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Proper techniques for research and writing

The best way to avoid plagiarism is simply to familiarize yourself with the conventions of academic writing, which means, above all, developing a deep respect for words and ideas as the currency of intellectual discourse. And a deep respect for yourself as well—when you conduct research and write an essay, you’re not just a student fulfilling an assignment, you’re a scholar taking part in one of civilization’s oldest and noblest traditions. When you engage in scholarship you’re joining a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years, and you’re putting yourself on an equal footing with all the scholars who have come before you—but only if you respect the right ways of doing things.

Conducting research

A research project gives you the opportunity to become an expert on something, and this can be enormously satisfying. By immersing yourself in a subject, thinking deeply about it, and articulating your thoughts in writing, you’ll truly be engaging in the intellectual discourse that is the heart of academic life.

A research paper, done properly, is a big job—but if done improperly, whether by poor planning or poor technique, it can be an even bigger job and can even put you at risk of committing plagiarism. Here are three keys to successful research:

  • Plan the research process.
  • Follow proper note-taking procedures.
  • Vary your sources.

Plan the research process.

Effective time management may be the most important factor determining the success of your research project. If you give yourself plenty of time to do each step properly, you’ll have the chance to savor your deepening expertise in a particular subject—and you’ll avoid the desperation that leads some students to resort to plagiarism.

Above all, be realistic. A research project takes time—you simply cannot put it off until a couple of days before the due date. As soon as you have an assignment, draw up a workable plan with plenty of intermediate goals ("benchmarks") to measure your progress toward the final goal of a completed paper. In general, you should budget about one third of your available time to each of the three phases of the research project: conducting research, writing your rough draft, and revising the draft plus following up on the many "little" things that research entails.

Here are some useful tips for each phase of the research-paper process:

The research phase:

  • You can’t really begin until you have a very specific topic in mind, not just a general subject area. Do yourself a favor—discuss your topic with your instructor before you begin.
  • Sometimes research materials may be difficult to obtain; for example, you may have to wait for reserved books at the library. Factor this into your research plan.
  • Merely collecting material is not research. Collecting material from a variety of sources, reading it carefully, taking notes properly, and truly familiarizing yourself with the material—that is research.
  • It may seem tedious, or just mechanical "busy work," but you must keep careful records of your source materials throughout the research phase, in order both to avoid plagiarism in the writing of your paper and also, later, to make compiling your bibliography a quick, efficient process.
  • Always keep all of your research material. You will certainly need it when you are writing your draft (which is no time for a hasty trip to the library to retrieve a source you meant to copy earlier), and you may also need it in order to defend yourself against a charge of plagiarism.
  • In the course of gathering information you’ll soon find your imagination teeming with ideas about how to organize your paper, or ideas for the way you may want to word things, or even ideas about adjusting your topic altogether, perhaps making it more general or more specific. Write these ideas down as soon as they occur to you—don’t make the mistake of telling yourself that you’ll remember them later. (You won’t.) Keep an "idea notebook" (or digital file) separate from your research notes.

The writing phase:

  • Don’t try to conduct research and also to write your draft simultaneously—these are separate processes, both physically and mentally. Each requires concentration.
  • A research paper is not a "freewriting" exercise. That is, you must work from some kind of an outline that will allow you to structure the paper; you’ll need an introduction of the topic, a well-organized and informative body, and a well-reasoned conclusion.
  • Don’t kid yourself into thinking that "just writing it all up" is a simple, quick matter. Writing well takes time. On the other hand, you can be confident that with steady, methodical effort you will get the job done.
  • Save all your drafts. Each version of your draft, from the very first tentative rough draft to the polished and revised final version, should be saved separately. If you are working with handwritten and typewritten drafts, this isn’t an issue. When you’re working on a computer, though, don’t simply keep using the "Save" command over and over on the same file; rather, give each draft its own file name, such as "research_paper_v1.doc," "research_paper_v2.doc," etc. In the event that you have to defend yourself against a charge of plagiarism, you will have to produce evidence of your original work at each stage of composition, not just the final draft.

