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Step 3: Conduct the Research

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Part One: Organising your Research using a Research Document

Do you ever have any of these problems?

  • Have you ever started to write an essay and found that you were staring at a blank screen and a flashing cursor? Did you feel like you were starting from scratch?
  • Have you ever started writing an essay and found that you could not remember some of the information you had read? Or tried to put in a reference and could not find the page number of the quotation you were using?
  • Is your research usually scattered all over the place, in the form of books, photocopied pages, bookmarked websites and some notes? Do you find it hard to create an essay out of disorganised research?
  • If you answered yes to any of these questions, then learning how to create and use a research document can help! If you organise and record your research properly, you should never have any of these problems again.

How can you organise your research?

Your research should be organised so that the transition from doing your research to writing your essay is simple. The best way to do this is to organise your research so that it matches the organisation of the essay. In Step 2 of writing an academic essay, you would have written a rough essay plan before you began your research. This essay plan is the guide you need to use to organise your research.

Copy and paste this essay plan into a Word document. All your research for this essay will be recorded in this one document. Use each of the dot points from your essay plan (topics you are planning to discuss) as a heading in your research document. When you do your research, you will organise it in the order that the information will appear in your essay. Doing this means you will be organising your research by theme or topic, not by source.

This means that you will not simply record all the information from one source together and then go on to type up the information from your next source underneath it. If you do things that way, you would need to go back and re-organise your research later, into the correct order for your essay. That would be a waste of your time.

Why should you record your research (instead of just reading or taking a few notes)?

If you do not record your research properly, you can spend hours, days or weeks doing research, and then when you start to write your essay you will find that you have to go back and re-do things, like search for page numbers or correct quotations. You must record your research in a way that makes essay writing easier for you. It should be accurate, include all the information you need, and give you a chance to record your own ideas and thoughts on the material you are reading as you go along. Do not leave this until the end.

Instead of just taking notes when researching, a better and more efficient way to research is to critically arrange and organise material by typing out all the important information you find. You do not need to type out everything, just the critical, relevant and important information for your essay. Then you can add your own notes. (Make sure you use punctuation marks so that you can differentiate between quotations and your own thoughts and ideas.)

There are a few important reasons for why it is better to type out sources word-for-word in your research rather than only take notes.

  1. You will not have to remember everything you have read; all the important material will already be written down.
  2. When you begin writing your essay, you will have all the information you need to make accurate direct quotations.
  3. You will not make the mistake of writing something in your essay that you think you have thought of yourself, but is in fact something you are remembering from a source word-for-word. 
  4. You will still have the opportunity to write your own notes about the sources as you go along, and develop your own ideas. However, you will do this in a way that makes it clear what information is from a source, and what information has come from your own ideas.

How should you record your research?

You must record the following information from your sources:

  1. Reference (bibliographic) information about the source you are using
  2. The subject or topic of each paragraph you type out (to help organise your ideas)
  3. The exact wording of the source (using punctuation marks to show you are quoting)
  4. The page number(s) of the information you are typing up
  5. Your own ideas and thoughts about the material you are reading

While you are doing all this, you can be working on your reference list (bibliography) at the same time. Each time you begin reading a source, type up all reference information into your reference list straight away. One good way of setting out your research is as follows:

The topic/subject of the paragraph
'The exact wording of the source/paragraph that you are typing up goes here, using punctuation marks so you can see that you are quoting' (Put the reference information here, the way you would in an in-text reference: Surname, Year, page number. Or put it in a footnote if you will be using footnotes in your essay).
[Your notes and ideas go here. Your own words go in square brackets and do not have punctuation marks, so you can easily see differentiate between your own words and words from the source.]

For example:

The importance of women fighting in the Spanish Civil War
'The combat role played by militia women signified a change in gender roles that was occurring in the Republican zone as a result both of the war and of the social revolution. Part of the significance of themiliciana phenomenon also lies in its uniqueness in Spanish history' (Lines, 2009, p. 168).
[This is very interesting information since some authors argue that gender roles didn't change during the social revolution and Spanish Civil War.]

