2. The Literature Review

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These research papers are composed of multiple sources. As a writer/researcher, your task is to present the ideas you have found in your research while maintaining your point of view. The first step is to explore the topic by finding information that you will interpret and synthesize into your final paper.

The three most common sources are books, periodicals (scholarly and general public) and web sites. In addition, students sometimes interview experts.

Your sources provide the evidence to support the thesis of your paper. Thus your credibility rests on that of your sources.

Questions to ask as you read (and re-read!) source material:

  • Is the work relevant to my project?
  • Are there words or concepts that I don’t understand? Why?
  • What is the connection between these two paragraphs?
  • How would I express this concept in my own words?
  • Does this point follow logically or is it a digression?
  • Does the author repeat the same idea throughout the work?

Questions to judge material quality:

  • Is the source credentialed? Is the author’s background and experience relevant to the subject? Is the publication’s?
  • Does the work exhibit a bias — is the author opinionated rather than impartial?
  • Does the author document sources? This adds credibility and also indicates the author’s familiarity with the field.
  • What is the date of the publication and the sources? If the material is out-of-date, it reflects poorly on your work.
  • Who published the material — is it popular, academic or special interest? A university-press usually publishes well-researched material; some web sites do and some don’t. There is also a clear difference between peer-reviewed scholarly articles and op-ed pieces or material written for the general public or for a specialized audience.

This list of sources proceeds, in general, from the most to the least reliable, recognizing that there are individual differences in sources:

  • Scholarly book or article
  • Expert interview
  • Trade book or specialty magazine; encyclopedia
  • Newspaper or popular magazine
  • Personal website
  • Mailing list or usenet group

As with any list, there are exceptions, for example: an expert who publishes her research papers on her personal website or a government report accessible via the agency website would probably be more credible than an AP wire story on the same topic. Use good judgment!

Taking Notes

Although some people still take notes “by hand,” most of us use a computer. There are software programs specifically designed to help manage note-taking while conducting research, such as endNote or RefWorks (available from UW Library). However, you could use any word processing application (stand-alone or web-based).

You need the following information for each source:

  • Complete APA citation
  • If the resource is being accessed via a computer, the access date
  • How to find the resource again (for example, the LOC number on a book or the name of the research database)
  • Your notes on the resource

In taking notes, make one note per item/point (to facilitate organization of the paper). Clearly differentiate your personal notes — those that reflect your ideas — from direct quotes or material paraphrased from the work. If you are quoting a work that your author quoted — make that clear, as well, as your citation will need to indicate this derivative source.

Before putting the material away, write the annotation, which captures the essence of the work in a few words.

Accessing UW Library Databases

Some people use the library proxy bookmarklet rather than beginning research at the UW Libraries web site. More info is available at http://www.lib.washington.edu/help/connect.html

Additional Reading

Prior: 1. The Proposal – Identifying A Topic

Next: 3. The First Draft

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