Tips for Using Technology in Research Writing
By Lynn Fauss, Director of Academic Products & Services
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Remember life before word processing programs? Neither do I - at least not if I can help it. The sharp smell of White Out at 3 in the morning (I'm speaking as a former graduate student here), or the pure panic that could spring instantly to life when the dog accidentally stepped on a freshly typed page that blew off the table as my mother breezed into the room . . . I shudder just thinking about those moments (and many others of similar ilk). Some aspects of earlier phases in our careers, I think, are best forgotten (that is why Freud invented repression).
In fact, the word processor was only the first of many software innovations welcomed by writers - especially research writers. Since then, software programs have been introduced that offer to help you with nearly every aspect of the research writing process, from eliminating typos to getting your haceks in place to automating qualitative data analysis to underscoring the right bits of your bibliographies. Even so - most research writers stick to their word processors, spellers - and forego working with additional programs. Why? The answer is easy. For many writers asked to prepare reports and scholarly papers, figuring out how to integrate these little technological wonders into their own research process sometimes requires as much (or more) research than the paper itself!(*)
Okay, that's probably an exaggeration. The point I was trying to make is that it is often difficult to find documentation or tutorials that tell you how to use these helpful research software tools as you work your way through a research project. In this article, I'll describe how a bibliographic database program like Citation (along with a few other programs) can be integrated into the steps writers go through as they prepare studies, reports, papers for classes, scholarly articles, legal memoranda, treatises - or any other sort of research writing.
I've defined five separate phases in the process of writing a research paper:
Choosing a topic
Building a working bibliography
Drafting a structure for the paper
Writing and documenting sources
Hopefully, this essay will give you a few ideas on how to get your computer a little more actively involved in the research writing process.
Choosing a topic
Unless someone in your division has specifically asked you to write a report on the trend in recent water rights legislation, or your teacher's instructed you to deconstruct a Wordsworthian dream - selecting a topic is the first (and most important) part of the research writing process. You start with a general area that interests you, browse through some of the articles and books that have been written - and try to narrow the interest down to a specific topic you can handle, being careful, of course, to make certain the scope of the topic is aligned with the paper requirements (a three page essay on the contributions of African American women to the suffrage movement, for instance, probably won't work).
The Internet has really (really!) simplified at least one portion of this stage in the research writing process: instead of digging through moldy card catalogs and mining printed journal indexes, you can search libraries and web databases by subject keywords - and save the results.
Some of the more useful services to consult during this phase include the Library of Congress, PsychInfo, Lexis, the Humanities Index, PubMed, or the MLA International Bibliography, Ingenta, and amazon.com. Some of these services are available for free (see our listing of the services you can search online for free), but a fair number are only available only through library systems or your organization's network. Check with your librarian to find out which databases are available to you, and which are best for the type of research paper you are working on.
See the listing below for links to some of the free search services on the Internet.
Building a working bibliography
Once you've settled on the subject of your inquiry, you'll need to compile a "working bibliography" - a reading list of potential sources.
Here again, the database and article delivery services available on the Internet or through the library -combined with a personal bibliographic program - can save you literally hours (maybe even days) of time.
Some of the services provide abstracts for articles and books that will give you a pretty good idea of whether or not you should include the work in your reading list, sometimes you'll have to study the titles. If it looks promising, put it on your reading list. You can always delete it later. The same goes for suggestions from your colleagues (or teachers).
A personal database program like Citation can be really useful during this stage, since it will help you keep all the information on your reading list in one place, and give you a headstart on the next phases (gathering research & citing sources). You can keep a Citation datafile open when you are browsing search results - then when you find an article or book you think would help your research, add a record with the basic bibliographic information for the work (author name, title, and, for periodicals, volume and page numbers). Type the word "read" in the keyword field, and copy the abstract (if there is one) to the abstract field.
If the full text of the work is available online (in PDF or HTML format) - download it to your PC and enter a link to the file in the Citation record. If you don't have room on your PC, just enter a link to the web address for the full text. Some indexing services on the Internet (Ingenta, for instance) have an option that allows you to order a printed copy of an article to be faxed or sent to you.
