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Most undergraduate research papers, and many graduate and professional research papers as well, are based upon library research. Library research can proceed smoothly if you follow a se-quence of simple steps.
Your ﬁrst task is to decide upon a topic for a paper. This is, in a sense,the most important task because the paper can be no better than thetopic. I have found ﬁve mistakes that repeatedly turn up in students’choices of topics.
The Topic Doesn’t Interest the Student
Many students put off thinking about their choice of topic until the latest possible date. They then ﬁnd themselves pressed to select a topic,and hastily decide upon something that is of only marginal interest tothem. Procrastination in thinking about a topic is a mistake becauseinteresting topics don’t often pop into your head overnight. So allowyourself plenty of time to think of a topic. Then, if you are unhappywith the ﬁrst few ideas that come to mind, you can try out others be-fore you resign yourself to a topic that doesn’t interest you. Unlessyou are at least somewhat interested in the topic you pick, you will ﬁndthe exercise of doing library research a deadly bore, and your paperwill probably show it. Having once written and having now read a THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
large number of student papers, I am convinced that a major deter-minant of quality is the degree of interest the student sustains in thetopic about which he writes.
The Topic Is Too Easy or Too Safe for the Student
The purpose of student papers is for the student to learn something about some topic. It is therefore to the student’s advantage to select atopic with which he is relatively (although not necessarily totally) un-familiar. Students sometimes seek to optimize safety (or grades) ratherthan learning, however, choosing a topic with which they are quite fa-miliar. I saw an example of such a choice one year in my Theories of In-telligence course. A student showed in class that she was quite familiarwith the literature on creativity in children, perhaps because she hadpreviously written a paper on it. Her remarks in class also showed, how-ever, that she had little background in other areas covered by the course.
I was therefore disappointed when she proposed to write a paper on cre-ativity in children. Although she could probably learn something fromwriting such a paper, it was clear that she had more to gain by selectinga topic from one of the many areas in which she had little background.
The Topic Is Too Difﬁcult for the Student
The opposite problem from that discussed above is the selection of a topic that is too difﬁcult for the student. In my Theories of Intel-ligence course I also had a student write a paper on the heritability ofintelligence. The student was obviously interested in the topic andwanted to do a good job, but he found that most of the literature wentover his head. Understanding the literature on inherited traits requiresa knowledge of certain advanced statistical concepts that most under-graduates have not yet encountered. Consequently, it is not possiblefor them to write a really sophisticated paper on this topic unless theyare prepared to learn the necessary statistics. This task is both difﬁcultand time-consuming. In general, you should make certain that the topicyou choose does not require understanding of concepts that your back-ground does not permit you to grasp.
There Is Inadequate Literature on the Topic
For various reasons, some of the potentially most interesting top- ics in psychology have been little investigated. In some cases, people Writing the Library Research Paper
simply haven’t thought much about the topics; in other cases, theyhave thought about the topics but found that the topics did not lendthemselves to experimental (or other types of) analysis. These topicsare not suitable for literature reviews. Before committing yourself toa topic, make sure that there is adequate literature on it. As a student,I was interested in how people understand proverbs. The topic seemedto deal with a psychologically important function (one that is tested inseveral intelligence tests), and seemed to have considerable real-worldrelevance. I found almost no relevant experimental literature, how-ever. Although there was more literature on related topics, such asmetaphor, it was obvious that my tentative choice of a paper topicwould have to be changed.
The Topic Is Too Broad
The most common mistake that students make in the selection of a topic is to select one that is too broad. This problem is understand-able because, before writing the paper, students have only a vague ideaof how much literature has been published on a given topic. Textbooksusually only scratch the surface, and it is not until one delves into pri-mary sources that one discovers the extent of the relevant literature.
Once you tentatively decide upon a topic, it is a good idea to start compiling a list of references, and to scan some of these referencesquickly, before starting note-taking in preparation for writing the paper.
By following this procedure, you avoid the pitfall of too broad (or toonarrow) a topic. By narrowing your topic before you start note-taking,you save yourself the time wasted on taking notes that later will proveof no use in writing the paper.
If you have settled upon a topic that proves to be too broad, you should consider ways in which you can narrow the topic without aban-doning it altogether. Consider as an example the topic Problem Solving.
A search of the available references quickly reveals that this topic istoo broad. This topic (and others) might be narrowed in any of severalways: 1. Restriction by age. The review is limited to problem solving in adults 2. Restriction by species. Only problem solving in humans or in rats is THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
3. Restriction by clinical type. The review deals with problem solving by nonhandicapped people or by people with a mental handicap.