The revision phase:

  • Remember that "revision" means "re-seeing"—you have to give yourself enough time to be able to stand back from your rough draft and see it in its entirety.
  • Take special care that you have avoided plagiarism by following the correct procedures for quoting, paraphrasing, and citing your sources.
  • Revising a research paper takes a good deal longer than revising a "normal" essay—besides the writing itself, you’ll need to double-check your sources and assemble your bibliography, which can be a time-consuming process if you’ve been careless in the research phase of the project.
  • As noted above in "The writing phase," save all your drafts, even the earliest handwritten rough drafts. If you’re using a computer, don’t keep using the "Save" command over and over; rather, give each version its own file name, such as "research_paper_v1.doc," "research_paper_v2.doc," etc.

Now that I’m ready to begin my project, what are the proper procedures for taking notes?

Proper note-taking procedures

There are three very good reasons to develop good note-taking habits. First, of course, evaluating and integrating information is one of the main skills that defines a college education—you’ll be doing a lot of this not only in your academic career, but in any career open to you once you have a college diploma. Second, by taking notes efficiently you won’t have to waste valuable time in the revision phase verifying and correcting references that should have been recorded properly in the research phase. And finally, good note-taking is essential for avoiding plagiarism.

Here are some note-taking tips you’ll find useful:

  • Create a "paper trail." As soon as you decide that a given source might be useful for your project, make photocopies of the relevant pages of books and journals, and print out pages of online sources. Be sure that you also have copies of the copyright page of a book or journal (indicating the title, edition, publisher, and so forth), and the exact URL and access date of online sources.
  • If you are unable to make photocopies from a book that seems useful (due, perhaps, to library restrictions or the lack of a photocopier), try the time-honored method of copying out passages on 3-by-5 or 4-by-6 index cards, being sure to include page numbers.
  • Throughout the research phase, and especially when you’re doing seemingly mechanical or even "mindless" tasks like photocopying or hand-copying, your unconscious mind is working on the project and you’ll generate all kinds of ideas about the focus, organization, and writing of your paper. As soon as you become conscious of any such idea, record it immediately in a separate "idea notebook." (Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’ll remember things later—you won’t!)
  • In your notes, either summarize source material very generally, in your own words, or quote material exactly, with quotation marks—don’t try to paraphrase at this stage because later on you won’t remember which words are yours and which are from the source.
  • Keep materials well organized. You’ll be amazed at how swiftly you’ll accumulate piles of notes, photocopies, print-outs, and so on, and it’s essential that you be able to determine precisely where a given quotation or idea came from—which source, which author, which page.
  • Keep a working bibliography—not just the authors and book titles (or URLs) you’re using, but a complete record of all the information you’ll need later when you’re compiling your final bibliography, the "Work Cited" listing at the end of your paper. (See the "Making a bibliography" section for tips on how to do this correctly.) You won’t want to have to go to the library the night before your paper is due just to find a source again in order to get a publication date or a page number—don’t make yourself do things twice!
  • Save copies of all your research materials, whether notes you collected on paper, photocopies, or electronic files. (And always back up digital files somewhere other than the hard drive where you have your working files.)

Vary your sources.

It’s a red flag to readers when all the quotations in a research paper come from just one or two sources, or when all the sources are of a single type (for example, Web sites). At the very least, this looks like sloppy and inadequate scholarship; worse, it may signal plagiarism.

Here are some useful tips:

  • Aim for a comprehensive, balanced survey of available materials—books, journals, Web sites.
  • Almost inevitably, in the course of research you’ll find some particular author or book or article mentioned again and again in the materials you’re working with. Make every effort to find and study the sources that "everybody" refers to; your paper cannot be comprehensive without reference to sources that dominate discussion of a given subject.
  • When researching Web sites, remember that most online publishing has no "gatekeepers" (editors, publishers, etc.) to assure some kind of quality control. In fact, a lot of the "information" available on the Web is junk—inaccurate, out of date, poorly written, and plagiarized from other Web sites. To be sure, there are countless excellent Web sites, such as Wikipedia. But a research paper based solely on online information is always suspect.
  • "Original" research—that is, information you collect yourself from interviews, surveys, letters, e-mails, or other means—can be immensely valuable. Not only does it greatly enliven a research project (both for the researcher and the reader), but it can also make a genuine contribution to scholarship on a given subject.

Cite your sources

The importance of citing your sources properly cannot be overstated; failure to do so is plagiarism. Whenever you use a quotation, you must include a citation. Whenever you refer to an idea that is not "common knowledge" but comes from a specific source, you must include a citation. And whenever you’re not sure which is which, play it safe and include a citation.

