At this point in your research, you should have a stack of books and a pile of copied articles that you are soon going to have to begin to read. Where do you start? The answer is that you should start with the most general literature and work your way systematically to the most specific.
Let’s pretend that you are planning to do a paper on "The Role of Women in Plato’s Ideal Polis." The first thing that you should read is an (1) encyclopedia article on Plato, such as the article on "Plato" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This will give you a general overview of Plato’s life and works that will later help you to situate his political thought. You might also try to read a (2) general intellectual biography of Plato or a (3) general survey of his thought, such as R.M. Hare’s Plato, which has a chapter specifically dedicated to Plato’s political philosophy. Volume One of F. Copleston’s History of Philosophy would likewise be a good place to start reading in order to find out some general information about Plato.
Now that you have some idea of who Plato is and what his major works are all about, you are ready to focus the rest of your reading on Plato’s political thought. It is now time to pick up a (4) general subject area work on a particular aspect of an author’s thought. For Plato’s political thought, E. Barker’s The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, would be ideal.
Assuming that you understand the basics of Plato’s political thought, the remainder of your reading should focus on a (5) specific subject area work dealing with the particular topic of your paper. It is time to begin reading articles in anthologies (i.e., N. Tuana, collection of essays in Feminist Interpretations of Plato) and in journals (i.e., S. Pomeroy’s article on "Feminism in Book V of Plato’s Republic" found in perion). You should also be reading any books that specifically deal with this topic (i.e., N. Bluestone, Women and the Ideal Society: Plato’s Republic) as well as chapters and sections of books that also treat the subject (i.e., chapter 4 of C. Reeve’s Philosopher-Kings).
(6) Primary sources in Philosophy are best left to be read after you have completely mastered the secondary literature. Even those who are well trained in the discipline of Philosophy can have difficulty at times understanding certain primary sources. If you have trouble grasping the ideas presented in the primary sources, it probably means that you have not yet mastered the general aspects of the author’s thought. Rereading the secondary literature might help to clear things up a bit. Avoid at all costs the temptation to write on a topic that you don’t really understand. This lack of understanding will inevitably come through in your writing and will turn your paper into a big mess.
3.2 Taking Notes
If you have already started to read sources in preparation for writing your paper, stop immediately! As you read, it is important to have an intelligent system of note-taking in place in order to preserve the ideas that you’ve gathered from your reading. The traditional way to take notes for a paper is to put them on 4x6" index cards, although some students may prefer to type them on their computers.
Each note card should contain only one main point or idea (if you put more than one idea on a note card, it will make your writing process much more confused later on). For example, if you were writing a paper on poverty in the United States for your social ethics class, you might have notecards with topics like the following:
Defining the Scope of Poverty Impact of Poverty on
Impact of Poverty on the Elderly
Effects of Poverty on Community Life
Mistaken Notions About Poverty Real Causes of Poverty
Solutions to American Poverty
It might seem as though this would be a great many topics for a four or five page college research paper, but for now your job is simply to develop as many note cards on a variety of topics related to the theme of your paper as you can. Later on you will have the opportunity to sift through your cards and eliminate those topics which are not necessarily applicable to what you want to say in your paper.
As you are creating your note cards, it is important to rephrase an author’s ideas completely in your own words. This will help you to avoid unintentional plagiarism later on. If you think that it is necessary to use an author’s own language, put his own words in quotation marks, so there’s no mistaking which language is the author’s and which is your own.
The format you use when creating your note cards should make the cards easy to use when you write your paper. Here is a suggested format to get you started: Place the topic of each card in the top left corner and the source in the top right. Indicate the source of information by using the author’s name (or his/her last name followed by a date of publication if you are using more than one work by the same author). If you use the information on the card when composing your paper, you will include the complete citation for that source in your paper’s works cited or reference page.
We have taken the liberty of preparing three sample note cards for you according to the method described above. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the specific format for creating note cards that is shown. Although using note cards may seem like an unnecessary burden, you will find that, once you start to write your paper, having these cards in place will actually make writing your paper much easier and considerably less stressful.
3.3 What is a Scholarly Journal Article?
As we have already seen, in writing a research paper it is necessary to make use of as wide a variety of sources as possible. One of the sources that you will inevitably use in writing your paper will be an article from a scholarly journal. The questions that we have to address at this point are (1) what exactly is an article from a scholarly journal, (2) how does such an article differ from those found in other sorts of periodicals, and (3) what is the best way to read and analyze such an article?