4. Restriction by psychological perspective. The review is of the behavior- istic, information-processing, or psychometric approach to problemsolving; or the review compares these perspectives, dealing only withissues that are relevant to the comparison.
5. Restriction by content. The review deals only with the solution of ver- bal, or mathematical, or spatial problems.
There are obviously many ways in which you can limit the scope of your topic, and the best way will depend upon the topic, the avail-able literature on the topic, and your interests. Be sure to state in theopening paragraphs of your paper what restrictions you have imposed.
A good title will also help the reader understand how you have limitedyour topic.
I have found it useful to maintain two sets of note cards when con-ducting a literature review. These two sets are author cards and topiccards.
Format of author cards: Use small (3″ × 5″) index cards for author cards. Or, if you prefer to use a computer, you can create virtual cardson the computer that function like author cards. You should record onthese cards all the information you will later need in order to compilethe references for your paper. Each source should be documented. Theform of documentation differs somewhat depending upon the nature ofthe source: 1. Journal articles. Your documentation for journal articles should in- clude (a) the author’s last name, and ﬁrst and middle initials, (b) theyear of publication, (c) the title of the article, (d) the name of the jour-nal, (e) the volume number, and (f) the page numbers of the article. Asample author card would look like this: Janis, I. L., & King, B. T. (1954). The inﬂuence of role-playingon opinion change. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,49, 211–218.
Writing the Library Research Paper
2. Books. Your documentation for books should include (a) the author’s last name, and ﬁrst and middle initials, (b) the year of publication,(c) the title of the book, (d) the city in which the book was published,and (e) the name of the publisher. If the city of publication is not wellknown, include the state as well. Include the country if the city is notin the United States and is not well known. For publishers in Canadaor Australia, include the name of the province (e.g., Saskatchewan) inwhich the publication took place. For example, Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston,Illinois: Row, Peterson.
In this case, the author does not use a middle initial.
3. Edited books. Your documentation for articles in edited books should include (a) the author’s last name, and ﬁrst and middle initials, (b) theyear of publication, (c) the title of the article, (d) the editor of the book,(e) the title of the book, (f) the pages of the book in which the articleappears, (g) the city in which the book was published, and (h) the nameof the publisher. For example, Webb, E. J., & Salancik, J. R. (1970). Supplementing the self-report in attitude research. In G. F. Summers (Ed.), Attitudemeasurement (pp. 317–327). Chicago: Rand McNally.
Advantages of Author Cards. Although this system of documenta-
tion may appear cumbersome when you do your research, it will haveseveral advantages later on: 1. You will have a complete set of references. There is no possibility of for- getting any sources you need, because you recorded all your sourcesat the one time when you can’t forget them – the time you used them.
2. You will have complete documentation for each reference. Students some- times keep a complete list of references but fail to keep complete doc-umentation on each reference. They must then relocate the referenceslater on – if they can ﬁnd them – to complete the documentation.
3. Your References section of the paper will be all but done. When you are ready to type this section, simply reorder the author cards alphabeti-cally and type the information from the card.
Format of Topic Cards. Large cards (5″ × 7″) are preferred for
topic cards. Or, if you prefer to use a computer, create virtual topiccards on your machine. You should record on each card (a) the name THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
of the topic at the top, (b) information about that topic, (c) the sourceof each item of information, and (d) comments.
Only one topic goes on each card. Each time you encounter a new topic on which you want to take notes, make a new topic card. You willsave time later on if you avoid multiple topic cards that express thesame topic in different ways. For example, the topics Rorschach Testand Inkblots Test can be combined (unless more than one inkblots testis used).
Your notes on each topic should be complete enough so that you will not have to return to your sources later. Avoid extraneous wordsthat convey no useful information. In taking notes on arguments,make sure you capture the gist of the arguments so that later you canreconstruct the author’s point of view.
For each statement you compile, record the source by writing down the author’s last name and the date of publication. If you makea direct quotation or paraphrase, be sure to indicate this fact in yournotes, citing appropriate page numbers.
When you make comments on a source or the information supplied in it, indicate clearly on the topic card that the comment is yours andnot the author’s. The best time to make comments on what you readis often when you read it, because at that time the material and itscontext are freshest in your mind. These comments will be valuable toyou later on, because you will be expected in your paper to evaluateinformation as well as to summarize it. In reading through psycho-logical literature, you should be constantly evaluating ﬁve character-istics of the author’s arguments: 1. Validity of arguments. On what basis does the author make each argu- ment? Are the arguments properly substantiated? How? Almost anypsychologist who has reviewed papers for a journal (or read studentpapers) becomes very sensitive to the question of proper validation. Asurprisingly common ploy is for an author to present a theory, whichmay well be plausible, design an experiment or marshal evidence totest some other theory, which also may be plausible, and then concludethat the original theory is correct. In reading an article or book, there-fore, assure yourself not only that a test of a theory is a strong one, butalso that it assesses the proper theory.
