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How to Conduct Academic Research

Students and professionals both know that conducting accurate, valid, and timely research into academic topics such as history, literature, or anthropology is critical to success in the classroom and at work. Writing the results into a paper is also a major step in the process. Here are some basic steps in performing secondary research.


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    Determine your research topic/question. In some classes, students are told to find a topic; this means the exercise is for the purpose of learning the research process. In other situations, the required topic is clearly indicated from the class, your own work, or your professional needs. Your topic can be aroused from a sense of curiosity, hunch and interest over a particular perceived problem that you feel needed to be filled in the gap of knowledge.
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    Understand the difference between primary and secondary research.
    • Primary research means doing original research, meaning that this knowledge doesn't appear in any other paper. You might be reading through original treaties, newspaper articles, or authentic letters from authors or statesmen. You might be conducting scientific, medical or engineering experiments.
    • Secondary research, the focus of this wikiHow article, means reading other experts' published papers to learn something new about your topic, to survey what others have said and written about it, to reach a conclusion about your ideas on the topic.
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    Determine your scope and time line. Any academic research should lead to a written report ("research paper") which may be a class assignment, a work task, or even a published article. Determine in advance how much total time you have for this work, and make a rough work schedule.
    • A work schedule must include the following major steps: 1. Finding and reading sources. 2. Collecting notes from sources. 3. Preparing a rough draft. 4. Revising the draft and incorporating source material and citations. 5. Preparing a final draft in the required format (MLA, APA, Turabian, etc.)
    • The research scope means knowing how much of your broad subject you will deal with. Since you probably aren't writing a book or dissertation (100 or more pages), you must limit your reading and study to a particular focused aspect of the subject. This requires thinking about what specifically you want to cover. your academic research scope should not be too broad (in that it covered more than the required areas) and not too narrow (in that it does not meet the substantial requirement of a research scope).
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    Write a research question. This is a question that will guide you in your reading. It will turn into a thesis statement later. This question reminds you of what you want to find and read, what you are considering. It is not about a fact ("When did the French first arrive in Britain?"-- 1066 AD), but about an idea or opinion ("What did the French arrival in Britain do to the structure of the existing legal system?). The research questions should written in a way that will be represented in your hypothesis. It should be the basis in which your hypothesis stands.
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    Learn how to find useful sources. This is the heart of doing research. With the internet, there is more useful (and useless) information available than ever in the history of human inquiry. There is also plenty of material NOT available on the internet.
    • You might be required to use a certain number and type of resource. These could include: books, magazines or journals, encyclopedias (probably not Wikipedia), reference books, newspapers, letters, interviews, blogs, etc.
    • You might need an academic (school or university) library. They do contain information and sources not generally or easily available on the internet, and reference librarians who can help you. Find your nearest library and determine how to get access privileges.
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    Collect some possible sources. Begin locating material to read: chapters, paragraphs, sections, sentences that cover your topic. Remember that you can't read everything on the topic. You also can't include every word you read in your paper. This is background reading for you to learn about your question.
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    Begin reading in detail. Focus on your research question and find information that illuminates it, explains, describes, analyzes, contrasts, or gives expert opinion and viewpoints on it. You are seeking to form your own judgment, based on what you read from your sources.
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    Find a method to take notes on what you read. This is more than merely copying, highlighting, or cutting/pasting. If you do only this, you will end up with a pile of bits and pieces, and will still have to wade through them to find useful, relevant, and specific quotes.
    • Take notes of these: 1. facts that are not common knowledge. 2. quotes from experts that state a concept in a unique, unusual, or startling way. 3. summaries of longer explanations.
    • Learn the difference between a direct quote, paraphrase, and summary.
    • Be sure to mark exactly where the note came from in your source. You must know the exact location: author, title, magazine, book, internet page URL, date, volume number, etc.
    • Arrange your notes into groups according to their content, for later organization into sections of your paper.
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    Continue to consider new sources. While you are reading, you might find new information, or questions on a topic that you need to read up on. You might have to broaden your research to check on details, possible errors, corroborating or conflicting evidence, the context of an article, expert, or paper.
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    Evaluate the sources you use. See: How to Evaluate Sources. Your source must be credible in terms of the author, location of publication, date, publisher, etc.
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    Keep your research question in mind. This is what you will analyze in your paper. Your source material must help you establish your thesis (statement of opinion or belief) on that topic. If necessary after reading a lot, you might change your question to fit what you are actually finding. Or you might change your opinion after doing your reading.
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    Write your tentative thesis. This is a single statement of your viewpoint on your research question. See: How to formulate a thesis.
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    Begin writing your first draft. This is when you start writing what you have learned, what you feel about your topic and thesis. Write what you have learned. First give the background and set the context for this topic. Then start explaining, describing, give reasons, state causes or effects, or analyzing parts of the topic.
    • Some university papers require a first section on "literature review". This is a special section where you discuss what papers other experts have published on this topic.
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    Begin to add quotes, paraphrases, or summaries into your writing. These should be added into your paragraphs where they will highlight or help explain what you are saying. Be sure to introduce sourced materials in the correct way (see a standard writing handbook), and mark where your citation will be.
    • Note all material taken from sources must be cited. Depending on what system you use, your (in text) citation will contain a name, date, or page number. This notation will refer to the list at the end of the paper of References or Works Cited.
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    Continue writing your first draft, and then revise it. This writing process follows all similar academic writing steps.
    • Revising means checking the content of your paper, and making sure the thesis is developed, the content matches your thesis, there is enough material, it is in a logical order, nothing off topic is included, and the writing flows smoothly.
    • Editing means checking the writing details such as paragraph breaks, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, and citation formats.
  16. Image titled Conduct Academic Research Step 16
    Prepare the final draft. Strictly follow the format you are using, by checking with its handbook or style book. This includes: title page, page setup and numeration, in text citations, reference list, inclusion of visuals, sections and titles, etc.


