How to Research a Term Paper in Gerontology

Note:The following material is excerpted from Appendix A in Moody’s book, Aging: Concepts and Controversies, published by Pine Forge Press, 3rd edition, 2000. This material is reprinted with permission from the author and publisher. Research and writing can be intimidating to many students, especially in a field such as gerontology, which is a new subject to most. But research and writing needn’t be frightening. Skillful research is the key to good writing, and careful thinking is the foundation for both. Doing the background research for a term paper in gerontology is more than half the task of actually writing the paper itself.

If you are successful in the research, you end up having other people do your work for you! Of course, that does not mean plagiarism or simply copying what other people have written without giving proper credit. But the trick in writing is to save yourself the trouble of reinventing the wheel. You want to avoid floundering around trying to rediscover a fact or idea that someone else has already worked out before you. Wasting time that way is not necessary at all. In fact, it detracts from the real job of research and writing–namely, thinking about what others have written and deciding what to take and put into your own work.

The key is not to work harder but to work smarter. By building on other people’s work, and giving credit to them where credit is due, you save yourself time and devote your best effort to expressing what you really have to say. The process is the same as the one that takes place in science. All science and all scholarship stand on the work of others. This point holds true for the beginning student no less than for great thinkers. Indeed, the great physicist Isaac Newton himself once said: “If I’ve seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. ” How does this approach apply to your writing a term paper?

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Conducting library research for a term paper is a bit like looking for buried treasure. If you don’t know exactly where the treasure is buried, you end up spending a lot of time digging in places where you imagine the treasure might be. You rely on guesswork instead of careful thought. Once you have a hunch about where the treasure lies, then the actual digging takes practically no time at all. It is just the same with library research. Once you have developed your search strategy–your map for where treasure might be found–then the information sources at your fingertips will guide you quickly to where the treasure lies.

The rest of the work–including writing up your findings–will actually take very little time, because you can build on the work of others. Defining Your Topic Defining your topic. At every stage in the research process, you need to ask yourself, What is the question I am asking? (What information am I trying to find? ) You don’t ask this question only once. For example, suppose you are trying to find out what percentage of people are retired at ages 60 and 70. At first, the question may seem simple. But as you dig deeper, you find that there may be uncertainty about how to count people as “retired” instead of “unemployed” or “disabled. As you look into the statistics, you discover that, behind the solid numbers, differing assumptions are involved. In effect, you ask your basic question over and over again as you look through bibliographic sources. When you are planning your topic, you might find it helpful first to free-associate, or let your mind wander. You need to think about points related to your topic, but also about other subject terms and ideas related to your topic. This process of cross-referencing is at the heart of research and creative thinking. For example, suppose you’re interested in writing a paper on retirement.

Retirement is a big subject, maybe too big for one paper. Social scientists have written whole books on the subject; some have devoted their entire careers to it. But stay with the big subject for a while. Then, think about all the other subjects–the “key words”–that are related to retirement: work, pensions, Social Security, and so on. Each of these could also be a term paper or indeed a whole book. As you look over all your key words, look for connections that interest you; for instance, maybe you see a connection between pensions and retirement.

You might begin to put together a hypothesis or a theme; for example, What is the relationship between pensions and retirement behavior? When you ask yourself research questions, it is helpful if you write down some tentative answers. That’s the first step toward making an outline, or a plan, for your work. Carrying out research is a bit like building a house. In constructing the house, it pays to put time into planning and thinking. You don’t wait to draw up blueprints until you are halfway finished constructing the house. To write a term paper, you also need a plan.

Write down your ideas first without worrying too much about whether your plan is adequate or complete; you’re likely to change it later anyway. Then start consulting other sources. Starting Your Search Starting your search. In constructing a fruitful search strategy, you face a catch-22. You can’t really narrow your research question until you know the subject matter better. But you can’t define the subject matter without carving it down to size with the right research question. Imagine how discouraging your task would be if you didn’t realize that pension levels and retirement behavior might be related.

In gerontology as in all fields, the amount of knowledge is simply too vast for you to master all of it. To make matters worse, gerontology is a multidisciplinary field, involving specialized subjects such as economics, biology, and psychology. Without a clear plan for research, you can simply get lost. The secret of research is to keep widening your process while also narrowing it at the same time. For example, the topic you’ve picked has two key ideas: “pensions” and “retirement. ” Some of the references you find may lead you in directions that don’t interest you–for instance, “pension fund investments” or “mandatory retirement. But other references will be right on target, and will lead you to refine your topic even further. There lies the real process of thinking: testing your ideas against a “map” of knowledge that sums up facts about the world. The mistake that people often make is to construct, at the beginning, a search that is either too narrow or too broad. So, what to do? By all means, carve your topic down to size. But then, as you’re searching for information on your refined topic, also be willing to follow the concept to related topics. In looking at “pension income,” you might find references to Social Security, IRAs, and so on.