2. Internal consistency of arguments. Are the arguments consistent, or do Writing the Library Research Paper
they contradict each other? Are the arguments consistent with the au-thor’s general point of view? Whereas in validity you are concernedprimarily with the relation between arguments and facts, in internalconsistency you are concerned primarily with the relation between ar-guments and other arguments. Authors are often unaware of internalinconsistencies in their own data. As a result, readers sometimes spotcontradictions that authors have lived with for many years, blithelyunaware of their existence.
3. Presuppositions of arguments. What does the author presuppose in mak- ing each argument; especially, what presuppositions does the authormake that he does not communicate to the reader or may not even beaware of? Are the presuppositions realistic? Do the presuppositionsstrengthen or weaken the impact of the argument? Consider, for ex-ample, the statement: “The Bozo theory of cognitive development isincorrect because it is based upon the assumption that cognitive de-velopment is continuous.” What presuppositions does the statementmake? First, it presupposes that the Bozo theory assumes continuityin cognitive development. Second, it presupposes the theory makingthis assumption is incorrect. Third, it presupposes (incorrectly, as itturns out) that there is such a theory as the Bozo theory of cognitivedevelopment.
4. Implications of arguments. What are the implications of each argument; especially, what implications does the author overlook? Do the impli-cations strengthen or weaken the impact of the argument? Are theseimplications consistent with others reached from other arguments?Consider, for example, the statement: “I violently object to violent ob-jections.” What is the obvious implication of the statement? 5. Importance of arguments. Is a particular argument an important one, and therefore one you will want to describe in detail in your paper?Or is it unimportant, and hence not worthy of mention, or worthy ofmention only in passing? A common ﬂaw in student papers is to em-phasize all arguments equally, regardless of their importance. Thisﬂaw inevitably reduces the impact of the paper as a whole.
By keeping in mind these ﬁve criteria for evaluating the literature you read, and by writing down your evaluative comments immediatelysubsequent to the relevant argument, you will supply yourself withmuch of the substance you will later need to write your paper. Later THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
on, of course, you can always expand upon or change your evaluation.
But you will have your evaluative notes from the topic cards to workwith, rather than having to start from scratch.
Advantages of Topic Cards. By compiling your notes on topic
1. When you are ready to write your paper, you will have available to you all the information you need to write it. You won’t have to do any morelibrary work at the last minute when you may no longer have time todo it.
2. You will have available to you the source of each argument or piece of information. You won’t have to try to remember who said what.
3. You will ﬁnd it easier to organize your paper than you might have other- wise. The reason for this greater ease is that the topic cards form theinput to the next step, preparing an outline.
Use of Topic Cards
After you have ﬁnished note-taking, you are ready to prepare an outline. The topics on the topic cards form the basis of this outline,because they readily can be used as headings and subheadings. Writedown all the topics on one or more pieces of paper. Then, cut out stripsof paper, one for each topic. Or, if you are using a computer, you canuse an outlining feature that is available in most word-processing pro-grams. Your job now is to rearrange the topics on the strips of paperto form a logical order of presentation. The various topics need notand should not be at the same level of speciﬁcity. Some of the topicsform major headings, others form minor headings, and others arenested under these minor headings. You may have to add introductoryand concluding sections to the outline, as well as any intermediateheadings that are needed for smooth transitions. The lowest level ofsubordination for each heading should represent a single sentence ofthe ﬁnal paper.
Types of Outlines
Once you have ordered the headings of your outline, you must de- cide upon one of three ways in which you can complete the outline Writing the Library Research Paper
(Harris & Blake, 1976). We will discuss the three kinds of outlines withreference to a miniature example in which we will compare two per-sonality tests, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) and the MinnesotaMultiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
The Keyword Outline. In this kind of outline, you restrict yourself
to keywords at each level of description. For example, The Topic Outline. In this kind of outline, you use phrases and
clauses at each level of description. For example, A. TAT: pictures of people in various settings, some realistic and B. MMPI: statements describing behaviors or beliefs that the exam- inee marks as true or false as descriptions of himself A. TAT: pictures sequentially presented by examiner to subject, who supplies a narrative of events leading to, during, and followingfrom the pictured scene B. MMPI: booklet containing entire set of statements given to sub- ject, who proceeds through the booklet at his own pace A. TAT: scored subjectively, often using Murray’s taxonomy of needs B. MMPI: scored objectively by means of a separate key for each diag- V. Differences: content, administration, scoring THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
The Sentence Outline. In this kind of outline, you use complete
sentences at each level of description. For example, I. This outline compares the TAT and MMPI with respect to content, II. The tests differ in type of content.
