Objectives and Outcomes

Objectives and Outcomes

This section contains all of the readings, walk-throughs, and tutorials you will need to complete a research paper or related project. After completing the steps in this tutorial, you will be able to:

  • recognize when you need to know additional information to complete your paper or project
  • create a search strategy
  • perform an advanced search in library databases
  • evaluate sources for usability based on timeliness, authority, and credibility
  • ethically use sources to complete a research paper or annotated bibliography


Before You Search

Make Sure You Understand Your Assignment

Your research needs will most often be determined by your assignment.  How many sources will you need?  Do they need to be scholarly, primary, secondary?  Should you use a newspaper or government source? A research task may or may not come with stipulations about sourcing, and it is up to you to know the details of your assignment.

Places to go for information:

First review the assignment sheet.  If that is unclear or you would like further guidance, email your professor and set up a time to meet, or visit during his/her office hours.

You may also want to talk to dependable students in your class to see if they have additional insight into the assignment.

Keep in mind that your teacher is the most valuable and accurate resource in this case!


What Do You Already Know About Your Topic?

It is important to recognize that you are not the end-all, be-all authority on your subject, and that you will need to inform yourself with outside sources written by experts in the field.  That is not to say, however, that you know nothing of value.

Having a brainstorming session in which you write down all the things you already know about your subject will clarify the extent of your knowledge, help you pinpoint areas of confusion or gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled in, and connect ideas that you had not fully mapped out in your mind before.


Figuring out What You Already Know:

Once you have a research subject in mind, take some time to figure out what you already know about your topic. Take a sheet of paper and write everything that comes to mind. You need not write in complete sentences or fully develop your ideas. For now, simply note what you already know. After you have written your notes, ask yourself if there are details you don’t know that would give you a fuller understanding of the topic.

Some Good Questions to Ask:

Is there a particular process, person, or sequence of events that is unclear?

How do my concepts fit together?

Are there laws, agreements, or social mores that govern my subject?

What is the history of my subject?

What is the social context of my subject?

Are there different sides of the issue?

Am I on one particular side of the issue?

Why do I feel the way I do about my topic?

Answering these questions will tell you where you need to focus your research.


Getting Started

How to Narrow Your Topic

When someone starts a research assignment, a typical mistake is to think too broadly about it. This is usually born out of having an interest in a subject but a limited understanding of everything that subject could encompass. For instance, if you wanted to write a paper about hip-hop music, you might do a search for that term in the databases and find yourself overwhelmed by all the information. If you tried to write about all of the information such a broad search would turn up, you would soon find yourself with a book-length manuscript. Since your assignments are likely to be measured in pages instead of chapters, you will want to narrow your topic down as much as possible. Here are some methods for narrowing your topic:

Ask Questions

One approach is to ask questions about your topic to narrow it down: Think, “Who, what, when, where, and how?”

Question: What aspect of hip-hop do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Hip-hop and activism? Hip-hop and therapy? Hip-hop and conflict resolution?

Question: Who do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Teenagers? Adults? Students?

Question: Where do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Workplace? High school?

Possible Narrowed Topic:

How can high schools use hip-hop conflict resolution to increase student safety?

Bring Yourself into the Paper

Another approach is to take an assigned topic and then try to find out how something you are personally interested in relates to that topic.
Assigned Topic: Climate Science

Possible Foci:

How can businesses benefit by going green?

How does meat consumption impact climate and ecology?

How could concert venues become more ecologically friendly?

How could climate change contribute to social unrest in the Sudan?


Research Questions and Thesis Statements

Many of us have been taught that in order to start a research paper we need a thesis statement, and while that’s true, coming up with the thesis statement first is not necessarily a good way to start your research. Simply stated, a thesis statement is what your paper intends to prove or show. A research question is what you need to learn in order to come up with a good thesis statement.

Instead of starting with a thesis statement, it’s better to start with a question, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

The first reason is that starting with a thesis statement presupposes that you already know enough about your topic to have not only a well-informed opinion, but the most up-to-date and expert opinion possible on the matter. The vast majority of us don’t have that kind of knowledge about academic subjects, so research is required.