What many students fail to realize is that not all articles are written the same way or for the same audience. Popular magazines are those that you might find at your local newsstand and are written for the average person on the street. Scholarly articles, on the other hand, are those you would find in a serious library or in an electronic database at your local college library and which are used to assist academics or students with college-level research.
Among the other major differences between these two types of articles are the following:
For most of your research projects in college the articles that you use as sources of information should be those found in scholarly journals and not those from popular magazines. Magazine articles should only be used as sources if your instructor specifically permits you to use them.
3.4 How to Analyze a Scholarly Journal Article
Scholarly articles are almost always written in a way that demands critical reading. To read such articles effectively, you have to take the time to enter into a dialogue with the author that usually involves four distinct steps:
1. State the author’s thesis. The thesis of a scholarly work is the overall point that the author is trying to make in the work. Authors typically will reveal their thesis in the very beginning of a work (e.g., in the introductory paragraphs of a scholarly article or in the introduction or first chapter of a book).
Your first task in analyzing any scholarly journal article will be to state the author’s thesis in as succinct a manner as possible. The question you have to ask yourself at this stage is: "What is the main point, idea or insight that the author is trying to convey to the reader in this article?" Ideally, you should be able to answer this question in one or two sentences at most.
2. Summarize the evidence (arguments, facts, data) that the author uses to advance her thesis. Remember: every scholarly book or article has a point that it is trying to make. Every author who writes a scholarly book or article is trying to "sell" you something. The point that the author is trying to make, the thing that she is trying to sell you, is the thesis of the text. Various sorts of evidence are the tools that the author uses to sell you her thesis. Unless an author backs up her thesis with strong evidence, her thesis is nothing more than mere opinion, and, therefore, worthless.
In the second stage of analyzing a scholarly journal article, your job will be to summarize the most important evidence that an author uses to advance her thesis. If the author presents too much evidence for you to do justice to in your analysis, then it will be up to you to judiciously select those pieces of evidence that seem the most essential to the author’s case and summarize them. The question you have to ask yourself at this stage is: "What is the main evidence that the author presents in this article to support her thesis?"
3. Identify any implications of the author’s position. An author’s position is nothing more than her thesis combined with the evidence that she uses to support her thesis. To put this very simply, an author’s position in a scholarly work will almost always be expressed in the following generic way: "Author X states that Y is true for the following reasons…"
If we are to appreciate the true significance of an author’s position, all of the implications of that position must be fully drawn out from the text. Implications are the logical outcomes of an author’s position that are implied, suggested or inferred from the text, rather than being openly expressed. No author is capable of drawing out all the implications of her ideas (she may not even be aware of all of them); it is the reader’s job to do this.
When you are contemplating the implications of an author’s position in a scholarly article, ask yourself the following question: "What would the consequences be (to yourself, to human society, to our understanding of the world or some aspect of it) if this author’s view is accepted?"
Identifying the full implications of an author’s position is probably the most difficult aspect of analyzing a scholarly article and requires tremendous insight on the part of the reader. If, after reading a scholarly article carefully, you find that you are unable to unveil any significant implications of the author’s position, this probably means that you haven’t taken the time to reflect adequately on the significance of what the author is saying.
4. Evaluate the author’s position. An author’s position is a tenable one if and only if (1) her thesis is backed up by strong evidence and (2) the implications of her position would be judged acceptable according to the standards of most reasonable people. If both these turn out to be the case, then you are free to agree completely with the author’s position. If, on the other hand, you find fault with either of these criteria, then you must disagree with the author’s position.
Many students are far too quick to agree with an author’s position if that author appears to be even the least bit persuasive. In fact, there has never been a position taken by any thinker, even the most profound one imaginable, that is completely sacrosanct. If you are really critical in your analysis of a text, you should be able to find questionable evidence, faulty data, or illogical arguments used by the author; you should be able to construct your own evidence to refute the author’s position; and finally you should also be able to tweak out implications of the author’s position that could be judged unacceptable by most people. Once you have done this you can feel free to slam the author’s position in the most aggressive manner imaginable!
Just remember: it’s very easy to agree with someone else’s position; it’s far more difficult to find solid grounds for challenging that position. Your job as a college researcher is to read scholarly articles critically enough that you can find areas of weakness in the author’s position that will allow you to argue against that position in whole or part. Even if you are substantially in agreement with an author’s position, being able to anticipate possible criticisms of her position certainly can’t hurt when writing your paper.