Research for writing essays and research papers.

Why is research necessary?

Research is necessary for any good writing because sources can help you avoid problems with the law.  Most people think we have “free speech” in the United States; however, this is incorrect.  Speech has always been regulated.  Fraudulent, slanderous, libelous, and defamatory speech are illegal: criminally in the case of fraud or under civil law in the case of libel.  Here are two articles that discuss issues of slander and libel.

Sacha Baron Cohen Pranked Me, Can I Sue? Yes. Win? Not So Much.

Citations & Sarcasm: How Gizmodo Got A Defamation Lawsuit SLAPPed Down

How do I research?

Researching information for your writing requires work. Too often students skimp on this part, and it shows. In most cases, students have already come up with a thesis that they believe to be true and then find only that information that supports what they already believe to be true. This is called dogma, and it’s bad practice. It’s ok to start with a thesis; however, if the information and data don’t support your thesis, you need to change your thesis and not look for information that agrees with you just because it agrees with you.

The easiest way to perform research is with a search engine, usually at Google. However, you will want to perform specialized searches instead of generic searches. For example, instead of typing body cameras into a Google search box, type site:gov body cameras. It will restrict your search to Government sites like the Department of Justice and the FBI. You could also perform a more an even more specific search by typing in body cameras. This search would only search through the FBI’s website. You can do the same with any portion of a web domain name. If you’re in any field of medicine, searching is a great idea. For business majors, searching (Bureau of Labor Statistics) is a great idea or the Small Business Administration at

Using Wikipedia, WebMD, and other commercial sites.

Don’t use Wikipedia, WebMD or most commercial (.com) websites because in most cases they aren’t primary sources of information. Wikipedia is a secondary source of information. You can use secondary sources when doing research to help you find other sources. For example, in Wikipedia, the Footnotes are a treasure trove of primary source material that you can use.


Footnotes from the Wikipedia article on the Halifax explosion.

Footnotes from the Wikipedia article on the Halifax explosion.

The above image is a screenshot from the Footnotes section of a Wikipedia article on the Halifax Explosion. Look at it for a minute.

The blue-colored text are links to the sources that have been cited in the article. It’s best to click on those links and then use those sources rather than Wikipedia.

There are other databases that you can search, such as the Ebscohost or Lexus/Nexus. If you’re going to college or have a library close by, both should have some access to one of these databases, and you could search these for information. Your college or library should have instructions on how to use them.

If you’re a student, and you’re writing about something other than yourself, you will need sources. You need credible sources because you don’t even have a degree, so you aren’t an expert enough in much of anything other than yourself. Think of it like this: would a judge consider you an expert witness? You may think that you are, but you aren’t. It’s a true fact.

For example, I once read an essay that claimed we should drug test people on welfare because it would save money and because people in the military are drug tested. The problem is that neither claim is valid. First, drug testing has been tried many times, and it has always been a waste of money (Cunha, 2014). Second, military personnel are employees; they have an employment contract. People who receive welfare are receiving a public good entitled to them by law. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty before they can be denied this public good. In another example, a student claimed that the drinking age in the US has been 21 for hundreds of years. First, states determine their drinking ages, and in the state of Wisconsin, the drinking age was changed to 21 in the 1980s and not hundreds of years ago. How do I know? I was seventeen when the change first occurred. I was a primary witness to the change.

There are two types of sources–primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are always more reliable and credible than secondary sources because they are closer to the event.

Primary Sources

    1. US Government Statistics.

Not all governments are transparent. US government statistics are open to rigorous scrutiny, which is why they are credible. For example, the unemployment rate is partially determined by survey data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the exact methods used to generate those statistics, so you could easily replicate them if you wanted to.

    1. Controlled Experiments Published in peer reviewed journals

The journals Science and Nature are great examples of peer reviewed journals. You can also find peer-reviewed journals in the college’s online library. My college uses the Ebsco host, which allows you to filter your searches to peer-reviewed journals only.

    1. First hand accounts by eyewitnesses

You see these often as interviews recorded by police officers, reporters, journalists, and cameramen. All journalists record interviews. It’s a legal thing.

    1. News stories reported at the time
    2. Trial transcripts
    3. Police reports
    4. Diaries and journals
    5. Documents created at the time like emails.
Secondary Sources
    1. Wikipedia
    2. WebMD
    3. Encyclopedias

OWL at Purdue University

    1. Most commercial websites.
  1. Fake News

What is fake news?
Everyone makes mistakes and the news media is no different. Credible publications and broadcast stations print or state what are known as “Corrections.” Corrections are notes or statements that correct past stories in previous editions. On the Internet, articles where mistakes have been made are corrected, but a note is placed at the bottom of the page noting the correction and what had been previously reported. This is called honesty. Honesty means credibility. Sometimes people confuse an honest mistake with a vast conspiracy yet provide no evidence of the conspiracy other than to point to a handful of cherry-picked mistakes that undoubtedly support some prior belief.

Most fake news comes in the form of phony press releases from businesses or non-profit organizations owned by businesses looking to generate sensationalism or hysteria. One example is the website, which represents the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. There is no such thing as clean coal. It produces CO2 and mercury. The mercury from coal is the reason why you should restrict how much fish you eat. (CDC, 2016)

Facts and Evidence.

A student claimed that Western medicine is missing out on “traditional” medicine. The problem is that there is only medicine. Treatments such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and homeopathy need to be proven to be effective in randomized double-blind clinical trials or they are just more snake oil.

You want to be able to support your assertions with facts and evidence and not speculation, hyperbole, or hysteria. If we don’t, then we end up with Snake-oil salesmen peddling garbage and false hope. As future professionals, you have a duty to stand up for the truth and not some imaginary truth biased by our false beliefs.

Getting It Wrong

Sometimes writers, scientists, and politicians make mistakes. Sometimes they need to change their mind because they’re wrong. Sometimes we must go with the information we have. For example, our understanding of gravity has changed throughout the years. Newton’s gravity couldn’t explain the path of the planet Mercury around the sun, but Einstein’s could. Now Einstein’s concept has been put to the test by the Voyager spacecraft, which is so far from the earth and any form of gravity that it isn’t where it is calculated to be. Therefore, science dictates that when the facts and evidence change, so should our decisions. An inability to change your opinion based on the facts and evidence is unprofessional behavior.

Students’ Rules for Research

1. You have to cite everything because you’re not an expert.

2. You don’t have to cite “common knowledge” which are just facts that everyone knows, such as when holidays are, who invented the modern light bulb, and so on.  If you’re not sure, cite it.

3. Anecdotes are good for illustrating a problem but do not accurately represent the frequency of that event.  Just because something happened to you, doesn’t tell us anything about how many other people have also had that same experience.

4. Inductive reasoning is better than deductive reasoning.  Inductive reasoning is science.  We make documented observations and from those observations, scientists create theories.  If their theories prove themselves through experimentation and predicted observations, then they become natural laws.  Deductive reasoning uses logic based on given facts (that’s important) generated by “if this is true, then this must be true” statements.  This is the logic of Sherlock Holmes.  The problem is that sometimes the deductions can be improbable.  For example, the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually deduced that the famous magician Harry Houdini was practicing the dark arts (real magic) and not just creating illusions.  The other problem with deductive reasoning is that our “given facts” can be wrong as when innocent people are convicted based on faulty forensic evidence such as bite marks.

Resources available for students.

APA Citation Help

MLA Citation Help