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Researching Your Topic

Beginning a research paper may seem daunting, but there are simple steps you can take to get started. Once you have a topic, you'll need to think about what kind of research you need to do - what kind of questions do you have, and how will you answer them? See our "Understanding Assignments" handout to help you decide what you're going to research for your paper, and use this guide to walk you through the steps that lead up to writing your research paper.


The first thing you'll need to do is find some sources to work with. At this stage, you want to collect as many sources as possible and keep the bibliographic information of each one for future reference.


The Swarthmore College librarians are available to help you find research materials. You can schedule discipline-specific group or individual research sessions through the libraries website. Also, McCabe and Cornell libraries have reference desks that are staffed with librarians during business hours for those spur-of-the-moment questions. It's useful to start by asking what databases are most helpful for the subject you're researching and where the books on that subject are housed in the library stacks. Also make sure you know how to use the library's online search feature!

Preliminary Bibliography

While you're researching, it's helpful to keep a record of the resources you've consulted. If you ever need to find a source, you'll have all the information at your fingertips. If you prefer, you can write a brief summary of the source under each bibliographic entry. This will help you distinguish between sources that have similar titles or subjects. Above all, if you keep a detailed record while you research, you don't need to worry about getting it together once you've written your paper - it's already done!


Your next task is to go through the large quantity of information you found and figure out how much of it will be relevant to your paper. You then need to read each useful source and take notes.

Selecting Sources

When you begin your research, you'll likely come up with more sources than you need. Many of them will end up being off-topic. To quickly gauge whether a source will be useful, look at the title, publication information, abstract, or table of contents. These will give you a better idea of what is actually contained in the text, so you don't waste hours reading through information that you can't use in your paper.

Reading Sources

It's easy to lose focus while skimming over research materials. Try reading actively. As you read, make observations, ask questions, and respond to the text by taking notes. This will help you move from reading to writing more quickly because you're already thinking critically about your topic. Active reading requires your complete attention and focus. It is more than just being able to summarize the text you've read. You need to think about and analyze the text as well, so you can see how it will fit into your argument. Try to make connections with other readings or find interesting points of contention between sources. It can also be helpful to suspend your judgment. Often, writers respond too quickly to the text and don't spend enough time carefully considering what the author has to say. For more help, check out the SAM Program.


Everyone has her own method for taking notes. Whether you use note cards, paper, or your computer, you MUST remember to keep track of where your notes came from. Sloppy notes can result in source material being incorrectly cited or not cited at all - either of which constitutes plagiarism.

An easy way to keep your notes organized is to deal with one source at a time, writing notes from that source on a piece of paper (or a note card, or a Word file) with that particular source's bibliographic information copied at the top. After each note, include the page number to which it corresponds. That way, when you make references to sources in your paper, all the relevant citation information is right there in your notes for you. Always remember to keep direct quotes in quotation marks in your notes, or you could unknowingly copy them into your paper as paraphrases.


Once you've done all your research, you'll need to figure out how to fit it into your paper. Here are some suggestions for working research into your writing:

Integrating Sources

When you start writing, make sure you aren't using an outside source as the basis of your argument. It's your paper; the thesis should be yours.

Also avoid quoting extensively from just one source. The point of research is to find multiple sources to support your argument. Quoting over and over from just one will make your paper sound more like a book report than an argumentative essay.

Don't feel guilty about dropping sources if you find they're not working in your paper. It's better to have fewer sources that are well-used than to have many that are out of place or irrelevant to your topic.

In general, quoted material should not dominate your paper. While it is necessary, its presence serves to support your argument, which should be discussed for the majority of the paper.

Try to seamlessly include references to outside sources in the text of your paper. The writing should transition from your words to others' without sounding stilted or choppy.


Always cite all quoted material and any paraphrases of someone else's ideas or argument.

If in doubt, cite it anyway!

Make sure you're using the correct citation format for your field.

Double-check your works cited page or bibliography to make sure it contains all the pertinent information.