Nearly all academic papers nowadays follow one of two styles for citing sources. The MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most common in the humanities, while the APA (American Psychological Association) is used in the social sciences. (Your instructors will specify which style of documentation, MLA or APA, is appropriate for a given assignment.) Both styles produce a two-part system of attribution: first, a brief citation in the text of your paper, and second, a detailed bibliographic reference in the "Works Cited" listing that follows your text.

Using quotations correctly and effectively

Perhaps the single most characteristic feature of a research paper is its use of quotations. Words, after all, are the principal medium of ideas in academia, and ideas that come from an acknowledged authority have special weight. Effectively citing the source of an apt quotation adds the power of authority to your paper’s argument—and failing to do so is plagiarism.

The first requirement when you use a quotation is that you make it clear who first spoke or wrote those words. There are two ways to indicate this:

  • You can use a signal phrase such as "According to Lawrence R. Rodgers, . . ." or "As George L. Dillon writes, . . ." before or within the quotation itself—which must, of course, be contained in quotation marks.

    MLA style:

    According to Judith Fetterley, "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life is insistent throughout the story" (617).

    "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life," notes Judith Fetterley, "is insistent throughout the story" (617).

    APA style:

    According to Judith Fetterley (1978), "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life is insistent throughout the story" (p. 617).

    "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life," notes Judith Fetterley (1978), "is insistent throughout the story" (p. 617).

    "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life is insistent throughout the story," notes Judith Fetterley (1978, p. 617).

Notice that, in both MLA and APA styles, it is customary to cite a source’s full name (and sometimes the book or article as well) the first time you mention this person; thereafter the source’s last name alone will be sufficient. In both styles, too, notice that the page number where the quotation can be found must be included in parentheses, and that these parentheses come after the quotation marks and before the final period that ends the sentence. In the APA style, notice that the citation must include the year that the source first appeared in print, and also that the page reference includes the abbreviation "p." before the page number.

  • You can also include the source’s name within the parentheses of the citation:

    MLA style:

    "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life is insistent throughout the story" (Fetterley 617)

    APA style:

    "The importance of Emily’s father in shaping the quality of her life is insistent throughout the story" (Fetterley, 1978, p. 617).

Using block quotations and ellipses

Sometimes you may wish to use a long quotation—"long" being defined, in the MLA style, as "more than four lines," and in the APA style, as "more than forty words." In such a case you use what is called a block quotation.

MLA style:

In his essay "Styles of Reading," critic George L. Dillon writes:

If we look at actual, published discussions of a story, however, we find no two of them answering the same set of questions, which suggests that we should look for questions (pre)inscribed in the reader as well as the text -- the text, it is a matter of fact, has not very narrowly constrained the set of questions the readers have posed. (608)

APA style:

In his essay "Styles of Reading" (1982), critic George L. Dillon writes:

If we look at actual, published discussions of a story, however, we find no two of them answering the same set of questions, which suggests that we should look for questions (pre)inscribed in the reader as well as the text -- the text, it is a matter of fact, has not very narrowly constrained the set of questions the readers have posed. (p. 608)

Notice that, in these examples, quotation marks are unnecessary; the block format makes it clear that the words are being quoted. And notice that the parenthetical page reference follows the final mark of punctuation (unlike the way this is handled after a short quotation).

There are at least a couple of reasons why you may want to use just part of a long quotation. Many professors, and even some university honor codes, specify the maximum portion of an essay that can be made up of quotations—ten percent is a common limit. Your research paper, after all, should mainly consist of your words, not those of other writers. It is also possible that just part of a long quotation is relevant to a point you are making, while the rest of the quotation is irrelevant and, perhaps, needlessly distracting. In such cases you can shorten a quotation by using ellipses—that is, the "dot-dot-dots" that indicate omitted material.

MLA style:

In his essay "Styles of Reading," critic George L. Dillon writes, "If we look at actual, published discussions of a story, however, we find no two of them answering the same set of questions . . ." (608).

According to one critic, "The narrator is the last of the patriarchs . . . and his violence toward her is the most subtle of all" (Fetterley 619).

APA style:

In his essay "Styles of Reading," critic George L. Dillon writes, "If we look at actual, published discussions of a story, however, we find no two of them answering the same set of questions . . ." (p. 608).

