Tips on researching and writing your final paper…

Or any other paper or proposal.

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1) CITE! CITE! CITE!

When writing, you need to make it clear who/where your ideas come from. Anything that is not your original thoughts should be cited. If you spend an entire page summarizing research from one source, you need to make clear at the beginning of every paragraph that you are drawing on that source. Any time you are drawing on multiple sources to describe a general trend, you should list those multiple sources. If you are bringing up information from separate sources in the same paragraph, it should be clear where each of those facts/research findings/interpretations are from.

The reason this is so important is 1) to avoid plagiarism and 2) to make it easy for your readers to research the source. If you tell me something interesting that I don’t know, I need to be able to look up your original source to read further.

2) Look for original research articles.

Peer-reviewed journal articles should be the bulk of your sources. The reason these are your best sources is because that is where you can find original research that’s been through a thorough review process that verifies that it is scientifically sound. The next best option are chapters in edited volumes, which have been through a review by a editor. Depending on your topic, some books and monographs may also be valuable. Citing the textbook or another similar book is fine for general information, but otherwise you want to make sure you reading and citing the original research.

3) Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.

Whenever possible, try to track down the original sources. This is to ensure that you correctly understand and convey the information from the original research. Sometimes when authors cite another study, they may provided a different slant, or selectively present it (for example, in a paper that describes five experiments that yielding conflicting results, only describing the result of one experiment). If you absolutely can’t access it, you should cite as follows (Strier 1994, in Rodrigues 2007).

4) Use secondary sources (textbooks, reviews, websites) to find the original research.

While they have some use for very general information, their major use is to provide you with a list of references to look for further information. As you read those papers, use them as a guide to find more research on your topic of interest.

5) Make sure you are using the library’s resources.

The library is more than just a building for books! Librarians can help you with searching for and finding electronic resources, or anything else you are having trouble finding. If the library does not have either physical or electronic access to what you are looking for, they can help you obtain in through inter-libraries loans. Remember that this can take time, so start your research early! Additionally, if you’re having trouble obtaining/accessing a source, check with me–I might have a copy or be able to access it.

6) Organize your notes and references as you go along.

This will help you to make sure you are correctly citing information, and prevents you from last-minute bibliographic panic. Before you start reading, write down the reference information. Enter it into a reference manager, a word document, your notebook–wherever you need to put it to keep track of it. Make sure you keep that information connected to the notes you take.

7) Use an outline as you are writing.

This will help you focus your information and stay on topic. Your topic, and the outline, can always be changed as you go along. However, adhering to a general outline (and using headings or subheadings when necessary in your paper)will keep you from meandering through topics. This is especially important in literature reviews, as it can be very difficult to stay focused on your topic as you explore other related studies.

8) Don’t be afraid of using “I”

This is incredibly important when writing about your own research or proposed research. It is especially important to distinguish what you did, or will do, from others’ ideas or research.

9) Use active voice instead of passive!

For example, instead of writing “It has been found ” say Strier (1994) found…” Or, multiple studies indicate… and then cite.”

10) Add key terms/species names into your Word dictionary.

Double-check the spelling before adding it in, and this will ensure 1) it will be caught and corrected if you spell it incorrectly and 2) Word won’t accidentally “correct” it to another word. For example, Word likes to correct “Cebus capucinus” to “Cebus cappucino” and “Cebus apella” to “Cebus paella.” You don’t want your capuchins accidentally changed into foods!

11) Use “methods” sections to help you develop your own methods.

This is the one of the hardest things about writing a proposal. Although there are some variations, some methods are fairly standard. Following the methods from similar studies can help you structure your own–but make sure you properly cite the sources!

12) Proofread!

Ideally, you should try to get a draft done early, have a friend or classmate read it, and then make revisions. If you can, make an agreement to set a deadline a couple days early, and exchange papers. If not, try and give it at least a night before you proofread. When you are writing, re-writing, and re-reading what you’ve been writing it’s REALLY to miss errors. Even if you proofread a dozen times… some errors will likely slip by. However, a fresh set of eyes (especially someone else’s) can help reduce them.

13) Don’t let a spider monkey write your paper!

They aren’t the best writers…especially when they’ve been hitting the fermented fruit 🙂

Some general resources for more information:

ZSR Ask a Librarian

Wake Forest Writing Center

Google Scholar Search Tips (There’s also information on organizing your articles and citations)

Academic Writing at WFU

And don’t forget to use the “Helpful Resources” and AJPA style guide on Sakai!

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About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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