The second reason is that starting with a thesis statement builds your own biases into your search and limits your findings only to the ones you expected to find in the first place, which keeps you from learning important new things.

Let’s say you want to write a paper about binge drinking and college students. If you start with the thesis statement, “Binge drinking among college students is caused by peer pressure and rebellion,” and search for those terms, one of three things will happen:

  1. You will find all the information you need to know because peer pressure and rebellion are the only two reasons that college students binge drink
  1. You will find no information because experts all agree that binge drinking is caused by other factors.

These first two scenarios are not very likely, but the third one, which is just as bad for your research, is:

  1. You will find some of the information you need, but not all of it, because your query does not allow for results that show other important reasons that students binge drink.

On the other hand, if you start from the point of asking, “What are the reasons that college students binge drink?” you will find ALL of the reasons that experts think college students binge drink, not just the ones that agree with you. This approach exposes you to a fuller range of ideas about the topic, than you started with, and that knowledge can only make your paper or project better.

After you have completed your research and read the articles you retrieved, in order to write a thesis statement, all you have to do is answer your research question with the information that you have discovered.

What are the causes of binge drinking among college students?”

May become

The causes of binge drinking among college students are socialization, pleasure, the affordability of alcohol, and the institutional promotion of drinking culture.

Before you can take a definitive stand on an issue, you need to be well informed about it. That’s why you should start with a question, not with a statement.


Searching in the Databases

At first it may seem easier to find things by performing a Google search than by searching in the library’s databases, but once you learn a few tricks you’ll recognize the advantages databases offer.

Search engines most often use natural language searching which allows you to type your query just as you would speak it:

How many Republican state representatives are members of the Tea Party?

Such a query returns many results, and several of the first links contain exactly the information you are seeking.

The databases, on the other hand, are programmed to recognize and understand post-coordinate and pre-coordinate search queries.  That is, they look for keywords, not whole sentences.  A natural language query may return useful results, but a search using keywords and Boolean operators will likely be more efficient and effective.  For instance, the same natural language query retrieves something like this:



There are over 5000 results, but you might have to dig a while to find exactly the information you want.  At the same time, if you need nothing more than a quick list, the results of the databases are likely to give you much more information than you need.

results list


On the other hand, Internet search engines have very limited functionality compared to the databases. If you search the Internet for documents authored by Rand Paul, you will retrieve any documents that contain the keywords Rand Paul and author. That could include book reviews about author Rand Paul, articles about Rand Paul by other named authors, a list of Rand Paul’s favorite authors, or anything else containing those keywords.

But a library database search for Rand Paul as Author will only retrieve articles that he, himself, has written:


Thus, there are times when an internet search is preferable, for instance, when you need a quick, easy answer.  But when the information you require is more substantive or analytical, the databases will most times offer more useful results.  At the same time, learning the different kinds of search tools available in the database will help you find exact information quicker. Note in the screen cap the different kinds of searches you can perform, including keyword, subject, author name, company name, etc…  On the left hand side of the picture, note that you can specify a date range as well as scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.






Search Strategy Guide

Download and Print a copy of this guide here.

I. Write a research question about your subject:


Which crime prevention programs are most effective at cutting down on repeat offenses of juvenile delinquents?

What are the effects of pollution on frogs in marshlands?

How did Lewis Carroll portray madness in Alice in Wonderland?

How can wireless technology improve patient care in hospitals?




II. Write down the key concepts found in your topic sentence:

Key concepts from one of the examples:

Wireless technology, patient care, hospitals

________________ __________________ ___________________

Write 2 or 3 key concepts from your question. If your question contains more than three keywords, you might need to do multiple searches and synthesize the results.


