Five Secret Pitfalls of Academic Research, and How to Avoid Them

Five Secret Pitfalls of Academic Research, and How to Avoid Them

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It is tempting to think of writing a research paper as an exercise in checklists. Find the right number of sources, check. String together some references, check. Cite them using the correct style, check. Include my own original data and interpretation, check. Add opening and closing paragraphs, check and done.

That approach might fulfill the letter of your assignment, but it does not address the spirit of academic research. Even if you find the right number and type of sources and you quote and cite them appropriately, you may still be missing the bigger picture. Academic research is an exercise in knowledge-building.

Here are five mistakes students tend to make when researching academic papers, even when they appear to be doing exactly what is asked of them.

Hitting Your Numbers

You would not sit down at a restaurant and order the first three things on the menu. The same goes for research. Your assignment might be to find five different sources, but that does not mean you should use the first five you find. Those five probably look suspiciously similar to the first five your classmates find. You might not be able to see the resulting pattern, but your instructor sure will (and if they have been teaching for a while, they can even see it coming, or even intentionally look for them). To make your paper stand out the way you would like it to, it is often best to put numbers aside when you begin your research, and instead focus on the quality. Just be sure to check your work against the requirements once you have gathered your first round of materials.

Finishing Your Research in One Go

Research is not a linear process, and it is not something you can accomplish in one go. Think of it as a party: the house is packed, and everyone is making small talk as they mill about. Your job is to figure out what they are talking about and learn where the real fun is.

You will not accomplish that by hanging out by the door, nor by spending ten seconds apiece with everyone in the house. You will need to find some people you know, or who just look interesting enough to start a conversation with (i.e. your first round of research), listen to (read), and say something yourself to (ask questions about what you have read). Then, you can decide whether you would like to spend the rest of the night in that one conversation. Chances are you will not, and that is all right. Keep your sources organized and take notes along the way, and you will find that one round of research tends to lead to another by raising questions you have not considered.

Writing a Literature Review in Place of Original Work

Academic research is about building your own knowledge, not showcasing that of others. Research might take the bulk of your time when writing a paper, but your writing will only shine when you demonstrate your ability to draw interesting connections among the works you cite and bring your own thoughts into the conversation.

Some papers, especially in the sciences and social sciences, may require a literature review: a section full of cited materials that demonstrates the scope of your research. This generally occurs at the beginning of the paper. At times, students let the literature review overwhelm the rest. When this happens, the spotlight moves away from the important, original work. So before you sit down to write your paper, make sure to structure your ideas and understand how best to leverage collected references to support your original work.

Going It Alone

Once upon a time, it was impossible to conduct academic research in complete isolation. After all, most materials were at the library. It might have been a trudge to get there, but once you arrived, you were close to someone who can point you in the right direction. In particular, there were reference librarians who were trained to help you find resources for your research and provide relevant advice.

With so much material available online, we have moved beyond the need for regular human contact that used to be necessary for academic research. Nevertheless, reference librarians still roam the earth, though you might need to take an extra step or two to consult with them. A quick visit with a research expert housed by your academic institution can help you resolve any outstanding problems with your research project and identify weak areas of your paper.

Forgetting Your Audience

Before you start, ask yourself the following questions: Who is my audience? What do I want to tell them? What do I want them to take away after reading my writing? Begin by learning about your audience. It may be one professor, a committee of several seasoned academics, an entire student body, or the general public. Keep in mind their level of expertise. Formulate a provisional idea of what you would like to tell them and remember that your research is part of a greater dialogue. Be careful to match the tone of your writing to the interests of your audience.

More Help When You Need It

Technology has been reshaping our lives since the early days of human civilization. Our collective advancement is predicated on the accumulation and preservation of knowledge across generations. In the digital age, students and researchers are exposed to an unprecedented volume of information. Unfortunately, much of that comes in a disorganized and unscalable fashion. The advice of a seasoned researcher will not help you if you cannot effectively store, maintain, and retrieve that information under the right context. Remember: research is about building your own knowledge, and that takes a lot of organization.

Petal is a free online application developed to help academic researchers organize their references. It is cloud-native, meaning you will have one centralized source of truth, no matter how many devices you use or collaborators you have. It is designed for researchers, by researchers, to reflect the way successful academics think and work. Capable of collecting, indexing, and automatically tagging all your references and notes in an easy intuitive interface, Petal is the ultimate research assistant. It is completely free to use. Sign up and try it out today!