How to Research a Term Paper

The term paper researching process

A male student is sitting at a desk with an open notebook and an open laptop computer in front of him. The camera is positioned above the student, who is looking up into the camera. He is clearly researching a term paper.
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So, you wrote a great college admissions essay and were accepted at the university or college of your dreams. Now, you've been assigned your first term paper, and you don't know where to start! Conducting research for a term paper may be primary or secondary in nature, but its main objective is always the advancement of knowledge. The research process is an exploratory quest, a hunt for information that can be both exciting and rewarding. The word itself is derived from the French rechercher, which literally means "to investigate thoroughly." So, when embarking on writing a term paper or research paper, think of yourself as a detective. You will not only search for information but also delve into the whys and wherefores behind the subject material, seeking to provide elucidation through your term paper.

Select a topic for your term paper

Let's start at the beginning. The first step in researching a term paper is to decide on a worthy topic, choosing one that is interesting to you. Make a list of keywords—these are important words or phrases that encapsulate the essence of your topic. Good keywords will specifically describe your topic, but consider using closely related words, as well.  Use these keywords when searching print or electronic sources that you can use in your term paper.

Research your term paper topic

General-purpose reference books, such as encyclopedias and fact books, provide comprehensive summaries and suggestions for sub-topics, as well as related terminology. Although these books are not generally considered suitable sources to cite in a term paper, the bibliographies they contain can be very helpful. This initial reading may help you to narrow your interest, stimulate additional questions, and focus your research. We recommend the following general resources, as they are more global in scope:  The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World, CQ Researcher, the Political Handbook of the World, the Index to International Public Opinion, and World Opinion Update. These publications deal with particular topics, give summaries of various governments, or take other specialized approaches, which are generally considered acceptable sources to cite in a term paper.

The next step is to either narrow your topic (so you can deal with the amount of information) or to broaden it so you have enough to write about. You might have to pick a particular sub-topic and make that your area of interest, or combine certain aspects of a topic to create a narrower one. Decide the direction you want the research for your term paper to take. What are the most interesting aspects of the topic, and what do you want to learn? Be careful not to be too general. This term paper researching process will keep you from getting lost or sidetracked when searching for information.

Find suitable sources for your term paper

At this point, decide on the most likely sources of information—books, journal articles, newspapers, online databases, CD-ROM databases, interviews, etc. Dig around in the library and locate sources for your term paper. Use your library's computer access system to find books on your subject. Some topics may be so current that few, if any, books are available. If this is the case, research scholarly journals for up-to-date information and analyses. You should consult journals even for non-contemporary topics, since scholars may have unearthed new information or produced new analyses. You may also find valuable information published in the reports of a government agency, in hearings or reports of a government committee, or in the transcripts of the proceedings of a government body. The United Nations and a number of other international organizations also publish proceedings and reports.

Don't forget that when you locate the sources you want to use for your term paper, you should be trying to find answers to the questions you posed previously. Also, don't forget to make use of the reference librarian, who can help you to locate and use sources efficiently.

Get organized early! Keep track of your sources

It is very helpful to make notes about your sources on index cards or in an excel spreadsheet. Such notes should include bibliographic information, page numbers for quotations, and source locations. This way, you can easily find the source of an idea, quote, reference, etc. Number these cards so you can link them to your term paper notes: this will make the references section of your report a snap to complete.

Remember—thoroughly peruse all the information you have gathered, making copious notes as you go. This preliminary research should answer basic factual questions, as well as interpretive ones, and should help you to refocus. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to absorb all the information you've read.

Writing a research or term paper

In our follow-up article about writing a research paper, we explain the next steps in the term paper writing process. The article discusses your thesis statement, body of your paper, and your reference page. As always, if you aren't sure your paper follows the right format or that it is error-free, send it to our essay editors for revision. If you would like to learn more about essay writing, check out Scribendi.com’s e-book How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps.

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