How can you develop your essay plan while you are researching?

All the decisions about what will go into your essay and in what order are made at the research stage, not at the essay writing stage. This is a common mistake made by students who do not establish enough of a connection between the two stages.

At the beginning of your research, you started out with your rough essay plan as a basis for the headings in your research document. As you go along, you may add more headings or sub-headings to your research document. For example, you might find that there are three sub-topics under the first main topic that you wish to discuss, and so you will create sub-headings for them. The information under these sub-headings will eventually become paragraphs in your essay.

As you conduct your research, you must critically analyse the information that you find. Change your sections around in order of importance. Decide what information should be included and what should not. All these decisions should be made at the research stage, so that by the time you come to do your writing you know exactly what you will be writing about and in what order, down to each paragraph. You will have in front of you exactly what information needs to be used in each section and paragraph of your essay. This also means that you will never feel like you are starting from scratch or have nothing to go on when you begin writing your essay.

Part Two: Research Skills and Academic Sources

  • Have you ever received feedback on an assessment telling you that the sources you used were not academic?
  • Have you ever used Wikipedia or another non-academic source in your research?
  • Do you find it confusing knowing what sources to use and what sources not to use?
  • Do you have trouble knowing where to go to get the information you need for your research?

Being able to tell the difference between an academic source and a non-academic source, knowing where to find academic sources and deciding what sources are relevant to your research are important skills that you will develop during your tertiary studies. The aim of this guide is to point you in the right direction.

Books, monographs and textbooks

The first place you should go is the library, even if this means ordering in books from other libraries. For academics to have their books (and journal articles) published, they must go through a process called a peer-review. During this process, one or more other academics who are experts in the field will read and assess a book or article to decide if it is of publishable standard. This is why your research will be of the highest quality if you use books, monographs, textbooks and journal articles written by academics for your research, because the work had to meet academic standards. There is no such process for publishing on the internet; anyone can write whatever he or she likes on any subject and publish it on the internet.

Journal articles and electronic databases

Your second stop after books, monographs and textbooks will be journal articles. Some of these will only be available in hardcopy from the library, but many will be available in their full-text versions through online electronic databases, such as JSTOR, ProQuest and Ingenta. (Access to these databases is obtained through your university's library website.)

When you search the electronic databases, make sure you modify your search so that you are only given results from peer-reviewed journals. This will ensure that the journal articles you find have gone through the process explained above to ensure that they are of a high standard. You can also search so that you only receive results for articles that are available in their full electronic versions.

Internet resources

As explained above, there is no way of ensuring the standard of information that is uploaded to the internet. Anyone can publish anything on the internet, thus websites are not the ideal place for you to go to get your information.

When you do use the internet and websites for your research, you need to be sure that you are consulting reputable sources. For example, websites published by governments, universities, the United Nations and national organisations like the Australian Practice Nurses Association will generally contain quality information. However, it is important to note that these sources are not considered academic sources if they have not been written by academics. Nonetheless, unless you have been specifically requested by your tutor or lecturer to use only sources written by academics, you can often find valuable information from these reputable websites that may assist you in your research. Just be careful that you know exactly who has published the information on the internet and be sure to record the exact URL and date and time you accessed the information, as you will need this information for your reference list.

A useful guide but not definitive: Where to go for more information

The above information is only a guide and ultimately where you find most of your sources will depend on what your essay topic is. For example, if you were writing a Sociology essay on an aspect of the media you would need to consult newspapers, television programmes and internet news websites.

If you are in doubt about what types of sources to use, check your course information booklet for more information about your particular assessment piece. Find out if there is a recommended reading list that you can begin with, and then use the sources listed in those readings to find further sources. If you are still not sure, check with your lecturer or tutor.

This guide is relevant to the third step in writing academic essays. There are six steps in total, so please ensure you read the remainder of the articles in the series How to Write Distinction Essays Every TimeOnce you have completed writing your essay by following these six steps, it is strongly recommended that you hire one of our professional essay editors to edit your essay. Essay editing is another way you can ensure you receive the best grade possible.

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