III. Find Synonyms of (or words related to) your concepts:

Synonyms of example concepts:

wireless technology: wireless lan, wlan, hotspots

patient care: PCS services, patient recovery, patient treatment

hospitals: clinics, emergency rooms


List synonyms or words related to concepts in your own topic sentence:

______________ _______________ _______________

______________ _______________ _______________

______________ _______________ _______________


IV. Connect Your search terms with Boolean Operators

And narrows your search:

A search for Wireless technology and patient care and hospitals

will retrieve only articles about all three concepts.

Or broadens your search:

A search for patient care or patients or medical records

will retrieve all articles about any of the three concepts.


A good search for this topic might look like this:

wireless technology OR  wireless lan OR  wlan OR hotspots


patient care OR  PCS services OR  patient recovery OR patient treatment


hospitals OR  clinics OR  emergency rooms  

This search connects the synonyms and related concepts with OR and connects the different concepts with AND, thus doing a broad search for articles that must contain certain specific ideas. 


V. Enter your terms into one or more library databases:

As needed, substitute or include other terms from your list of synonyms and related concepts. Keep in ,mind that articles you retrieve can be read to find additional search terms, such as important people, related concepts, and/or Library of Congress subject headings. These new words can be added to your next search.


VI. If You Need Help

Always feel free to ask a librarian for help!


Critically Evaluating Sources

A Usable Source Rubric

Because people have a natural tendency toward various biases, it is a good idea to use a rubric for evaluating the sources you encounter in your research. Research shows that people tend to believe stories they encounter as long as 1) They agree with them and 2) they are at least somewhat plausible. Furthermore, once false beliefs are accepted as true people have an increasingly difficult time dislodging them. With those facts in mind, it is a good idea to have a dependable rubric against which all sources should be equally measured. Otherwise, you will unthinkingly follow your natural disposition to agree with what you believe and disbelieve that with which you disagree. If you start believing incorrect information, it becomes harder and harder to shake free of it.

A basic source rubric should question the authority, timeliness, and objectivity of every piece of information you consider using. Remember to apply the standards evenly. If people recognize that you hold one side of an argument accountable but not the side you happen to agree with it will undermine your credibility.

A slightly more advanced rubric, as pictured here, requires that researchers compare new sources to existing sources to see if they broadly agree. Even if new evidence is presented it will often build on other research and writing in the field. Remember always that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a source is at odds with the other work in its discipline it could mean it is less reliable; however, if the author shows clear, ethical, and duplicable research backing her claim, then it might represent a breakthrough in understanding.






Publisher, author and/or source are established authorities on the subject. The work is scholarly or academic in nature & cited by other researchers.

Publisher, author and/or source are not as highly regarded. The work may have been written for a popular or inexpert audience. Work may contain citations and references but is less often cited by others.

The publisher, author, and/or source are looked down upon by experts in the field. The work is not cited by other researchers.


Tone is neutral and scholarly. Facts are presented in dispassionate language. The source cites other sources that agree and disagree with its claims. Rebuttals are made with evidence, not personal attacks.

Source is neutral in tone but does not cite sources with differing views or refute them appropriately. Tone may be persuasive, for instance, a call to action.

Tone is persuasive, language displays bias, and presentation of points is one-sided.


Source is relevant to the time period you intend to discuss.

Source is somewhat out of the range of time you intend to discuss; however, it may still be relevant in describing context or outcomes .

Source is untimely and irrelevant.

Relation to Other Sources

Source is in broad agreement with other sources written by experts in the field. OR, source disagrees with them but provides ethical and duplicable evidence in support. Extraordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence!

Source may agree or disagree with other sources accepted in the discipline but does not contain a list of works consulted or cited.

Source is an outlier among experts in the field and provides flawed, outdated, previously disproven, or unverified/ unverifiable evidence.

      12-10 This looks like a great source to use!

       9-7 Source may be used with some caveats and disclaimers.

       6-4 This is not a good source to use!


Understanding Authority

Authority is generally defined as the level of influence an information source has in its field. There are different kinds of fields and different kinds of authority. For instance, both a PhD and an MD may be authoritative sources, but only in their respective contexts. Obviously different kinds of scholars belong to different kinds of fields, but even within a single field there may be different levels and kinds of authority. For instance, discourse about global warming may include scientists, politicians, economists, military leaders, and city planners (and many others). Each voice may bring a different kind of expertise to the discussion, but each is just as likely to present the issue solely within the framework provided by his or her own discipline.

