August 1, 2016

Research Papers

Clarkson University students are often called upon to tackle lengthier research papers across engineering disciplines as well as the sciences and humanities. There are a number of types of research papers (guided by purpose): primary research (initiated as part of a research question or experiment), secondary research in which source of information and collected, examined and either summarized or critiqued, or a combination in which sources and artifacts are examined as a background to a question or experiment (in the form of a literature review, for example).

Our Clarkson University Honors Students are required to conduct research, often starting as early as the summer before matriculation (“Pre-Frosh” Summer Research Program), with diverse and numerous opportunities each semester and during the summer on campus and off through other partnerships and formal arrangements such as NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, EPA, Amgen and DoE, for example, or with our Trudeau Partnership, or Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries.

Major research papers and projects typically have several phases, including:

The Literature Review

A literature review can either accompany an existing experiment or research question, or it can be done before a question emerges. When a student conducts a literature review, he or she is exploring existing research and published articles relating to an interest or preliminary question to gain a better understanding of not only what has been undertaken within the scholarly and research community and what past and current findings suggest, but also to see where there are potential gaps, which might yield emerging questions and research ideas. To conduct a literature review, we often suggest students start with our Clarkson University Library, which allows students to access journals and articles through Clarkson subscriptions, as well as resources accessible through inter-library sharing or loans.

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover?

Tip: This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment or challenge require (i.e., scope)?

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Start with Google Scholar and conduct a general search on a topic. Here you can select a date range (though you don’t want to miss seminal works). Typically, this search, if conducted on the Clarkson campus, will show you what is available to you as a Clarkson community member for immediate download or in our collections, and what is not.
  • Look at those works that are frequently cited. These can be seminal works in the field that others rely on as part of their work.
  • Look at specific articles including abstracts or summaries to see if an article or research might be related to your topic. The broader the exploration, the more interesting facets you might discover; however, if you get so broad and bogged down, you might become overwhelmed. You want to be broad enough to capture the scholarship related to your topic of interest and recent enough to see what directions the discipline or field might be headed.
  • Track your sources in such a way that you can easily refer back. Consider developing a working, annotated bibliography that includes the author, year, title, journal and other source-related identifiers, but also includes a summary with keywords based on your examination. Some people keep track of these on notecards the old-fashioned way; others in a Word Doc. Still, others use Citation or references software, which allows for indexing and search functions using identifiers and keywords. Use a system that works for you.


Research Question/Experiment

The research question might start out rather broad, with gaps pointing to the need to become more narrow. A research project may include one single exploration or question, or may have several questions inherently related or interesting. You should work closely with a faculty member within your discipline to explore the possibilities to better understand the required depth and breadth of the question(s), as well as the feasibility of actually completing the research within a reasonable time-frame.

Conduct your Research 

Once you have completed a Literature Review, and defined the question(s), it is time to conduct your research if you are doing original research or scholarship. The methods by discipline and question are so varied and expansive, it is nearly impossible to include all of them here. There are quantitative methods, qualitative methods, mixed methods and other methodologies that are appropriate for your study. Work with your advising faculty member to better help you identify and articulate your methods. There are books and online resources worth reading that explore your methods of choice.

Formatting Your Paper/Thesis

The format your research paper takes in terms of final written product really depends on your discipline and requirements. A thesis typically includes the following sections:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction/Problem Background
  • Literature Review
  • Purpose (Question or Experiment)
  • Methods
  • Findings
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Recommendations

The Clarkson Honors Program maintains a database of sample theses and research papers Here.