A. The TAT consists of a series of pictures of people in various set- tings, some realistic and others not.
B. The MMPI, on the other hand, consists of a series of statements describing behaviors or beliefs that the examinee marks as eithertrue or false as descriptions of herself.
III. The tests also differ in mode of administration.
A. In the TAT, pictures are sequentially presented by the examiner to the subject, who supplies a narrative of events leading to, dur-ing, and following from the pictured scene.
B. In the MMPI, a booklet containing the entire set of statements is given to the subject, who proceeds through the booklet at herown pace.
IV. Finally, the tests are scored by different methods.
A. The TAT is scored subjectively, often using Murray’s taxonomy of B. The MMPI is scored objectively by means of a separate key for V. In conclusion, the tests differ substantially in content, administra- Choosing a Type of Outline. You should use the type of outline
that most facilitates your writing. People vary according to which typeof outline they ﬁnd most facilitating. Some people ﬁnd a keyword out-line most helpful because it organizes their thoughts while leavingthem maximum ﬂexibility in actually writing the paper; others ﬁnd akeyword outline too sparse in content to be of much use. Some peoplelike a sentence outline because it essentially writes their paper for them;others ﬁnd a sentence outline time-consuming to write and of nogreater use in organizing their thoughts than a topical outline. By ex-perimenting with all three types of outlines, you will learn from yourown experience which is most suitable for you.
Organization of Outlines. Outlines can be organized in many ways,
and many decisions regarding organization are unique to each partic- Writing the Library Research Paper
ular situation. Five principles of organization, however, are commonto all outlines and the papers that evolve from them: 1. The organization should include a beginning, a middle, and an end, in which you say what you’re going to say, say it, and say what you’ve said.
When the reader begins a paper, he needs some general statements thattell him what the paper is about and how it is organized; without thisorientation, he may become lost almost as soon as he starts the paper.
When the reader completes the main part of the paper, he needs asummary of the main ideas, and whatever ﬁnal comments you want tosupply; without this review, the reader may not realize what you con-sider to be your main points.
Suppose that the keyword outline presented earlier had consisted The reader of a paper based upon this outline would encounter im-mediately a comparison between the content of the TAT and the MMPI,without any idea of what the paper intends to accomplish and how itintends to accomplish it. The reader would ﬁnish the paper withoutany idea of what the author believed to be her main points and of whatconclusions the author wanted to draw. Although the main body of thepaper is well organized, the reader is left with no sense of direction orpurpose in the paper.
2. Once you decide upon a principle of organization, stick with it. Begin- ning writers often change their way of organizing papers midstream,usually without ﬁrst informing the reader that the change is about totake place. The change confuses the reader. If you must change yourorganization principle, be sure to let the reader know. But avoid thechange if possible. Consider the plight of the reader faced with a paperbased upon the keyword outline at the left on the next page. The orig-inal keyword outline is reproduced at the right: THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
Notice that the outline at the left switches its principles of organiza-tion, beginning with topic III. Topic II is organized by theme, whereastopics III and IV are organized by test. The outline at the left makesobvious what the careless writer hopes will remain hidden – that thepaper is confusing and the author is confused.
3. Organize your writing thematically. Thematic organization enhances the clarity of a paper. The keyword outline as originally presented was or-ganized thematically. The three themes were content, administration,and scoring. The reader would complete a paper based upon this out-line with a clear idea of how the TAT and MMPI differ in these threerespects. Compare this original outline, presented at the right, to thenew outline presented at the left. This new outline is organized by test: The organization by test in the outline at the left is not confusing, butit is inferior to the thematic organization at the right. In the thematicorganization, the reader can compare the two tests on each theme as he reads through the main part of the paper, gradually developinga perspective on how the tests differ. In the organization by test, the Writing the Library Research Paper
reader is unable to begin comparing the tests until he is halfway throughthe main part of the paper. By this time, the reader may have forgot-ten the characteristics of the ﬁrst test, because he had no motivationto remember them. In reading the section of the paper on the MMPI,he probably will have to refer back to the section on the TAT in orderto draw a comparison. If the reader is unwilling to spend the time oreffort doing what the writer should have done, he may never under-stand the comparison altogether.
The same principle would apply if, say, one wished to compare the viewpoints of Sigmund Freud and Konrad Lorenz on aggression to-ward oneself, aggression toward others, and aggression toward objects.
