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7.4 Conducting Research

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand that attitude and stamina are important when writing a research paper.
  2. Grasp the importance of keeping an open mind and reading critically.
  3. Know when to read a source completely and when to read selectively.
  4. Understand that different genres require distinct kinds of research.

When you are researching for an essay, your attitude and stamina are key to your success. If you let either of these issues get out of hand, you can seriously weaken your project. Before you begin what is essentially a month-long relationship with a topic, you should choose something that interests you, something about which you have an opinion. Even when it is on a topic you care deeply about, researching is often tedious and demands stamina. Assume from the beginning that the project will be time consuming and sometimes exhausting, so make sure to allot the needed time and energy to complete it.

If you feel strongly about a topic, you might find it a challenge to keep your attitude in check and to read your sources with an open mind. It is critical not to let your personal opinions drive the information you choose to include. Try to create a well-rounded paper. If all the sources you find appear to agree with your viewpoints, actively search out a different viewpoint to strengthen your paper. Or consider changing your path entirely because if there really isn’t a range of sources out there, you’re probably not working with an arguable topic. (See Chapter 6 "Drafting", Section 6.2 "Testing a Thesis" for more on how to test a thesis or topic for whether it is arguable.)

Along with keeping an open mind (attitude) and keeping to a schedule (stamina), you should, of course, read critically, using some of the guidelines discussed in Chapter 2 "Becoming a Critical Reader". In other words, you should evaluate the arguments and assumptions authors make and, when appropriate, present your evaluations within your paper. You can include biased information if you choose, but be certain to note the bias. This move might be appropriate in a persuasive essay if you are taking issue with a source with which you disagree. But be careful not to settle for too easy a target in such an essay. Don’t pick on a fringe voice in the opposing camp when there’s a more reasonable argument that needs to be dealt with fairly. If a source is simply too biased to be useful even as an opposing argument, then you may choose not to include it as part of your essay. Your basic principle of selection for a source, regardless of whether you agree with it as a matter of opinion, should be based on whether you think the information includes sound assumptions, meaningful evidence, and logical conclusions.

You also need to pose productive questions throughout the process, using some of the guidelines in Chapter 1 "Writing to Think and Writing to Learn". If you are writing on a topic about which you already have a very clear stance, consider whether there is common ground you share with your ideological opponents that might lead to a more productive use of your time and theirs. In general, persuasive essays are more effective if they also solve problems instead of just staking out an inflexible position based on a core set of inflexible assumptions. It’s not that you shouldn’t write about abortion or capital punishment if these issues mean something to you. It’s just that you don’t want to go down the same path that’s been followed by millions of students who have come before you. So how do you ask fresh questions about classic topics? Often by rewinding to the causes of the effects people typically argue about or simply by pledging to report the facts of the matter in depth.

Old Question about Classic Topic New Questions about Classic Topic
Is abortion acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What forms of sexual education have been shown to be effective with teens most at risk of unplanned pregnancies?
  • What are some of the social and cultural causes of unplanned teen pregnancies?
Is capital punishment acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What are states doing to ensure fair and thorough trials for capital crimes?
  • What are the results in the capital crime rate in states that have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment?
  • What is the relative average cost to conduct a capital prosecution and execution versus life imprisonment without parole?
Is censorship acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What is the recent history of legislative and judicial rulings on First Amendment issues?
  • What are the commercial motivations of advertisers, music, television, and film producers to push the boundaries of decency?

Key Takeaways


  1. Choose a persuasive research topic of interest to you about which you already have a strong opinion. Find four sources:

    1. One that agrees with your stance and presents a nonbiased view
    2. One that agrees with your stance and presents a biased view
    3. One that disagrees with your stance and presents a nonbiased view
    4. One that disagrees with your stance and presents a biased view
  2. For the two biased sources from question 1, print out a copy of each source or copy and paste the text into a Word document. In the margins, either by hand or by using Insert Comment, identify moments that help show why you consider each source to be biased.
  3. Using the chart in Section 7.4 "Conducting Research" come up with questions to ask for each genre of a research essay for the following topics:

    1. Policies to combat global warming
    2. Decline in the marriage rate
    3. Impact of video games on student learning
    4. Gender roles in the middle school years
    5. Counterterrorism strategies in the current administration