Engaging With Research

Writing about Research

Determining a topic and finding relevant resources are only the beginning steps in the research process. Once you locate sources, you actually have to read them and determine how useful and relevant they are for your particular research context.

Understanding and Documenting the Information

Remember, our own ethos relies, in part, on the quality of the secondary research sources we use. That is, the sources we use can either add or detract from our overall credibility.  Therefore, reviewing, processing, and documenting information is an integral part of the research process.  Below, we discuss a variety of strategies for effectively understanding and documenting sources.

Skimming

Skimming is the process of reading key parts of a text in order to get an overview of an author’s argument and main ideas. There are many different methods for skimming, so you will have to determine which works best for you and your particular source.

Well-written texts such as essays, articles, and book chapters are generally formatted in similar ways:

Introduction: provides the main idea/thesis as well as overview of the text’s structure
Body: provides claims, arguments, evidence, support and so on to support thesis
Conclusion: provides connections to larger contexts, suggests implications, ask questions, and revisit the main ideas

Ideally, the main ideas will be presented in the introduction, elaborated on in detail in the body, and reviewed in the conclusion.  Further, many sources will contain headings or subheadings to organize points and examples, and well-written paragraphs generally have clear topic sentences, or sentences that provide the main idea(s) discussed in the paragraph. All of these aspects will help you skim while developing a sense of the argument and main ideas.

When you skim a source, consider the following process:

  1. Read the introduction (this could be a few paragraphs long).
  2. Scan the document for headings. In a shorter article, there may not be any headings or there may be only a couple.
  3. Whenever you see a new heading, be sure to read at least the first few sentences under the heading and the final few sentences of the section.
  4. Read the conclusion.

Example:  Skimming a Book

When we encounter a text for a first time, it’s a good idea to skim through to see if we need to take a further look at it in our research.  One method for doing this is referred to as the First Sentence Technique, which entails reading the introduction, the first sentence of each paragraph, and the conclusion. This approach can be useful for taking notes and creating summaries of sources.  

A slightly more in-depth approach can deepen your understanding of the text and help you identify particular sections or even other resources that might be helpful:

  • Scan the preface, acknowledgements, and table of contents. (This identifies the methods and framework for the book.)
  • Scan the notes at the end of chapters to better understand the author’s research.
  • Scan the index to see if the book covers the information you need.
  • Read the introductory paragraphs for each chapter. (This can help you better understand the structure and arguments of the book.)

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a central component of the research process. While you skim the articles, record important information, beginning with publication information. Publication information provides a sense of the rhetorical situation for the source, such as intended audience and context. As you encounter texts in your research, consider its role in your project and take note of the publication information as noted.  Recording the publication information as you go will help avoid problems or mistakes when citing and building the reference list.

 

You may think: what should I record from the sources other than the publication information? The goal of research notes is to help you remember information and quickly access important details. You should write down the following details:

  • Thesis statement
  • Keywords
  • Major points or claims
  • Evidence, support and/or examples
  • Headings (depending on the source)

You may want to write down the thesis, points, and claims exactly as they appear in the source. However, whenever you copy the language exactly, be sure to use quotation marks to indicate that the information is coming directly from a source/author. 

Restating the Information in Your Own Words

After taking the time to skim and take notes, you should also put the author’s thesis and ideas into your own words. This ensures that you truly understand the source and the author’s points. There are two major ways to approach this process: summary and paraphrase.

Summary

Summaries are condensed versions of the original source, in your own words. Summaries focus on the main ideas, but do not copy any of the original language. A 500 page book or a 2 hour movie could be summarized in a sentence. Summaries do not contain the same level of detail as the original source.

Example:  Summary

The following text demonstrates a summary of an original passage:

Original Text

“Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.”

Summary

Water becomes contaminated by lead when lead pipes, solder, or certain types of fixtures degrade, and hot water can increase the amount lead released.

Environmental Protection Agency. (2016). Basic information about lead in drinking water. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water

Paraphrase

Similarly, paraphrases are restatements of source material, in your own words, but the difference is that paraphrases tend to be closer in length to the original source. Paraphrases have the same level of detail as the original. Remember, though, if you copy from the original even two or three words in a row you must provide quotation marks around those words.

Example: Paraphrase

Original

“Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.”

Paraphrase

Water becomes contaminated by lead when lead pipes or lead solder degrades. Certain types of fixtures, such as those plated with chrome and brass, as well as hot water, acidic water, and water with lower amounts of minerals can make lead contamination significantly worse.

Regardless of whether you choose to directly quote, summarize, or paraphrase a source, you must document the source material.  Failure to do so is plagiarism and can lead to allegations of academic or workplace dishonesty.

Annotated Bibliographies*

Annotated bibliographies are a common step in the research process. Annotated bibliographies are exploratory in nature—they help writers organize their thoughts and sources about a topic and help writers determine a direction for their research. Depending on the academic discipline, purpose, and instructor preference, the style, content, and even the name of annotations can vary. This document is a basic overview, so please confirm details of your annotated bibliography with your instructor.

Purposes of an annotated bibliography

For you: During the research and writing process, the annotated bibliography helps you, the researcher, keep track of the changing relevance of sources as you develop your ideas. It also helps you save time by focusing on each author’s essential ideas (which helps you make connections between sources), and it can help you begin the process of composing your project.

For others: During the research process, annotated bibliographies also help show your instructor that you are consulting idea-generating and relevant sources and, more importantly, that you understand the significance of and relationship between your sources. When you seek assistance from your librarian, annotated bibliographies also help the librarian guide you toward the best available sources. Finally, annotated bibliographies help your writing consultant/tutor work with you more efficiently on integrating an author’s ideas into your writing.