It is also possible to export search results to a file you can bring into your personal bibliographic database. If you do this, you'll want to remember to go back to those records and add the word "read" (particularly if your project has a wide scope) AND if you are working with books, you'll need to make sure the book you find is the same edition.
When you've collected enough of a list to get started - use Citation to generate a reading list.
Note: There are a number of good reasons for keeping a reading list, particularly if you are working on a longer research project that may require submission of a working bibliography. If you store information on potential source works in a bibliographic database program, submitting a working bibliography with your prospectus or grant proposal will take you only a minute or so to put together.
See the Citation Handbook for a detailed tutorial that will walk you through creating a database, adding records, writing a reading list, working with notes, and other tasks mentioned in this essay.
Not surprisingly, the research gathering phase is actually the longest phase in the research writing process. It is also the stage during which one is most likely to misplace items or neglect to include information that can really cost you time later. In this phase, you'll be working your way through your reading list, gathering research notes -- data, quotes, and other materials to (possibly) include in your discussion. Nearly everyone tends to approach this process in a similar manner: we read through a work, marking portions of text that might be useful to our own research - providing valuable facts, corroborating our own research findings, or providing expert opinions we need to address. Or maybe we find what looks like the perfect quote . . .
Depending on your research project, there are different ways to organize the research you gather. Many still rely on index cards, but these are rapidly becoming an anachronism. Others use their word processor as a repository for notes and information. Although convenient, this method offers little help in organizing the notes you collect.
Two products of ours, askSam and Citation are both popular with researchers for organizing their notes and information. askSam is a searchable database that lets you enter or import information and search or create reports to analyze this information. For example, imagine importing the text of MacBeth, searching for the word "blood" and seeing every line, paragraph, or sentence where the word appeared. With askSam, you can do this with any text in a matter of seconds. You can import texts, HTML, PDF files, email, and Microsoft Word documents and search and organize the information.
Citation allows you to record notes as well as the bibliographic information about your source. This helps you organize the information you collect and offers the added benefit of automatically generating and formatting cites in your paper.
If you are working with Citation, you can streamline what happens after you finish reading - and how carefully you record your research notes. If you take the time to do just a few things when you've finished reading - you'll be much better prepared (and much happier, as well, I might add) when you're finished researching the issue and need to start writing.
Here's what to do: As soon as you finish reading a work on your list, spend some time at your computer. In your database, remove the word "read" from the keyword field, and then check the publication to make certain the bibliographic record in your database is accurate (check for the edition number, that you have the full names of authors, the correct year of publication, editor name, journal pages, that sort of thing). (If the work wasn't on your reading list, obviously, this is the time to enter a bibliographic record for it.) If you have questions about a particular type of work, consult Citation's StyleGuide.
Once you have the bibliographic information in your database, enter note records for the passages you've highlighted as possibly useful for your discussion. Make sure you include specific page references for quotes (this is essential to citing the passage properly), and enter keywords to tag the sources and notes as having to do with particular aspects of your topic.
Last, take a quick look at the footnotes and bibliography for this work. If any of them look like works you need to read, add them to your reading list.
See the Citation Handbook for a detailed tutorial that will walk you through working with notes, entering bibliographic records, searching the Citation Styleguide, and other topics mentioned in this section.
Drafting a structure for the paper
Some people skip the "outline" part of the research writing process. They like to dive right into writing, and enjoy the idea of discovering verbal territories for their points as they go. I'm not one of these people -- I like to have a clear idea of how I'm going to get from one point to the next. Sometimes this is as informal as a scribbly diagram with arrows and tags for the sections to be developed, and in which order I think they should go.
"Experts" will tell you a solid map for a discussion needs to include a central "statement" that expresses the essay's unifying concept (often called a "thesis"), and brief descriptions of the basic sections, the order in which they will be developed, with a clear understanding of how each section develops your thesis. Translation: write an outline.
You probably have your own system that's a bit of a cross between the verbal diagram technique and the formal outline. However you handle the "mapping" section of the writing process, though - you'll need to review your research to figure out "what goes where." We used to call this part of the writing process the "notecard shuffle" - where you sit in the middle of the room and sort through a stack of index cards, looking for the bits of information you've gathered that you want to include in your discussion. To tell you the truth, the sorting process is pretty much the same when you're using a program like Citation - just quicker, and less vulnerable to things like lost notebooks and dogs.
