What is real research, and what is a real research paper?


Research begins with questions, not answers. Research papers are not arguments. If you are convinced that you know the answer, you are not asking questions. This is the simple answer to the question, "What is real research, and what is a real research paper?"


Here is the long version. Many students believe that a research paper is meant to convince others of some belief that the student has. For instance, students will write pro and con papers about controversial topics such as capital punishment and abortion.  This approach, however, is persuasion not research. You are writing the research paper for yourself because you are trying to answer questions that you have about some topic. You can still write about controversial topics, but not with the intent to convince someone but with the desire to discover answers to questions that  you have about a topic. Here are some examples using four of the most contentious and controversial topics that people have strong opinions about: capital punishment, gay marriages, abortion, and school prayer.


Capital Punishment

Since it is not acceptable for this class to write a paper defending capital punishment or one in opposition to it, what can you write? First of all, you need to do some basic research. What is that? It is reading at least one book on each side of the issue, for and against. There are many books for capital punishment. You will have no trouble finding one because our society supports the "eye for an eye" approach to criminal justice. There are also some books on the abolition of capital punishment, but these are not so easy to find. Finding them will take some research. One such book is Don't Kill in Our Name, Families of Murder Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty by Rachel King. Remember, you are not taking a stand for or against capital punishment; you are simply trying to understand more about the topic by looking at both sides of the topic. Now that you've done that, what do you do?

You formalize your questions. You started into this topic because of some interest that you had. What was it? Why did you choose this topic? What is the personal connection to this topic that got you interested in it? If you don't have any personal connection, then this is probably not a good topic for you to research.

Let's say, for instance, that your minister mentioned something about capital punishment. That may be enough of a personal connection for you because you want to understand how a Christian can support capital punishment. So you ask your minister, and you ask other ministers and other people in your church. You ask how a person can reconcile support for capital punishment with the Sermon on the Mount, with Christ's statement that "an eye for an eye" is the old way not his way. His way is to "love thy enemies." Again, you are not trying to prove anything; you are trying to understand something about this topic.


Gay Marriage

In Canada, gay marriages are legal. What is it about Canada that is so different from the United States? Why, if the majority of people do not oppose gay marriages, are there laws against it? Why do people oppose gay marriages?

These are just a few of the questions that a person interested in this topic might ask. Any of these could lead to real research.



Many people consider abortion to be murder. Why is that? If you know someone who has had an abortion, do you think of that person the same way you think of Charles Manson or some other infamous killer? If abortion is not murder, then what is it? Why are the most vocal and violent anti-abortionists men?

School Prayer

How is promoting prayer in public schools in our country different from schools in Islamic countries where prayer is a basic part of public education? Why do people want the schools to do what the church is supposed to do? Go to members of local boards of education and ask them what they believe about prayer in the schools and why. Read about the history of public education.


Controversial or not?

From the above explanation it should be apparent that it is not easy to write about controversial topics. But real research is not easy. You don't have to choose a controversial topic. Most of you won't. But all of you must choose a topic that means something to you. It can relate to your career, your hobbies, your families, anything as long as you have compelling questions about the topic. But always keep this in mind: if I can go to the library and read an article or book about the topic and learn more about it than what you have written about it, then you haven't done any real research. All you have done is use other people's writings to give a summary about the topic. You haven't really answered any questions, and you haven't really written anything of interest. Make  your topic personal and the motivation for writing the paper will be obvious and will interest your audience.

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