What types of information are you looking for?

I think about evidence for a research paper in terms of three categories:

  1. Stories (or detailed examples) are one thing that happened one time (usually to one person). Stories persuade the audience emotionally and paint a vivid mental picture that helps the audience understand and remember the point. A story is one example of the point you’re trying to make. Stories help you engage your reader and clarify your point. They persuade the reader emotionally.
  1. Statistics are numbers that represent many examples (hundreds, thousands or millions) and therefore help convince the audience logically that your example isn’t an isolated incident but represents what is apt to happen in general.
  1. Expert testimony is what an expert source (person or organization) says is likely to happen in general. Expert testimony has the same function as statistic. It helps convince the audience logically that your story/ example isn’t an isolated incident but represents what is apt to happen in general. Expert testimony is used when good statistics can’t be found.

It’s best if each paragraph in your paper contains a couple of stories and four statistics or bits of expert testimony—almost every body paragraph should contain some of each.

Don’t cite yourself as a source. Stories or expert knowledge that you have should be included in your paper, but each point must be supported by many outside sources in addition.

Look at the following fictional example, which has been color-coded to match the definitions above. It illustrates how each type of evidence might be used in a paragraph of the body of a research paper to support the point: Megamart drives local pharmacies out of business.

Megamart drives local pharmacies out of business. The Indianapolis Register reported on June 8, 1999, that in 1983, Joe’s Local Pharmacy in Pautuk, Indiana closed its doors 18 months after Megamart opened its pharmacy in the same town (Wissly, 2003). Megamart was later fined for selling prescriptions below cost, presumably to drive out local competition. Megamart paid the $2,000,000 fine and remains in business in Pautuk. Joe Wagner, owner of Joe’s Local Pharmacy, went bankrupt in 1984 and died two days later of cardiac arrest. Forbes Magazine reports that since 1983, 4800 local pharmacies have gone out of business within two years of a Megamart opening within five miles (Smith, 2004). Sarah Reynolds, Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri said, “Megamart pharmacies have decimated locally-owned pharmacies in the United States” (as cited in Patel, 2001).

More about what is and isn’t a story:

A story is one thing that happened one time to one person, village, company or species, etc.

STORY: Killed was Margo Milverstedt of Madison, Wis. She was sleeping in the back seat of the vehicle when the accident occurred on Interstate 80, the State Patrol said. Ms. Milverstedt, 42, was not wearing a seat belt. (Vehicle Overturns on I-80; Wisconsin Woman Dies; [Metro Edition] Omaha World – Herald. Omaha, Neb.: Jul 25, 1994. pg. 11)

NOT A STORY: The school transportation industry and safety advocates are voicing varying reactions to proposed federal rules that stop short of requiring the installation of safety belts in large school buses.   The proposal by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would require small school buses — those that weigh 10,000 pounds or less — to be equipped with lap-and- shoulder belts instead of just lap belts, as current rules require. Also, seat backs on all school buses would have to be raised to 24 inches, from 20 inches.
Ash, Katie, Education Week, 02774232, 8/5/2007, Vol. 27, Issue 14

NOT A STORY: Seat belts remain the most important protection for drivers, according to a study by Farmers Insurance, which examined 2006 fatal-crash data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Seat Belts’ Use Praised.” Best’s Review 108.9 (Jan. 2008): 22-22.

NOT A STORY: Health enhancement includes knowing your family history could reduce the risk for disease and could help the doctor identify the cause of symptoms. Doing cardio or weights for half an hour each day could result in a healthy heart. It also recommends driving within speed limit and wearing seat belt.
Self; Jan2008, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p119-119, 1p, 1c

Stories clarify the point, make the point memorable, and persuade the audience emotionally.  But they may not be the case in general.  Statistics, and bits of expert testimony, show the audience that your story isn’t an exception–that your point is true in general. Statistics and expert testimony persuade the audience logically.

In review:
Stories/examples (shows one example of the point)
GOOD –  hold attention/memorable
GOOD –  Clarify point
GOOD –  persuade emotionally
BAD – may not be representative

Statistic/expert testimony (shows that point is true in general)
GOOD –  persuades logically
GOOD –  shows that the story is representative
BAD – not memorable/doesn’t hold attention

The best way to support any point is to tell a story that clearly illustrates it first and follow the story with statistics. The story keeps the audience’s attention, paints a picture in their minds, and may help persuade them emotionally. But a story only proves that this thing happened one time to one person. Statistics convince the audience that your point is also true in general.

The purpose of using evidence from outside sources in your paper or speech is to convince your audience that your points are true, so all of your resources must be well known, and have a reputation for accuracy. But where do you find this stuff?  Many times asking experts over the phone or in person is a great alternative. Experts answer your questions directly and often direct you to other valuable sources. An expert is anyone who has significant experience or knowledge in the area you’re researching.  Citing an expert you interviewed is a little more complicated than citing a well known publication.  You will have to explain your expert source’s qualifications (in about three to ten words).

Although asking an expert is a very effective strategy, almost all students do a large portion of their research via the Internet. When we do research for school (or to convince intelligent people in the workplace), we try to use reputable, published sources (newspapers, magazines etc.), because reputable published sources double check their information to make sure it’s correct before they publish it. Well known national newspapers use journalists (reporters) who are trained to stick to the facts and get more than one source to confirm information.  In addition, editors and fact-checkers confirm all the important information before the article is published.  As you can imagine, most websites don’t use similar standards.

A textbook is a good source too, but doing a general Google search is a really bad idea–you will get mostly unusable sources, sources that don’t double check their facts and who have a commercial interest biasing the information.

Figuring out which sources are acceptable is complicated by the fact that millennials often have trouble telling the difference between good and bad sources of information, possibly because they have always had the Internet, where it’s fast and cheap to make a website look credible. (This is not meant to bash millennials in any way. We all are limited by our experience.) Stanford University, the most difficult college in the United States to get accepted to as an undergraduate, recently found that their incoming freshmen couldn’t tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources. Read about their study here.

Beginners make a few predictable mistakes.  Using a standard Google search usually returns commercial sites trying to sell something or “blog” sites giving uninformed, unsubstantiated opinions. Neither is useful for your research. If you just Google, you will waste your time and become frustrated, because you will find evidence that you would like to use but it will come from from unacceptable sources. Similarly, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source. It is an excellent way to find other sources (which might be credible), but you should never use information gained directly from Wikipedia in your paper or speech.

For this class, in addition to interviewing experts, we will focus on researching through the following methods, as explained in the following short videos:

  1. Limiting Google Searches to Specific Sources (Find a list of sources to use here.)
  2. Using Google to Search *.gov sites
  3. Using SIRS through the BTC Library
  4. Using EBSCO Host through the BTC Library

You are not limited to the sources listed above.  If you look elsewhere and and find sources that are well known and have a reputation for accuracy, or if you can explain to the audience why they should find the source credible, you may use them.