  • The most serious and common error involves plagiarism-- not citing the source of materials taken. Your own thoughts are yours; common knowledge (facts generally known to all) are not cited. But any quote, paraphrase or piece of source (summary) must be cited.
  • If you may choose your research topic, be careful about choosing one too broad or narrow, too controversial (nothing factual to base your work on), related to personal belief alone (nothing to research), or so recent that there is no substantive writing on it published yet.
  • Plan for enough time to complete this project. Any how-to article claiming you can write a paper in a day or week, or without any drafts, is simply wrong, unless you plan to cheat.
  • Find a work space where you can arrange, organize and maintain all your notes, sources, and drafts until the paper is finished.
  • A research paper is NOT simply a collection of quotes. It is your point of view of a topic supported by the work of others.
  • It's easy to go to the internet and search for material. It's much harder to determine if it's useful, relevant, and needed. It's also hard to smoothly add that material to your own writing. Read sample papers for guidance.
  • Do remember that your teacher or university can also find the sources (or whole papers) you claim to use on the internet. You deserve to fail if you simply buy or lift someone else's paper.
  • The farther your topic is from the modern day, the harder it will be to locate sources. Therefore research on any aspect of history will force you to rely on the work of professional historians, unless you have access to the British Library or Library of Congress (many but not all of their materials are found online), or other national repository.
  • The hardest parts of doing research are: choosing the scope of a topic, locating useful sources, choosing what source material to incorporate, and following the required format.
  • Find a good handbook or writing guide to help you with how to handle the details of quotes and paraphrases (taking out bits, adding bits, etc.); these include use of brackets and ellipsis.

Things You'll Need

  • computer and internet access
  • academic library access
  • word processing software
  • note cards or post-it notes
  • highlighter pens
  • manual, guidebook, or style book for required format
  • quality paper for final draft
  • binding supplies for final paper

Article Info

Categories: Research and Review