Considering how all these voices fit together to form one body of knowledge and properly placing each in its proper context is imperative. For example, economists will be the best source for determining how global warming may affect economic output, but they are not the best source for determining if forecasting models are accurate. Climate scientists are the best source for predicting how the climate system will behave in the future under certain conditions, but military leaders might be the best sources for determining what kinds of threats social unrest will pose in regions affected by climate change. Each area of expertise may deserve a seat at the table, but determining how much authority each should have is by and large determined by context.

There are problems in virtually all information production systems that should be understood and compensated for by researchers. Compensation may take the form of acknowledging what has been reported by the source but including caveats, it may mean reading multiple independent sources to verify accuracy, or it may mean overlooking a source entirely. 

For more information about different kinds of authority, click here!

Avoiding Information Malpractice

Malpractice is defined as improper, illegal, or negligent activity. In the realm of research, here are some examples of information malpractice:


It should go without saying that copying work that is not your own and/or using sources without attribution will get you into serious trouble.


Always do your own work and adhere to MLA, APA, or other assigned documentation guidelines.

Cherry-picking Science

Science is enormously complicated, and an individual research report is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Definitively quoting one story that seems to support your argument while ignoring all the others that do not–whether deliberately or not—will keep you from fully understanding your topic.


Read widely enough about your subject to make sure you understand it as completely as possible before you report on it. By comparing the work of the experts in a given field, you will develop a clearer picture of what is known and unknown, as well as which areas of inquiry are likely to be most productive.

Presenting History without Context

History is nuanced and discrete. Behind every anecdote and quote, there is a complex set of facts and circumstances, all of which could dramatically alter the event’s interpretation.


Place the primary source in its historical context by determining, as best you can, the point of view of the source and its original intent. Read and evaluate the source carefully and critically, and be prepared to do more research to determine why the quote was said or the action taken.

False Equivalence

False equivalence occurs when someone falsely equates an act by one party to the act of another without taking into account all of the underlying differences which may make the comparison inaccurate or invalid.


Always make sure that the comparison you wish to make is supported by the facts of each instance. Also, try not to let your own biases color your interpretation of the facts.

Treating All Opinions as Equal

An expert in the field of geochemistry likely knows more about hydraulic fracturing than a random commenter on an internet message board. An atmospheric scientist will know more about climate science than a journalist, an economist, or a meteorologist. Don’t give all opinions about your subject equal weight.


Respect expertise, education, and prestige. Investigate authors and their professional affiliations in order to determine authoritativeness and expertise.


Using Sources

Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing in Your Papers

A quote is when you take someone else’s exact words and put them in your paper.

A paraphrase is when you take someone else’s ideas, findings, or observations and put it in your paper in your own words.

A summary is when you briefly restate the main points or main ideas of another source.

When to Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize

Summaries and paraphrases should be used when you want to touch on a source’s main points.

As a general rule, exact quotes should be reserved for very precise information or for striking turns of phrase.

How to Use Each in a Paper

Whether you are paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting an article, you need to lead into cited material, use parenthetical notation in the text, explain the material’s relation to your thesis, and include an entry in your works cited page.

If you are quoting an article, you will need to do all of those things as well as enclose the quoted words in quotation marks.

To lead into cited material is to prepare your reader for the shift from your ideas or words to someone else’s. A typical lead may be as simple as saying:

According to climate scientist Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, the Exxon-Mobil papers prove that, “the villainy that we long suspected was taking place within ExxonMobil really was. It wasn’t just a conspiracy theory. It was a legitimate conspiracy“ (Song 2015).

By naming the source (Michael E. Mann) and establishing why he is an authoritative source (he is the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center), you not only alert your reader that what comes next is someone else’s words, you also establish why those words should be heeded.

