Developing Your Research and Analytical Skills

Research and analysis are the foundation of a university education. No matter what level you’re at, you will have the opportunity to do independent writing and oral presentation assignments. Acquiring the basics early will make it much easier later on as expectations rise.

You won’t always find the topic of your research as interesting as you might others, and you may find that the limitations placed on the assignment prevent you from merely stating your opinion. That’s where the true benefits of university learning come into play. The point of these assignments is not to give you a platform to state what you already know, think or feel. Rather, it is to challenge your own beliefs and assumptions, consider alternative positions, or re-think the entire situation from a strategically different vantage point.

The research process happens in stages. What follows are some tips on how to follow through from beginning to end so that your final assignment is the best it can be.


Coming Up with an Idea

In some cases, your professors will provide you with a topic or a list of ideas. Other times, you will be completely on your own. The opportunity to select your own topic can be daunting, but it’s also the chance to contribute something to the class that is uniquely your own.
When coming up with a topic keep these things in mind:

  • The course description and objectives
  • Expectations within the discipline
  • Time and space constraints to complete the assignment
  • Availability of primary and secondary research materials

Generally speaking, students often have trouble coming up with a topic that is narrow enough to provide in-depth focus and analysis, but still have broader implications from a scholarly point of view. One way to make sure you start out on the right foot is to stay focused on the specificities of your topic, and not try to reach a conclusion before you’ve even begun researching.

In Communication Studies, the expectation is that you will engage with a problematic related to processes of social communication. This can be in the mass media or popular culture (film, television, music, news), public discourses (business, government, community action), or material culture (objects and artifacts that contribute to the meaningfulness of everyday life). In general, communication is a three stage process of production / circulation / reception. Not all topics can deal effectively with each stage, so you need to determine what your emphasis will be.

Your question should lead to a normative analysis, not a positivist one. What this means is that you should be thinking along the lines of “[my topic] is interesting because it raises issues about …” What you shouldn’t do is some up with a topic that results in a good/bad or right/wrong type of analysis.
By answering the question of why your topic is interesting and pertinent to Communication Studies, you will hopefully come up with two or three ideas that will become the basis of your research questions. These form the framework for how you will go about researching your topic and organizing your analysis.

Issues to consider in developing a topic suitable to Communication Studies include:

  • Representation – what sorts of hidden, subtextual or secondary meanings exist behind your object of study?
  • Discourse – what is it that your topic says about culture and society, and how is it communicated?
  • Meaning – how is your object of study understood in society and given a sense of communality or shared understanding?
  • Value – how is your object of study valued in society and by who?
  • Power – who has a stake in determining specific meanings and values from your object of study?
  • Audiences – how and where is your object of study shared by individuals? Example

Let’s say you want to do your research paper on reality television, in particular Survivor. Here are examples of thesis statements, both good and bad.

“Survivor is a good show because it shows how people cope under pressure.”
You’ve made a good/bad judgement
You appear to be taking the show at face value
There is no larger context or subtext to your argument
It will be difficult to prove this argument by anything other than assertion

Getting Better
“Survivor is a ratings success because of its emphasis on personal drama.”

It is still rather vague and could lead to more description than analysis
You need to prove that “personal drama” automatically leads to high ratings

“Survivor is a reflection of a turn toward Social Darwinism as entertainment.”

You are taking a specific point of view and making a targeted argument
You are highlighting key areas of research that you will explore further
This statement leads to focused research questions, to prove how and why it is true


Gathering Your Evidence

Probably the very first step in collecting your research materials is to seek out primary evidence on your topic. These are the actual texts and artifacts that you will be examining. There’s no sense rushing out and reading all kinds of dense theoretical books about your topic if it turns out you can’t gather any evidence to prove your point.

In Communication Studies, materials are often gathered from the mass media: film, television, magazines, newspapers, CDs etc. Luckily, these materials are more and more accessible, but not everything is. So before you decide that you want to do your paper on, for example, SuperBowl ads from 1975, make sure you can actually find them somewhere at a secure, reliable location.

