive guide to each style's rules is contained in an official book about that style, updated every few years. Web sites related to each style can give you an overview of the major rules and conventions of the style:
- APA Style (American Psychological Association
- Chicago Manual of Style/Turabian Style
- CGOS Style: Columbia Guide to Online Style
- CBE Style: Council of Biology Editors
- Harvard Style
- MLA Style (Modern Language Association)
Final Thoughts on Research Sources for College Papers
Gathering research sources for a paper can be truly overwhelming without a system for organizing and evaluating materials. You'll save a lot of time and aggravation if you've devised that system -- and learned the basics of your professors' preferred citation styles -- before you get inundated with assignments.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.