When researching and writing an academic paper you will face the difficult decision of how to present the information given by each of your sources. Paraphrase? Quote? Summarize? Use as background? Main point? The choices are many. For a great paper that is looked at as a literary masterpiece to be followed, there only can be one correct choice for each of your sources. So the tough question is, "How can I tell what is the best way to present data?"
Before you can answer that question you must know the focus of your paper. Without a pinpointed focus you cannot know how your information source will coincide with your subject. Let's say your research paper will be in the field of religion. This is a broad subject - broader than most people realize. Many say there are only five or so major religions but a quick Google search shows more than 45 in practice around the world. If religion was your topic then you would not know if you needed to make a source summary, paraphrase it, or if it would be one of your main sources. You would need to pinpoint one religion and then narrow that focus to one aspect of the religion - possibly its effects on the area where it is predominantly practiced so you would know how to treat each piece of data. Your paper's focus determines how each piece of information can be successfully used within your paper.
Once you have a solid thesis statement then you can determine the focus of the information you have uncovered. The four common ways information is used within an academic paper is: background, paraphrased, summarized, and quoted. Paraphrased and summarized usually are misunderstood with many people thinking they are the same thing. Paraphrased is utilizing all the information from a source but putting it into your own words. Summarizing is to highlight the main points or facts - to make the information concise. When summarizing you condense the information.
As an example of summarization let's say you stumbled upon this fantastic source and you really like the main point the author is making - it fits perfectly within your paper's focus. The problem is he has 15 supporting points underneath the main one. The information is vital but rather wordy and some of the data would be way over the head of your readers making this a great source to summarize.
Once you have decided to summarize the information from your source the next question you must answer is "Why?" Are you summarizing the data to jar your memory later when writing your academic paper? Or are you summarizing the information so that it will fit within the parameters of your paper? Maybe the summarization is because you only need one point out of the numerous made by the source's author? You need to know why you are summarizing because the answer will determine how you will summarize the information.
If you are summarizing the information to fit into your paper then you should focus your summary on the paper's style, the paper's tone, and the paper's focus.
If the summary is to jar your memory when writing - in other words this source is for background information - then write down key words, phrases, and points used by the author to help you remember all the points of interest you discovered in the source material.
Once you have determined the purpose of the summary then you can take the necessary steps to properly summarize the material.
Know your material - Academic articles usually are divided into seven sections: title, summary sometimes called an abstract, an introduction, the methodology used to reach the conclusion of the research, the results, a discussion where both sides of the results are discussed - basically the pros and cons, and the references.
Read all the material before attempting to summarize it. Scanning material is not reading it. Looking over a paragraph and only reading the main sentence of each paragraph is not reading the material. Citing the results without understanding all the pros and cons discussed by the author is not reading the material. You must read the material so that you fully understand so you can make an accurate summarization. Read it until you understand it - this is why you were assigned to write an academic paper - so you will learn.
Taking notes - Approach your note taking with your paper's focus in mind. Keep in mind your reason for the summarization and your paper's focus. Once you have a full understanding of the source's information then you can easily zero in on the relevant information you want to utilize.
When taking your notes analyze the information. Is it relevant? Is the information accurate and make sense? Do I need to get a second opinion or a back-up source for this data because it is controversial or it goes against all known facts about my subject? Keep these thoughts in mind when taking your notes.
When taking your notes do not summarize your summarization to the point that you do not have all the information you will need to write your research paper. It can be frustrating to have to stop your writing to go back and try and locate your source again because you do not have all the facts you need to round out your paper.
So, you obviously need to know how to make good notes. Take extensive but summarized notes. If you think you might need a point then include the information in your notes. It's better to have a little too much information in your notes than not enough.
Check References - Check the author's sources and ensure all information is accurate - especially if it goes against the grain of common knowledge on the subject matter. This can be done easily with plagiarism checker that highlights references and their sources. Also make sure you take down all the information needed to cite this source within your paper.
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