If you're using a program like Citation and you've been careful to enter all your highlighted passages as notecards (with keywords!), you'll be able to use the program to review all your research. You can write out notecards for sources and research notes dealing with specific aspects of your research project (using the keywords you've entered), and use your word processor to print a hard copy. That way you can sit in your favorite quiet spot, read over all your notes, and get your outline in good order - with indications of which excerpts to include and which sources best support your discussion.
See the Citation Handbook for a detailed tutorial that will walk you through writing out notecards, and other topics mentioned in this section.
Writing the essay, and documenting sources
The last thing to do, obviously, is to pull it all together and actually write the paper. This is where the word processor gets very high marks from people who remember "correctional fluids." Spellers are also very high on my list of the software products that have made research writing easier. It is also the part where a good sense of the paper's structure becomes invaluable.
A good bibliographic program that you've integrated into your research habits can also be invaluable -at the very least, it is going to be a big improvement over fumbling with styleguides (assuming you can even find the style guide) looking for the correct way to write a footnote for a book originally published in 1857 or the 3rd edition in a series. Or going back online to try to find the correct bibliographic information to cite the perfect quote on an index card that just has "Barns, Ethan, 1999" written at the top.
Documenting the sources for the evidence you include or providing expert support for positions you've taken in the discussion is absolutely essential to good research writing. So you can't skip this part, however much of a headache it may give you. But if you've been using a program like Citation as an integral part of your research process, at this point, the tedious work of citing sources is finished. You'll just have to put keys (linking to bibliographic records) in your document to cite sources, insert the quotes where your outline indicates they need to be placed - and then "ask" the program to write your references for you.
Some people like to call this part of working with a bibliographic program "magical" (my son, for instance, who is in high school, insists that fairies or at least their electronic kinfolk are involved). I prefer to think of it as the just rewards for being meticulous, scholarly, organized -- and letting your computer do what it does best (help you organize bits of information). I have to admit, though, at three o'clock in the morning, when you finish writing a paper and don't have to worry about a bibliography, it might be easy to confuse your own diligence with the wondrous!
See the Citation Handbook for a detailed tutorial that will walk you through entering CiteKeys in your documents, generating citations, and other topics mentioned in this section.
The thing is - fundamentally, the process of researching an issue and then writing about it hasn't changed much since the concept of research was introduced -- and finding a way to shift some of the less gratifying tasks in this process to a software program can be very satisfying, and save you time and frustration as well.
I hope you've found these tips helpful. If you're ready to give it a try, download the Citation demo, or call us 1-800-800-1997 (outside the United States call 850-584-6590) for an online demonstration.
Links to a few of the more popular online database services available on the Internet
Ingenta is a free service on the Internet that allows you to search over 28,000 periodicals in all disciplines. You can also order fax delivery for most articles with a credit card. It's a good place to start looking for materials published in periodicals.
Library of Congress Catalog
The Library of Congress is another good place to start researching a topic, though here you will find only books. Every book published in the US is listed, though, so you'll have a lot of material to help with your search for a topic.
National Library of Medicine, PubMed site
The National Library of Medicine indexes article published on medical and biomedical subjects. Searching the publications database is free to the public.
American Psychological Association, PsycArticles
If you are working in Psychology, you'll want to search the APA's PsycArticles database. Full text delivery of articles is available for a fee.
If you are working in a legal studies, LexisOne offers free searching of case law. Full texts of cases and other materials are available for a fee.
(*) There's a good reason for this. Well, no, there isn't. It's more along the lines of an explanation: product "literature" (marketing propaganda and tutorials) is organized to describe what a program can do in such a way as to enhance the amazing wizardry embodied in the program - not to tell you how to integrate it into your daily work habits. As a result, a fair number of writers who escaped the days of the typewriter still have future repression-candidate-moments - involving, for instance, a set of misplaced index cards, or web sites (with crucial links to an essential document or set of statistics) that evaporate by the light of the moon. . .
Director of Academic Products & Services
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