Perhaps you’ll come upon a term that isn’t very familiar, like Keogh plan. As you review what you find, you’ll begin to see connections among concepts. But the connected concepts may or may not be exactly the ones listed in computer printouts or abstract summaries. You have to develop a “sixth sense,” constantly looking for clues. The result of this process is a more complete cross-referencing of your subject matter; in effect, you’re creating a dense network of concepts that fully captures your topic and prepares you to write your paper. A number of resources are available to help you build your network of concepts.

One is the library’s own classification system; another is the librarians themselves. The Library of Congress subject headings present a uniform method of classifying documents, and that can be a useful place to begin. But the real clues will come as you examine the books and journals themselves. Don’t simply go to the library card catalog or start browsing through the latest issue of a periodical related to your subject. Doing that will just waste your time, unless you have done some preliminary planning. By all means, enlist librarians to help you, but don’t rely exclusively on librarians.

They can’t be specialists in all subject matters, and they can help you the most if you’ve already done some thinking about the question you want to pursue. If you’ve thought about your question, then a librarian can help guide you to the information sources you need. Another kind of resource that might be helpful is the computerized on-line database. But because searching and researching are not mechanical processes, a computer search won’t solve all your problems, and it may even give the illusion of completeness. Computer searches also present the student with certain dangers.

There are two general kinds of dangers in on-line searching. The first is summarized in a slogan familiar to computer specialists: Garbage in, garbage out. That is, you can only get an answer to the question you ask; if your question or hypothesis is badly framed–for example, if it’s too vague–then you won’t get useful information. The second danger is that you may get too much information, including lots of references that are irrelevant or useless. For both dangers, the cure is the same: good strategies for searching and for eliminating what is extraneous to your search.

The main message here is that you can’t do bibliographic research just by looking for simple terminology, by looking up words in an index, card catalog, or database. One reason is that there are so many related but distinct terms in gerontology: aged, older persons, elderly, senior citizens, and so on. But if you can formulate a research question and remain alert to the meanings of the terms you encounter, you can find the sources that will help you answer your question. Once you find the spot you’ve been looking for, the buried treasure will be lying at your feet. Eight Steps for Carrying Out Library Research

Step 1: Consult The Encyclopedia of Aging for the lead article on your subject. Be sure to make note of the relevant bibliography citations. Step 2: Consult one of the handbooks on aging (from biology, the social sciences, the humanities, and so on) or a current textbook to see if there is a chapter or a section of a chapter devoted to your subject. The handbook’s index can be useful here. (Be sure also to check the more detailed resource list provided below. ) Step 3: Review the bibliography references you have found and organize them by date, starting with the most recent.

Look for titles that focus directly on your topic but approach the subject in a broad way. A literature review article is often an excellent way to get started. Many published articles begin with a literature review or “state-of-the-art” summary of what is known about a topic. Step 4: Consult some recent issues of one of the abstract volumes listed below, such as Abstracts in Social Gerontology, to find the most up-to-date literature on your subject. Looking at abstracts is a quick and handy way to see a summary of what’s in a possible reference without wasting time reading the entire article.

You get more than just a title, and you can find out quickly if the publication could have value for you. Step 5 (optional): To be truly comprehensive and up-to-date, ask a friendly librarian to conduct a computerized search on your subject through AgeLine or a similar on-line database. From your previous bibliographic work, you should have a good collection of key words or authors to help the librarian focus on your topic as precisely as possible. Step 6: By now, you are ready to go to your college library to find the most up-to-date, relevant books and articles on your tentative topic.

But note: Do not judge a book by its cover or a reference by its title. Remember to browse through any book you find, looking at the table of contents, the index, the introduction, a summary chapter, and so on, maybe even sampling a few chapters in between. Don’t make the mistake of reading straight through the entire text of what looks like the “perfect” book or article on your subject. Instead, zero in on the essential information and let the rest go. You can always come back later if you need to. It’s good to get other points of view on your topic.

Step 7: When you are browsing through books or articles, be sure to check their bibliographies or reference lists for interesting titles. Using ideas from these books or articles, you will then be able to “fine-tune” your topic while taking notes and picking up additional ideas that you can incorporate into your paper. Step 8: In most cases, you will find the references you need in your local college library. But if you cannot find them, don’t hesitate to request books or articles on interlibrary loan, for example, from a wider university system or from other libraries.

But don’t fall into the trap of the perpetual scholar, who keeps searching forever and never quite finds the “perfect” reference source. In most cases, you will find what you need close to home. When writing a term paper, you have a deadline to meet. Ending the Search At some point in this process, you are likely to find yourself coming up again and again with the same names of books, articles, or authors as you look through new information sources. Don’t be discouraged by this. It does not mean you have hit a blank wall. In fact, it isn’t even a sign of failure or “going around in circles. ” On the contrary, it may be a sign of success.

If you have gone far enough in the search, it may mean that you’ve struck pay dirt. When you have gone really deeply into any subject area, you are bound to start seeing the same authors come up again and again. At that point, it is time to look through the references on hand and decide which ones are high quality and which ones are relevant for your now refined topic area. Decide which ones are really the most useful to you and gather the key ideas, always giving credit but putting the ideas into your own words. When you have found the treasure you are looking for, go home and start writing.