According to one critic, "The narrator is the last of the patriarchs . . . and his violence toward her is the most subtle of all" (Fetterley, 1978, p. 619).

Notice here that when a three-dot ellipsis is used to end a quotation, you still need a final period (after the page citation) to end the sentence.

Valid paraphrasing techniques

Often your research will turn up a passage that contains an idea that is useful to the development of your paper but isn’t especially suitable as a quotation. Maybe the passage contains extraneous material that makes it too long for quoting; maybe there’s nothing especially eloquent or "quotable" in the author’s language; maybe you have a better way to express the idea. In any case, paraphrasing is a necessary and very useful skill for academic writers. Strictly speaking, a paraphrase is any restatement; in academic writing, though, the wording and syntax of a paraphrase must be quite distinct from the original quotation in order to avoid plagiarism. (And whether you quote an author directly or reword the author’s idea in a paraphrase, you must include a citation.)

Suppose that, in the course of researching William Faulkner’s short stories, you find this passage in Lawrence R. Rodgers’s essay, "ÔWe all said, "She will kill herself": The Narrator/Detective in William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’" (included in The Norton Introduction to Literature, Ninth Edition):

While it might initially seem surprising that 20th-century America’s premier novelist would draw so freely from the conventions of formula fiction, Faulkner was, to his frustration, well-versed with the necessities of writing with mass publication in mind. (601)

An acceptable paraphrase might be something like this:

Faulkner understood exactly what would be expected of him if he wanted to produce fiction with a broad popular appeal (Rodgers 601).

Notice that the paraphrase contains Rodgers’s idea but that the phrasing and wording is completely different. (The citation, of course, is required whenever you draw an idea from another writer.)

Now here is an unacceptable paraphrase:

While at first it might seem surprising that a major American novelist would make free use of the conventions of genre fiction, Faulkner was, despite himself, quite familiar with the requirements of writing for a mass readership.

This paraphrase would open the writer to a charge of plagiarism: most of the words have been changed, but the sentence structure is the same (and there’s no citation). Here is another unacceptable paraphrase:

We wouldn’t expect 20th-century America’s premier novelist to follow the conventions of formula fiction, but nevertheless Faulkner knew how to write with mass publication in mind (Rodgers 601).

Yes, this paraphrase does include a citation—but it’s still plagiarism, because it quotes several of Rodgers’s phrases ("20th-century America’s premier novelist," "the conventions of formula fiction," "with mass publication in mind") but fails to enclose these phrases in quotation marks.

Making a bibliography

Both MLA and APA styles create a two-part system for crediting sources: first, a minimally intrusive convention of in-text citations (often as little as the author’s last name and a page number), and then, second, a list of "Works Cited" (that is, a bibliography) at the end of the paper that provides all the necessary bibliographic information about each source. Remember that the model here is the scientific method: just as the reader of a scientific report should be able to reproduce the report’s investigations exactly in order to verify the original reported results, the reader of any academic paper should be able to track down each source of the paper’s ideas in order to verify that the sources were used fairly and accurately. A correctly presented Works Cited page is a signal to your reader that you understand and respect the conventions of academic research.

The fundamental rules for a Works Cited list are quite simple: you must list every source that contributed ideas or words to your paper, and you must list only those sources that contributed to your paper. Failure to follow the first rule is plagiarism; failure to follow the second (that is, "padding" a bibliography) is also regarded as intellectual fraud. Beyond these two ironclad rules, there are countless MLA and APA conventions for presenting the Works Cited section at the end of a research paper.

If you have planned and conducted your research process well, compiling the Works Cited page should be a snap: in the course of amassing your materials, you have already recorded all the necessary bibliographic information for each work that contributed ideas or quotations to your paper. Now you simply have to assemble this information, alphabetize the list (mainly by the last names of the authors), and check that each listing follows the correct MLA or APA format.

Once you have compiled a bibliography or two, using the good models readily available in many guides, you’ll find that this final phase of a research paper can be a painless and even pleasurable culmination of all the hard work that has gone into your project.

Where can I find a complete guide to MLA and APA styles?

Ask your professors to recommend the style manuals they prefer. Both the Modern Language Association and the American Psychological Association publish complete manuals of their respective styles. If you do obtain a manual in book form, be sure that you get the current edition, since the MLA and APA styles are constantly being updated to reflect new practices and new types of information.

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