What is an annotation?

Generally, an annotation provides a summary of the major ideas in a source, such as the source’s thesis (argument) and major supporting details; an evaluation of the ideas and points in the source; and a sense of how the source connects with your project and other sources in the annotated bibliography.

Questions to consider as you compose your annotation:

  • What is the thesis (main argument of the source), and what is the general purpose of the source?
  • Who is the author and what are his/her credentials? Who is the intended audience?\
  • What theoretical or ideological assumptions does the author advocate, and where or how does that appear in the source?
  • What topics does the source cover? What types of evidence does it use?
  • What parts of the argument or analysis are particularly persuasive, what parts are not, and why?
  • What types of rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, logos)  does the author use in the development, deployment, and support of their ideas?
  • How is this source useful, or not useful, to your project? How does it help you advance the argument for your project?
  • How well does the source relate to or not relate to the other sources in your annotated bibliography?

What are the parts of an annotated bibliography?

  1. The first part of every entry in an annotated bibliography is a citation of the source. Follow the citation style preferred by your instructor.
  2. The second part of every entry is an annotation or description of the source. Annotations can vary in length, depending on the purposes of the annotated bibliography. Generally, the annotation will contain some information about the author’s credentials/authority, followed by a brief summary of the source, taking into consideration the audience, author’s viewpoint, and the thesis statement. Assessments of the source can appear anywhere, but it is commonly featured at the end of the annotation. Consider whether you found the argument or analysis persuasive, whether this source is useful to you, and why. You may also include any relevant links to other sources.

Sample, APA style:

Tien, F. and Fu, T. (2008). The correlates of the digital divide and their impact on college

student learning. Computers and Education 50(1): 421-436. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.07.005

Although Taiwanese scholars1 Tien and Fu focus on Taiwanese college students, a significant portion of the article is pertinent to a U.S. context. First, the authors acknowledge that most discussion of the “digital divide” incorrectly simplifies the issue of technological access.2a As a result, they discuss what they call the three dimensions of the digital divide: access; use and knowledge; and skills (422).2b This recognizes what several other sources in my bibliography have touched upon: access does not mean use nor does it mean knowledge or skills to effectively use digital technologies.3a Second, they explain that many countries, the US and Taiwan included, depend upon education at all levels to combat the digital divide(s). The issue is that there are deficiencies within educational systems which sometimes work to reinforce the divides already in place.3b Tien and Fu claim, however, that educational contexts hold the most possibility for combating the digital divide(s).3c Tien and Fu claim that demographic and socio-economic background had no significant influence on accurately predicting computer use,3d which contrasts with claims of other sources such as Kirtley.4 However, gender and major did appear to have an influence on computer use; Tien and Fu note, for example, that female students tended to devote more focused computer time on academic-related work.3e Overall, the first half of the article that breaks down the different dimensions of the digital divide is the most useful for my project.5


1. This establishes the authority of the authors and evaluates the source’s usefulness in an American context.

2a/2b. Establishes the argument of the article.

3a. Specific supporting details; establishes connection with other sources in bibliography.

3b/3c/3d/3e. Specific supporting details.

4. Establishes connection to other sources in bibliography.

5. Establishes usefulness for specific project.

*This content adapted from a handout created by the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at OSU. Emphasis (color) added and sample modified to APA format.

 

Research Conversations

Research is about understanding the prevailing opinions, arguments, facts, and details about a given topic. This requires reading what others have already said and published about a topic. We can understand this as the conversation about the topic. For most topics and issues, there can be multiple conversations, each grounded in a specific context, culture, and field of study. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1941) calls this the “parlor conversation.”

You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. … You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers, you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. … The hour grows late, you must depart.  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Burke, 1941, p. 110)

In other words, before you can effectively and persuasively enter into any conversation, you must understand and consider what others have already said. Otherwise you may simply replicate others’ ideas, ask questions or raise issues that have already been resolved, or otherwise lack the knowledge and information needed to make productive and persuasive contributions to the topic.

Academic writing requires presenting your sources and your ideas effectively to readers. According to Graff and Birkenstein (2006), authors of the book They Say, I Say, the first element in the process involves “entering a conversation about ideas” between you—the writer—and your sources to reflect your critical thinking (p. ix). Graff and Birkenstein provide templates (a quick Google search for “They Say I Say templates” brings up many examples) for organizing your ideas in relation to other research, your thesis, supporting evidence, opposing evidence, and the conclusion of your and others’ arguments.

You are likely already aware of the ‘“they say/I say” format. A common version of this is:

“On the one hand, ______________. On the other hand, ______________.”

When talking about research, you might begin with “on the one hand, Researcher X (2015) claims…..” and then insert, “on the other hand, I argue…..” Or, you may use this construction to put two sources in conversation before inserting your ideas. For example:

On the one hand, Researcher X (2015) claims…..On the other hand, Researcher Y (2016) argues…Building on Researcher X and Researcher Y, I contend…

What is most important to remember about integrating research and your own ideas is that you must provide clear attribution of ideas in the text. Attribution is not only about citations, but also about providing textual clues about source material and its origins. Sometimes this is described as introducing and explaining and sometimes it is described as sandwiching a quotation or idea. For example:

According to Researcher X (2015), “information directly quoted from source” (p. 20). That is, [explanation, justification, or other explication on the quoted material].

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Writing about Research by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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