The preferred way to organize the paper would be by the successivethemes of aggression toward self, others, and objects, not by the suc-cessive authors, Freud and Lorenz.
There are two exceptions to this principle. The ﬁrst arises when there are no well-developed themes in the literature you plan to review.
Each theorist, for example, may deal with a different set of issues. Thesecond exception arises when your focus is genuinely upon the objectsof comparison rather than upon the themes along which they are com-pared. In a book presenting theories of personality, for example, theauthor’s emphasis might be upon the individual perspective of eachtheorist, rather than upon the themes dealt with in their theories.
4. Organize your outline hierarchically. Beginning writers tend to overuse coordination of ideas and to underuse subordination of ideas. If a papercontains a large number of “main” ideas, the reader will have some dif-ﬁculty understanding the ideas and more difﬁculty remembering them.
When you ﬁnd yourself with a large number of “main” ideas, try tosubordinate some of them. You will then communicate the same num-ber of ideas at the same time that you increase the effectiveness withwhich you communicate them.
Suppose that the keyword outline for the tests had taken this form: THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
Notice that this outline is much harder to follow than the original key-word outline because all ideas are presented at the same level, with nosubordination. The outline therefore is much less effective in compar-ing the two personality tests.
5. Organize for your audience. In arranging your outline, it is essential that you keep your audience in mind. The level of description for eachtopic in the outline should be appropriate for the target audience; levelof description that is adequate for one audience may be inadequate foranother. Consider, for example, the original keyword outline presentedearlier. The introductory heading has no subheadings subordinatedunder it. Because the lowest level of subordination under each headingrepresents one sentence, this introduction will be just one sentence inlength. A brief introduction of this kind may be adequate for a profes-sional seeking a one-paragraph description of salient differences be-tween the TAT and the MMPI, but it probably will be inadequate for alayperson unfamiliar with personality tests. Such a person requiresmore orientation to the topic of the exposition. An expanded introduc-tion is therefore appropriate: A. PurposeB. General characteristicsC. Divergences 1. Personality tests in general2. TAT and MMPI in particular The general reader will now be able to follow the remainder of theexposition.
Advantages of Outlines. Students often wonder whether outlines
are worth the time and trouble. Using outlines has three advantagesthat more than offset the extra work they require: 1. Outlines help you organize your writing. In writing the actual paper, or- ganization will be just one of many concerns you have. Because thereare so many different things to keep track of in writing the paper, andbecause your capacity to keep track of many things at once is limited,organization will receive only limited attention. Because organizationof a paper is so important, however, it pays to insert a step prior to writ-ing the paper in which you can devote your full attention to organizingthe paper.
2. Outlines prevent omission of relevant topics. In doing your research or Writing the Library Research Paper
in compiling your topic cards, you may have inadvertently omitted atopic that you intended or should have thought to include in your pa-per. Omissions are much easier for the author to spot in an outline thanin a paper. They are also much easier to correct before writing of thepaper has begun.
3. Outlines prevent inclusion of irrelevant topics. Authors sometimes ﬁnd that a topic that had seemed relevant to the paper in the early stagesof research no longer seems relevant when the research is being organ-ized. Irrelevant material shows itself in an obvious way during prepa-ration of an outline, because the material seems to have no place in theoutline. By discovering irrelevancies during preparation of the outline,the author can discard them so that later they do not distract her inwriting the paper.
This section of the chapter is briefer than the previous ones becausemost of the principles that apply to writing library research papers ap-ply to experimental papers as well, and these principles are discussedin later chapters. In writing the library research paper you should keepin mind particularly the ﬁve criteria for evaluating authors’ argumentsthat were described earlier. Readers of your paper will evaluate yourpaper by the same (or similar) criteria to those you used to evaluatethe papers and books you read: 1. Validity. Are your arguments consistent with the literature you reviewed? Have you explained inconsistencies? Have you properly substantiatedeach of your arguments? 2. Internal consistency. Are your arguments consistent with each other? Are they consistent with your general point of view? 3. Presuppositions. Have you made clear to the reader what you presup- pose? Are your presuppositions reasonable ones that the reader is likelyto accept? Has the impact of your presuppositions upon your conclu-sions been discussed? 4. Implications. Have you discussed the implications of your arguments? Are these implications realistic? Do these implications strengthen orweaken your arguments? 5. Importance. Have you emphasized your important arguments and THE PSYCHOLOGIST’S COMPANION
conclusions, and subordinated the less important ones? Have you ex-plained why you view certain arguments and conclusions as importantand others as less so? By using these ﬁve criteria to evaluate your literature review, you will improve its quality. Later, we will consider in more detail criteriafor evaluating the quality of all psychology papers.
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