Beginning writers sometimes attempt to transform a pile of note cards into a formal research paper without any intermediary step. This approach presents problems.
The writer’s original question and thesis may be buried in a flood of disconnected details taken from research sources. The first draft may present redundant or contradictory information. Worst of all, the writer’s ideas and voice may be lost.
An effective research paper focuses on the writer’s ideas— from the question that sparked the research process to how the writer answers that question based on the research findings. Before beginning a draft, or even an outline, good writers pause to engage in critical thinking about their research.
This involves asking questions like:
A careful analysis of your research notes will help you reevaluate your working thesis and determine whether you need to revise it. Remember that your working thesis was the starting point - not necessarily the ending point - of your research.
You should revise your working thesis if your ideas changed based on what you read. Even if your sources generally confirmed your preliminary thinking on the topic, it is still a good idea to tweak the wording of your thesis to incorporate the specific details you learned from research.
When you conduct research, you keep an open mind and seek out many promising sources. You take notes on any information that looks like it might help you answer your research questions.
You will not use all of your notes in your paper, so begin by identifying the notes that clearly support your thesis. As you identify the crucial details that support your thesis, make sure you analyze them critically.
Ask the following questions to focus your thinking:
1. Is this detail from a reliable, high-quality source? Is it appropriate for me to cite this source in an academic paper? The support for your thesis should come from reliable, reputable sources. If most of the details that support your thesis are from less-reliable sources, you may need to do additional research or modify your thesis.
2. Is the link between this information and my thesis obvious, or will I need to explain it to my readers? Remember, you have spent more time thinking and reading about this topic than your audience. Some connections might be obvious to both you and your readers. More often, however, you will need to provide the analysis or explanation that shows how the information supports your thesis. As you read through your notes, jot down ideas you have for making those connections clear.
3. What personal biases or experiences might affect the way I interpret this information? No researcher is 100 percent objective. We all have personal opinions and experiences that influence our reactions to what we read and learn. Good researchers are aware of this human tendency. They keep an open mind when they read opinions or facts that contradict their beliefs.
As you find connections between your ideas and information in your sources, also look for information that connects your sources:
Look for subtler ways your sources complement one another, too:
You will also want to be aware of any redundancies in your sources, and determine how you will address any contradictions found among different sources.
If you have amassed solid support from a reputable source, such as a scholarly journal, there is no need to cite the same facts from an online encyclopedia article that is many steps removed from any primary research. If a given source adds nothing new to your discussion and you can cite a stronger source for the same information, use the stronger source.
Alternatively, if one source cites a startling fact that you cannot confirm anywhere else, it is safe to dismiss the information as unreliable. However, if you find significant disagreements among reliable sources, you will need to review them and evaluate each source. Which source presents a sounder argument or more solid evidence? It is up to you to determine which source is the most credible and why.
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "Critical Thinking and Research Applications" tutorial.