Leading into a paraphrase or summary:

Michael E. Mann, the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, asserts that the Exxon-Mobil papers confirmed everyone’s suspicion: they had been aware of the impact the oil industry was having on global warming but had just refused to acknowledge it (Song 2015).

(You can read about paraphrasing and summarizing in any MLA Handbook or on sites such as Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.)



Typically, academic work requires either MLA or APA citation style.  Generally, MLA is expected in humanities and English, while APA is expected in social sciences work.  Your instructor should clearly inform the class which citation style she prefers.  If there is any doubt, ask.  Many websites already cover citations, so those efforts need not be repeated here.  Below are a list of links pertaining to citations.

MLA The Purdue OWL site offers the MLA style guide online for free.

The MLA Style Center has the latest word on MLA citation style.

APA The Purdue OWL site offers the APA style guide online for free.

Trinity College’s Cite Source offers additional information on citing Tweets, blog posts, lectures, and more.

Citationmachine.net is a great time saver, but I have sometimes found mistakes in its automatically generated citations.  Always verify the results with the style guide!

Annotated Bibliographies

The annotated bibliography is a list of your sources including citations and accompanying descriptions. Sources are listed in alphabetical order by author’s last named, allowing you to keep all of your sources in one place and offering other researchers insight into your materials.
Each entry on your annotated bibliography must have at least these two parts:

  • a citation
  • a summary


More involved annotated bibliographies may also include one or both of the following:

  • an evaluation of the source’s credibility
  • an indication of how the source will be used


The summary portion will consist of three points:

    • The question or problem addressed by the article (the “topic)
    • The article’s method of analysis (experimental? theoretical?)
    • The article’s thesis, conclusions, and/or recommendations


The evaluation of credibility will note things such as:

    • The timeliness of the study/paper.
    • The author’s level of expertise (how much has he published in this field?)
    • The source’s credibility (do they have a known bias, are they peer-reviewed, are they funded by a think tank with a political ideology?)


The assessment of the usefulness of the article to your project will disclose:

    • What about the study is useful to your paper (an argument, a set of facts, the bibliography?)
    • How you intend to use it (Does it support your main argument? Is it a counterargument? A refutation of a counterargument?)


A Sample Annotated Bibliography Entry

Kharecha, P. A., & Hansen, J. (2013). Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (9), 4889–4895. doi: 10.1021/es3051197

In Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power, Kharecha and Hansen(2013) hypothesized that replacing carbon-producing fuels with nuclear power could “prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by midcentury, depending on which fuel it replaces” (p. 4889). They correlated the historical output of CO2 to the resultant air pollution-related deaths to determine that the use of nuclear power since 1971 has prevented “ an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning” (p. 4889). The authors found that increased reliance on nuclear energy would be safer and less ecologically harmful than continued reliance on fossil fuels or expansion of natural gas use. The publisher of this paper, American Chemical Society, is known to be a reputable, peer-reviewed source, but it has lately come under fire by the libertarian-leaning Watts Up With That blog for presenting a political agenda. Because of the known bias of Watts Up With That, such claims are not necessarily prohibitive; likewise, there are no peer-reviewed studies refuting the data of the article. This article is especially useful for discussing the opportunity costs of society’s dependence on coal and oil as well as for calming some of societies’ concerns about nuclear energy.




Research Papers: From Articles to Outline

You can download a printable copy of this guide here.

After narrowing your subject, creating a search strategy, and searching the databases, book catalog,and open internet, you will hopefully find information in and of sufficient quantity and quality to answer your research question(s). Here are the steps to take after you retrieve your sources.

Think About What You Have Found

Consider the following things:

Have you found enough information to answer all the questions you have about your subject?

If not, you can:

  • revise your search strategy by searching for other keywords, subjects, authors, or titles
  • refine your topic to be more specific or more general
  • brainstorm with your instructor and/or librarian to find more terms or a different angle

Evaluate Information for Credibility, Timeliness, Objectivity, and Authority

After reading an article begin asking questions: First, who wrote it, and are the author’s affiliations known? Does the language appear biased, or does the article present only one side of an argument? Is the purpose of the article to inform you or to convince you? What does the article leave out? When was the article written? Are there new developments that the article does not take into consideration? How does what you have found complement or contradict what you already thought? Does it come from an authoritative source? Is the source objective, timely, and credible?