Depending on what it is you want to say about your topic, you may also need to conduct interviews or engage in other research that requires human subjects. If this is the case, then you need special permission from the Ethics Committee at the University of Calgary. They have specific guidelines and require you to submit a formal application before giving approval to move forward in your research. You cannot get approval after the fact, so this is something you have to do before beginning this phase of your research.


Building On Your Argument

The second phase of research requires you to find scholarly sources that analyze the same or similar topic as you. These sources could also have nothing at all to do with your topic as you perceive it, but have framed their research questions in such a way as to get you thinking about your own ideas and arguments.

Scholarly sources are a distinct type of publication because they have gone through a rigorous peer review process. This means that at least two other scholars have read the book or article, suggested revisions, and agreed that it makes a unique and substantial contribution to the field of research. Journalists and popular essayists are not subject to the same level of scrutiny, and therefore are not reliable sources for a university research assignment. They may be useful as primary research materials, but should not be relied upon to support your analysis.

You can recognize a scholarly source by the following:

  • If it is an article, the journal in which it appears is peer-reviewed with an editorial board made up of scholars from universities and research institutions
  • If it is a book, it is published by a university or recognized scholarly press.
  • The author holds a PhD (or is currently pursuing graduate studies) and is affiliated with a university or research institution.

The university library's Articles Index and the Web Catalogue are your best resources for locating appropriate research. However, if you find a reference that is not available at our library, you can request a copy through the Document Delivery services. Any book that has been checked out of the library can be recalled by clicking the "hold" button in the item information record. No matter what the due date, the book must be returned within two weeks.

Students sometimes feel that relying on secondary scholarly sources to support their analysis lessens their ownership of their idea in the first place. This is not the case. Rather, by carefully incorporating secondary research into their analysis, they shore up their own position by demonstrating that (a) they’ve thought through the issue carefully and considered other ideas that have given depth to their own; and (b) they are open to new ideas and able to carry on a kind of scholarly conversation about issues that matter to them.

A note on Internet sources

The Internet has become a rich resource for students and researchers, but not everything you find online is necessarily useful or appropriate for a scholarly analysis.

In general, you should use open access search engines like Google or Yahoo only for primary materials. Secondary sources are better located through university library catalogues. No matter what, you should pay close attention to the origins of your source. Note who has produced the site, where it is located, what sorts of affiliations it has, how old it is, etc. Sites from universities or research institutions are the most reliable. Personal home pages are generally the least.


Writing Your Proposal

In many cases you will be asked to write a brief proposal or abstract outlining your research project. The goal in this case is to lay out your case for the analysis you wish to undertake, how you will conduct your research, and its relevance to the discipline. A proposal should include the following elements:

  • Your thesis statement
  • Two or three research questions that lead directly from your thesis
  • A statement of your methodological approach (how you will gather and organize your primary research as evidence of your thesis)
  • A statement of your theoretical framework (how you will analyze the evidence in a scholarly fashion using secondary sources)
  • What is at stake in your research, or why this research merits doing

A good proposal is succinct and to the point. It clearly lays out your entire analysis in broad strokes, makes suggestions toward a satisfactory conclusion, situates your research within a field of established research, and asserts the validity and even urgency of your argument.

You may also be asked to write an annotated bibliography. This is usually a list of scholarly or secondary sources with a brief description under each entry of their usefulness to your research. That means that you need to have read these sources before listing them. Briefly explain the main argument of the source and its relevance to your own research.


Preparing to Write

While the temptation always is there to sit down at your computer and hammer out a paper in one caffeine-fuelled evening, that is not always the best approach (although it can be a bit of a rush). One of the principles behind the peer-review process in scholarly publishing is that your argument is never completely finished, it is always open to closer inspection, interrogation and critique. Student papers don’t undergo peer review, but the idea that any argument needs to go through several transformations before it is strong enough still remains a reality.

