The essential steps for selecting a research topic for an academic paper

How does one choose and refine a research topic that results in a publishable academic paper? How do you ensure that your research actually makes a contribution to your discipline? IHS’s Jeanne Hoffman interviews Dr. Bill Glod and Dr. Phil Magness on the best process for selecting a research topic. The below interview provides pertinent advice for students of every discipline looking to write an academic paper that gets the attention of scholars in their discipline.

Jeanne Hoffman:

Suppose I have an idea for a research project, any research project. What’s the first thing I should be doing?

Bill Glod:

The first thing you want to ask is “What has been written about it before? What have other people done on this particular topic?” Often if you have a really good idea, there’s something that you can contribute to the literature. However, you must be aware of what other scholars have said about it.

Phil Magness:

I agree with that. I also recommend that you send your research idea to peers and mentors, asking, “Do you see anything familiar with this? First of all is anything I’ve written obviously crazy, does this just look like complete idiocy, and secondly are there people that have already done it before?” The last question is really important, because if it’s already been done before than it’s no fun (If it’s crazy at least there’s something maybe interesting you can still do with it).

Bill Glod:

Yeah. Oftentimes when I get an idea for a paper, something I want to research I’ll type up a brief synopsis in an email and bounce it off of a couple other people to see if they have any thoughts on it or maybe they’re aware of something in the literature that’s out there that I haven’t seen yet.

Jeanne Hoffman:

Once I’m familiar with the literature surrounding my proposed research topic, what is the second thing I should do to refine it?

Bill Glod:

Well you’re already aware of what’s been written about it, you’re already aware of what others have said about it, now you want to look for what exactly you hope to contribute. What’s the new contribution you’re going to make to the literature? So this means critiquing the existing work, or finding where the deficiency is. You’re going to be able to either come in and offer something new that’s insightful about it. Or maybe rebut and critique something that’s been written that is erroneous or could be interpreted in a better way.

Phil Magness:

I agree with that. I kind of like to do the reading and the writing at the same time. I try to just run through and try to think of a skeleton of the paper at this point and say, “Okay, well here’s how it might break down. Here’s the section where I might engage this particular author and say well ‘here’s how I can improve or whatever or rebut what their central thesis is.’ And then next section for a different author if that’s the case.” Then I have that outline that you can work with as a skeleton from the beginning. In the meantime also if you’re taking voluminous notes on the side, having that together may be useful. You’re probably not going to draw much from those notes, but there will likely be something there of interest.

Jeanne Hoffman:

I have the outline for my project. I have a pretty good idea of what authors I want to engage and what questions.What is the third thing I should do with my idea for a research project?

Phil Magness:

Well, you want to ask yourself, why am I writing this paper? What am I hoping to achieve with it? That could be anything from deciding what the journal I want to submit it to to which conference I want to present it at? How am I going to get it out there, get it published, and get scholars in my own discipline to engage with it.

Dr. Bill Glod:

That’s right. I’d also add that in this time you might want to send it an early rough draft of it. I think a lot of people wait too long till the end. They try to polish too much before they send out their paper for comments. This is the right time to see if you’re going down the right track or just following a dead end. I would recommend making sure you have a good hook on the first page of your paper. If you don’t, work on that.

Jeanne Hoffman:

All right, well I’ll be sending off a draft to you guys as soon as I get the words on paper.
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