In general, these considerations will determine how (and if!) you present the materials you have found. For instance, if new research provides a new way of looking at an old problem, it is good to know the timeline. If the new research comes from a think tank funded by a political organization, it should be looked at carefully to determine possible biases. Old research, on the other hand, should not be held up as the state of the art, though it may be useful in describing the social or historical context of your paper.

Use the Information

The answers to the above questions help determine how you will present the articles in your paper. In general, you will do one of five things:

  1. Realize the article is off-topic and of no use to you.
  2. Use it to establish the social, political, or scientific context of your topic.
  3. Use the article to bolster your claim.
  4. Present the article as a counter-argument and then refute it.
  5. Realize that you cannot refute the article and modify your thesis.

Cite Your Sources

Put together a list of the sources for each quote, paraphrase, or summary you intend to use in your paper. In order to fully integrate a quote, summary, or paraphrase into your paper, you need to do four important things:

1.)  You must lead into the information. 

You can’t simply put a quote in the middle of your paper!  You must lead into the material with your own words to prepare your reader for the transition.  A good rule of thumb about leads is that they tell who said it and what his/her qualifications are:

According to Marylin Gilroy, author of STUDENT DRINKING: New Strategies but No Magic Bullet, “Experts say the root causes of excessive drinking revolve around depression, anxiety, peer pressure, and the desire for social acceptance. This is coupled with a culture of drinking often encouraged by local bars, which run promotions where low prices and happy hours offer incentives to drink.

2.) You must use parenthetical notation after the quote to show where you found it.

The parenthetical notation typically contains the author’s last name and the page number on which you found the quote. When quoting from an electronic source without page numbers, you should indicate the paragraph from which you take the quote, as in the example below. In any case, the parenthetical notation goes directly after quoted material:

According to Marylin Gilroy, author of Student Drinking: New Strategies but No Magic Bullet, “Experts say the root causes of excessive drinking revolve around depression, anxiety, peer pressure, and the desire for social acceptance. This is coupled with a culture of drinking often encouraged by local bars, which run promotions where low prices and happy hours offer incentives to drink” (Par. 5).

3.) After each quote, paraphrase, or summary you must explain the quote’s significance regarding what you want to prove or explain in your paper. 

All of your cited materials should relate to the thing you want to prove, and you must show how they prove your point.

4.) You must have a Works Cited page at the end of your paper. 

The works cited page is a list of your sources alphabetized by author’s last name.  It includes:  Author’s name (last name first), article title, book title/magazine title, place of publication, and date of publication. When using any of the online databases, you should cite your source as an “Online Subscription Database.” Such citations look like this:

Gilroy, Marylin. “STUDENT DRINKING: New Strategies but No Magic Bullet.” The

Education Digest 1 Nov. 2009: 52. ProQuest. Web.  11 Mar. 2010 

Create an Outline

Using the articles you have found to answer your original research questions will provide a basic outline for your paper.

For example, if you start with the research question, “What are the causes of binge drinking among college students?” and you find articles that point to three main reasons, say, academic stress, peer pressure, and a lack of coping skills, then your thesis might look like this:

The causes of binge drinking among students are academic stress, peer pressure, and a lack of coping skills.

Your thesis statement is the road map for your paper. You now know both the substance and the order of your paper. Take quotes, paraphrases and summaries from your sources in order support your thesis.

All that remains is for you to write your introduction, present your thesis, arrange your reasons and evidence in a compelling order, and then write your conclusion.

A Couple More Things

Make sure you speak with your instructor about what is expected of you.

Also feel free to visit the library and review a copy of whichever style manual you are supposed to use for your paper/project.

There are also a number of websites to help you with your citations, such as Purdue OWL (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/).  


If your research task involves multiple searches, you might find this handout useful.