From the researcher’s point of view, writing is first and foremost looking for the right information, assembling it together and keeping it safe. Therefore, what you should be looking for in your assignment [as a researcher] is accuracy of information.
Now, before we talk about accuracy, it is important to know where to look for that information.
1. Start on Wikipedia. Yes, it’s a good place to start. Just do not reference it. Wikipedia is a wonderful online tool for getting information, but, unfortunately, it can be edited by anyone and, as a result, terrible inaccuracies creep into otherwise perfect articles. Thus, it is good for getting general knowledge on the subject of your research, but then you need to select more approved sources.
2. For example, the list of references that the author of the Wikipedia article used. Yes, those folks also need to reference their work. Often their sources are extremely good: academic books, online journal articles, websites of serious organisations etc. It’s worth checking them out.
3. Next, move on to textbooks. Textbooks are valid academic sources, but they have one great disadvantage: they are too general. Usually the information you need is concentrated in one chapter and the rest of the book is simply irrelevant. Read that chapter and go online.
4. Online academic journals. My favorite place to look for them is Google Scholar. Your university also has an electronic library full of academic articles from the journals that your institution subscribes to. There are thousands upon thousands of them in there.
5. If you cannot find the journal online to download for free, you can look it up in print. Your university library keeps printed copies of journals as well.
Why did I give the tips in this order? Because the order of writing an assignment is always moving from general to specific. Wikipedia can be very general and schematic. Textbooks are more thorough, but they merely describe the theory. Journals describe specific cases when the theory was tested or applied. However, these are not the only sources for your research. This is what else you can use:
6. Websites as well as online and offline publications of serious organisations (like governmental ones or businesses, or even a blog run by a public figure, etc.)
7. Email correspondence with someone with authority in your field of study (could be an academic or a manager of a company or a politician or an expert in a certain area).
8. Serious newspaper and magazine articles (because journalists also need to research and acknowledge their sources. A falsehood in press can cost the publisher a lot of money).
Naturally, with these sources you have to be critical and take them with a pinch of salt: after all, an article in The Times is not equal to an article in The Star.
In addition to the literature-based research tips, here are some general reminders; what you need to do in order to make your research project as professional as you can.
9. Acknowledge your limitations – remember that there’s no perfect theory; no dataset is too big; and your participants are only representative of one particular social group (even if the latter is your research goal you should acknowledge that you are aware of this and that it was your conscious choice).
10. If your research involves human subjects, observe research ethics and do not disclose any sensitive information about your participants.
11. Don’t forget to link each section to your research question. Treat all sections as mini-essays; write a short conclusion at the end, explaining why you’ve just mentioned it, why what you’ve written is important.
12. Make notes while you’re reading. Found interesting points in that textbook, or a chapter or an article? Make a note of them.
13. Keep records of all your references. Names, dates of publication, titles, website URLs, etc. As soon as you get hold of something, note down the full reference. It will be very hard to track down later.
14. Back it up. Your work is your baby. Losing it is painful.
Keep several copies: on your computer, on the USB stick, e-mail it to yourself, save it as a PDF (because word documents might become corrupted), etc.
P.S. This article is based on Vlad Mackevic’s book From Confusion to Conclusion: How to Write a First-Class Essay. You can download sample chapters of the book for FREE by clicking here or by entering your email address below.
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