A student’s guide for research in the social sciences

20 Feb , 2016 Resources

The Romanian tertiary educational system lacks incentives for quality research and has continuously failed to provide the resources needed for a healthy research-oriented academic environment, not only for BA and MA/MSc students – who are not expected to do much research, anyway – but also for Ph.D. students and full-time scholars which are expected to do a lot of research. The limited resources of our academic institutions and the underfunding of the educational system and research – especially in the Social Sciences – creates functional and qualitative limitations for doing research, considering that professors must publish-or-perish. I know many BA classmates who are not only unaware of how to do a proper research paper, but they didn’t even acquire the basic skills to understand research work. They don’t know where to go to search for a paper – except for Google, a very good place to start, IMHO – or a book. Therefore, in this note, I intend to recommend some resources for research in the social sciences, but also some sources for papers and books that can be used for literature reviews and is focused on the needs of BA students in Romania.

Methodology

The methods are one of the most important parts of any research project, for BA students and young researchers alike. Good research requires rigurosity and a clear methodology, one that will allow for the reproduction of results and will assure clarity. As a student, the first methods textbook I have ever read was the Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science by Stephen Van Evera. A marvelously clear, simple, and useful book that can make you grasp the basics of qualitative research methods. After you read this, you should pass to a higher level and read The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth et al. or  Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research by Gary King et. all. or Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches by John Creswell and The language of social research: a reader in the methodology of social research by Paul Lazarsfeld and M. Rosenberg. If you want to read even more, you can start with The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers by Imre Lakatos and Quantitative Data Analysis: Doing Social Research to Test Ideas of Donald Treiman. And now, last but not least, I strongly recommend a minimal reading of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Karl Popper’s The logic of scientific discovery.

Style and Academic Writing

I’ve never been satisfied with my writing style. I always try to improve something, to change and clarify my writing, and to use references in a way that is easy to understand by the reader. Besides this, academic style and rigor in writing are essential for research papers. I know well that academic style is hard to comprehend initially, especially if your one-semester Academic Writing course is done by a little arrogant TA that is a bit unprepared for the task. I’m in my final year of my BA program and I know many colleagues who don’t even know how to write proper footnotes or a bibliography.

If you have the same problem or just want to improve your academic writing style, you should start by reading The Chicago Manual of Style [they also have a website with a Quick Guide] or the APA Style Guide to Electronic References. Personally, I’ve started by using The Chicago Manual of Style and the Notes and Bibliography style (eg. footnotes), because, in my first year, every course required footnotes for the semester papers and I was a bit afraid to try something that was clearly easier to use (Author-date, or parenthetical style) but not what the teacher recommended. From the second semester of the second year, I have started to use only the parenthetical style (e.g. Smith 2016, 24) because is the most used in the field, it is easier to use, and more stylish. If you decide to use the parenthetical style, you should be very careful when doing your bibliography (final reference list) and be sure not to miss some books that you used and properly referenced in the text. Learning to write in LaTeX would be even better. It will make you save time, focus on your ideas, and will offer a stunning formatting.

Recently, I’ve started to use RefWorks by ProQuest and ReadCube to keep the articles that I use to write my research papers. If you are Romanian student at a university that is a member of AnelisPlus Association, you can open a free account on RefWorks and keep the papers you read for semester papers or research online, the only downside being that it doesn’t have an Android or iOS app, like ReadCube. Furthermore, RefWorks can automatically make your bibliography or references by taking the meta-information from PDF.

 Academic sources

In the social sciences or any other field of study, always start a research project by doing what is known as a literature review: reading what others have discovered or said about the topic of your research interest. By doing this, you avoid repeating already done work in the field, discover what is the state of the field and what are the issues of debate among researchers, and the latest discoveries. Thereby, you can discover new research topics, can criticize already-existing mainstream opinions in the field or even try to change the paradigm. Regardless, you must always do an extensive literature review, especially when you are are BA students and thereby without almost any knowledge on the topic you work on. At this level, all research you do is by reading the existing literature, summarizing and interpreting it, maybe giving it a new (maybe innovative) look, one that constitutes original work.

When I’m reviewing the literature on a topic of interest, I tend to use multiple websites, platforms and legal or semi-legal ways of obtaining the papers and books I need. I do recommend the use of only legal sources, but we must recognize that in developing countries, where research is scarcely underfunded, the use of semi-legal sources of obtaining knowledge is a reality and an important way of maintaining a minimum level of quality in research, especially in the social sciences.

Firstly, if you are a university student – in the case of Romania, a university that is a member of AnelisPlus – ask for an institutional e-mail (it must have the web domain of your university of faculty after at-sign (@); eg. @drept.unibuc.ro) that will enable you to access the journals and online databases that your university has subscribed to. If you are a student of the University of Bucharest or any other university in AnelisPlus, you should make an account on e-Information.ro, using your institutional email and for Ebsco Host by filling this form on AnlisPlus website and wait for RomDidact to send you an e-mail of confirmation (It can take a few days). If you are a student at a foreign university, check on your university website or at your library.

Secondly, I frequently use semi-legal sources for academic papers. I know that this is bad and unfair, that I am practically breaching copyright law, and you should also know this. Still, I also think that the paywall fees for most journals and academic databases are prohibitive and there is no fair reason for this, so I’m not feeling very bad about this. The main source for journal articles is, of course, Sci-Hub.cc, the renown Russian platform. To use it you will need to have the DOI code or the hyperlink to the original journal article (google it). For academic books, I usually use the Russian Genesis Library, one of the best in the world, with millions of academic books and journal articles. Another source – a legal one – is Google Scholar, an academic search engine that can be very useful. From here (or the normal Google) you can also use Google Books, a repository of millions of books that are only partially displayed online. These are the main sources for academic works that I usually use.

You should also start an account on Academia.edu and on ResearchGate. Also, the Directory of Open Access Journals can be a source of interesting articles, even if I have some doubts regarding the quality of the peer-review process of some Open Access journals.

Concluding remarks

Research is fairly hard. Quality research takes time, effort, and dedication. Still, you can make it easier if you know where to start, where to search for papers and books, what to read to be able to construct your own research design. I hope that this blog note is useful.


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