The first thing you need is an outline. This should really be done at the proposal stage and can be used as a road map to make sure you stay on track with your argument and don’t veer off into tangents. Your outline should look something like this:

Thesis Statement
— no more than two sentences, or two point form notes

— list primary materials and how you organized them

Theoretical Framework
— 3 or 4 points on your secondary sources and what kind of scholarship they represent

Research Question #1
— 3 or 4 points that will require elaboration and scholarly evidence to support them
— make sure your last point provides the bridge to your second research question

Research Question #2
— 3 or 4 points that will require elaboration and scholarly evidence to support them
— make sure your last point provides the bridge to your third research question

Research Question #3
— 3 or 4 points that will require elaboration and scholarly evidence to support them
— make sure your last point provides the bridge to your second research question

— 3 or 4 points that will clarify and extend the reasons why your argument is both timely and sound
— don't let this be merely a summary of everything you've already said
— extend the thesis statement in order to say something significant about the larger communication process

Without an outline, it is very easy to lose track of your argument, become overly descriptive, repeat points, stay too long on one issue and not give enough time to others, miss key transitions, and fail to make a strong conclusion.


Writing Your Paper

If you’ve been thorough in your research, careful in the drafting of your thesis, and diligent about your proposal and outline, writing your paper should be a breeze. You will have a wealth of information, evidence and analysis to guide you, and be confident in the direction of your own argument.

The introductory paragraph is usually the hardest to write. Don’t be surprised if it takes you as long to write this as it does to write the entire body of your paper. It is almost a mini-essay, laying out for the reader precisely what it is you’re examining and how you will go about proving your argument. Sometimes it can be hard to start writing a paper, so your introduction starts slowly and takes a long time to get to the point. That’s OK for the first draft, but be prepared to cut all that extraneous material when you begin the editing process.

The body of your paper should contain the bulk of the evidence and scholarly research that you have gathered. If you organize this material around your research questions and keep your main thesis in mind at all times while you write, then each section of your paper should build on the next and extend the scope of your original topic so that you are making a solidly contextualized argument.

A difficult skill to master is effective integration of research with your own analysis. This is a sometimes tricky balance between over-relying on quotes versus never making a direct reference to anything you read at all. In general, the less quotes you use from secondary sources the better. Save them for evidence from your primary materials that lend a greater sense of depth to your argument. And no quote should ever be more than six lines long without very good reason. Secondary sources can be synthesized and paraphrased with appropriate citations.

If you are not consistently referring back to your scholarly sources to support your own argument, then your overall paper will appear weak, unscholarly and unsound. As I said before, see your paper as a kind of scholarly conversation, in which you pick up on interesting ideas from the people you’ve read and carry those ideas forward in your own analysis.

Transitions within your paper from one point to the next are often tricky, but they are also the binding thread of your argument and should be very well thought out. The use of headers is sometimes a good way to organize your argument but be careful. Short papers (less than 15 pages) really shouldn’t use headers. And even if you do use them, they are not a substitute for a strong transition. The onus is on you to explain why the point you just finished explicating leads logically into the next point your want to make, and so on towards an eventual conclusion.

The conclusion can be as difficult as the introduction, especially if you haven’t prepared a good outline to guide you through the writing process. Be sure not to simply summarize everything that you’ve said but to clearly state why, in the face of the evidence you present, your thesis holds true and, what’s more, leads to larger questions and suggests avenues of future research.

Writing Without Personal Pronouns

It is considered bad scholarly form to use personal pronouns, in particular “I.” You should be writing in a passive voice and avoid direct reference to yourself. This includes the devious use of “one,” “you” or “we” which really signifies “I” and just generally sound pretentious.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, if you’re still in university then you have not achieved a level of scholarly credibility where your own opinion is sufficient proof. This comes after years of scholarly writing, publishing and peer-review. Second, and following from the first, the use of “I” tends to preclude proof supported by scholarly research and evidence.


Editing Your Paper

The first draft should never be the last. In fact, you should have a minimum of three drafts. The first is your initial attempt to lay out your argument. The second is a thoughtfully and critically edited and revised version. The third (or maybe even fourth) is a careful proof reading of grammatical and technical elements.

When you start to edit your paper, don’t be afraid to cut out whole paragraphs, move sections around, add new materials, whatever it takes to make your argument stronger. Pay close attention to your transitional sentences, the order and structure of your paragraphs, and the strength of your introduction and conclusion.

Take out any extraneous statements that don’t really progress your argument further. Avoid overly broad, generalizing sentences like “Communications is at the heart of any society.” These kind of seemingly profound statements are in fact quite obvious and nonsensical, doing little to establish your argument as sound and well ordered. Review each sentence and ask yourself what its function is in your total paper. If it doesn’t add new information, make a statement relating directly to your argument, or provide a logical transition to the next, then either re-write it or discard it.

A Note on Tenses

One of the common problems that plague students is keeping your tenses straight. For the most part, try to write in the present voice unless you are describing events that occurred in the past. When you are analyzing discourses about past events (such as news stories or the like), these are living texts that exist in the present. When introducing scholarly sources, use the present voice (e.g., "As Jones suggests, …"). These are just suggestions, the important thing is that your use of tenses is consistent and logical.


Citations and Bibliographies

The most important technical element to any scholarly paper is citations and bibliographies. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t go more than three sentences without a citation. There really is no way to over-cite, but under-citing is a serious problem. Without proper citations, you could be faced with a charge of plagiarism, which could result in failure or even expulsion. Contrary to what some students may think, citing does not imply that you have no original ideas of your own. Rather, it demonstrates the integrity of your own ideas by proving that you have carefully considered them in light of more established research in the field.

Bibliographies usually only include works that were cited in the paper. However, at the undergraduate level – particularly in the first couple of years – it’s better to list everything relevant that you read for the paper. That does not mean “pad” your bibliography with sources you never consulted. This is a rather transparent and desperate act that most professors can see right through. However, until you improve on your ability to effectively integrate research and analysis, better to err on the side of caution and give the professor as much information as possible on your research process.

Scholarly papers must follow a recognized citation style. There are tonnes of them out there. In general, Communication Studies tends to use either APA or Chicago style, both with in-text citations. Endnotes or footnotes should be reserved for explanatory information that doesn’t directly relate to the argument but holds some potential interest to the reader. Check the Effective Writing Centre for more information on citation styles. Whatever style you decide to use, be consistent and thorough. All citations should include at least the author’s last name, date of publication, and page number.

APA Style Citation

(Jones, 1999, p. 75)

Chicago Style Citation

(Jones 1999, 75)


Finishing Touches

Creativity in scholarly research comes from the quality of the argument, not the quality of the biner. Follow these basics to ensure that your essay looks professional:

  • 20lb white bond paper, no hole-punch.
  • 1 inch margins all around.
  • Page numbers on every page except the first one.
  • The title of your paper on the first page, in bold and centred at the top of the page.
  • Times Roman 12pt font (black) for everything, including quotes and bibliography, except endnotes or footnotes, which should be 10pt.
  • Direct quotes that are less than three lines or two sentences long should be included in the body of the paper with quotation marks and a citation immediately after the close.
  • Direct quotes that are four-six lines long should be inset, one half inch on both the left and right margin, and single-spaced.
  • Punctuation goes AFTER the in-text citation, not before.
  • Double space all text except long inset quotes.
  • Don’t use liquid paper or write in additional notes or comments once you’ve printed the final version. What’s done is done.
  • The cover page has the title of your essay in the centre, with your name, student ID number, the professor’s name, the TA’s name (if applicable), the course number, and the date of submission listed at the bottom right-hand side of the page. Nothing else.
  • Staple your essay pages together in the top left-hand corner. Don’t waste money on fancy binders, colour cover pages or any other frivolous gestures that will do nothing to help you if the research and analysis aren’t sound.


Getting Your Paper Back

Hopefully, when the professor returns your paper with a grade and comments, you will see that your hard work has paid off. Sometimes, though, the mark is not as high as you hoped. Before reacting with disappointment, read through your paper and try to reflect on the comments to see where you could have improved. Take at least 24 hours before discussing the paper with your professor, and when you do, make an effort to learn from the experience, not just grade grub. Very few professors will agree to a re-write, extra work, or change the mark without a very good reason. If you feel you deserve this extra break, however, be prepared to make a good case for it. A bad reason would be that you need the higher mark to get into your program of choice. We have these grade point cut-offs for a reason.