Questioning the Final Research Paper

CC image courtesy of Shht! on Flickr

Before the new semester starts, I’d like to address the academic tradition of the “final paper.”  I don’t understand why so many professors assign research papers as a final assignment.  Research papers are difficult to execute well when under a severe time constraint, especially when most of the knowledge you’re pulling together, synthesizing, and analyzing may not be taught until a couple weeks before the paper is due — or the external research has to be performed on top of keeping up with other heavy assignments.  What generally results is not great research or writing.

How can students be expected to write good research papers given that they haven’t learned all the course material yet?  And if we don’t need to learn the course material to write the paper, what’s the point of writing it?  The whole process is quite frustrating to me because I don’t understand the reasoning.  Do professors really expect us to work on the research paper throughout the entire semester?  If they do, why don’t they assign more relevant material each week that would support it?  I often feel like I don’t actually write high-quality research papers, yet I still get rewarded with an A grade.  It doesn’t help me in the long run if I think my research papers are great when they’re actually not.

An alternative use of our time is for professors to assign shorter research essays assigned throughout the semester that can build into a final paper.  Or — honestly, I find that I learn more course material when I write mid-term/final [take home] essays that require me not to research but to think cumulatively about the entire semester.  Research papers rarely reflect what I actually learned in the class.

Don’t get me wrong — I think that writing a research paper is an important, necessary skill for LIS students to develop.  There have definitely been times where I’ve really enjoyed the process.  I’ve just found that research papers aren’t really suited for many LIS classes.  I guess the real question is if a final assignment is actually supposed to demonstrate what you learned from class.  If professors don’t care about that, then research papers seem to be the default final assignment.

What do you think about the pedagogy behind final research papers?  Have you found research papers to be beneficial to your LIS learning?  Are there other assignments that you got more out of?

22 replies

  1. I agree with assigning research papers because it encourages students to think critically and to be more comfortable with academic writing. My goal with that would be to help students recognize that they can add their thoughts to the literature of our field, which can help people like me (who are academics and who teach future librarians, but aren’t currently working in a library) to adjust our theories and our teaching based upon what librarians are telling us in their writing.
    If it works well, it’s a beautiful cycle where the writing of people who were once LIS students can inform the teaching of current LIS students. BUT, I agree with you, it has to be done well. Having smaller projects leading up to the paper is one approach, but I think most students aren’t going to master the course material in a short time, and most faculty members are going to be aware of that. There are plenty of things as a doctoral student that I feel like I haven’t mastered from my classes, but my MLS gave me the opportunity to see that I often remember more of that than I thought I did and tied it to other things I knew. I can’t speak for your professors, but I suspect the goal of their papers is not to have you demonstrate that you can regurgitate the information from the class but to show that you are thinking about it critically and talking about this new information in light of other information you already know. Those skills are the ones that I see as most important, because what we teach might change as time passes (new cataloging standards and new theories might emerge, for example), and students will have to teach themselves plenty when they are out in the workforce, but encouraging us to think about new information in a certain way will be a valuable skill forever.
    It would interesting to know what kind of papers you’re being assigned–I’m not teaching my own section (yet!) but someday I will, and I want to help students see papers as something useful rather than something that’s frustrating, especially if I haven’t clearly elaborated why I’m making them do all that work!


  2. Great post. I totally agree that research papers often aren’t effective assignments.

    I always felt the most meaningful assignments were project based. Even a short essay question doesn’t make sense in many classes. In a collection development class, we weeded part of a collection and spent fictional money in a subject area. In web design, we worked with a client to redesign their website. And so on. While I can see Julia’s point, not all MLS students (…the majority?) need to publish in the field. Their time would be better spent acquiring practical skills rather than writing the same research papers they did in undergrad.


  3. Rose, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it needs to be planned well. If the course is structured such that the final paper can be prepared for and worked on well in advance, with other activities that build up to it, then it can work really well. If there’s material taught two weeks before that’s absolutely necessary, though, then all that does is encourage last-minute writing. Which is never good for most people!


  4. It is a good question to ask Rose. As you highlighted, and others have now echoed, it all comes down to thoughtful planning. I’ve had two major end-of-term research papers for LIS thus far and in both cases the final product was a synthesis of what we had been learning and discussing over the course. This was more true of one project specifically where weekly projects and research fed directly into the final paper. It was a little bit of a mad-dash of writing to get it all together but the result was a practical application of what we had been learning in the course.
    In both cases and in the better scheduled courses I have taken there was a good 2-3 week span at the end of the semester where new material wasn’t being covered or assessed, and all we were tasked to work on was the final project. Class time during this period was devoted to discussion or presentation of in-process pieces of the final project. To me, this was a much more “real world” type scenario and beneficial.
    I also think that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that doing research for our own papers — under deadline — educates us about the process with the probable benefit that we will be better able to help patrons with their research and citation. Again, it should be done just to check something off a list – practical applicable learning is the best kind – but should the course be something that we ought be able to do.


  5. I’m going to be the naysayer here and say I highly disagree. Maybe it’s because I come from a background, where research papers are, for the most part, completely non-related to the material in class in that it is something you are learning on your own, hence the term a research paper. I was taught the reason for doing them is to learn new material and it’s a piece of the pie or puzzle so to speak with the material. All of the research papers I have done both as an undergrad and as an MLIS student have been in the same realm as my classes but have had little to do with the material being taught. It’s something extra for you to learn to gain an even greater understanding of the material.

    Here’s an example, I took Photographic preservation this summer and while we briefly covered Vinegar syndrome, it wasn’t in depth. So I wanted to learn more and I did my research paper on said syndrome. I learned a lot about the syndrome it’s self, ways to prevent it, even that it not only occurs in photographs but on model horses as well! We could have never covered all this in class.

    Finally, in another class, my very first semester, we learned about rights of access. It was brief however, and so I wanted to do my final research paper on access to controversial collections. It was a great learning experience.

    So in the end, I disagree this post in it’s entirety. I can understand where you’re coming from though. I think the bigger issue is that more and more people today do not know how to do research properly and I think this lack is may be what’s causing the anxiety of having to a research paper in a semester. I’m glad I have the entire semester though! I’d rather do that than a 12 page research paper in quarter. Now, that to me is insane….


    • Katrina — I definitely agree with you and Alex that research papers are a great way to do an independent study and learn more on your own. I think it all really depends on what prompt the professor provides for your research paper topic. Sometimes you have the opportunity to do that, and sometimes the professor wants you to incorporate a lot of elements learned throughout the class.


  6. I have to say I agree with Katrina. I found research papers to be the best way to do a little independent study, to augment my knowledge on a topic that I was particularly interested in. It is a great way to take time to really investigate a topic that you care about. It can also be a way to make any class related to your own career aspirations, tailor the research paper to your sub-field. Some of my main passions are open access and art librarianship, I took opportunities to find correlations or connections with the topic of the class I was taking in my research papers.
    Research papers aren’t supposed to require your completion of the class or be a summary of everything you learn, but rather an opportunity to investigate the one part of the class that really struck a cord with you. If you approach them in this way, they will be much more enriching, and if you choose topics you are passionate about, your papers will also be better.


  7. Thanks Rose for bring up this very important question. I have never really understood the concept of ‘research paper’ especially when we are in classes to learn/understand abstract theories and foundational concepts. I dislike having a research paper to be on an ‘open topic’ related to the overall class. Instead, I appreciate if the course is planned strategically— allowing students to write smaller papers, conducting research and then synthesize the information into a larger paper. I would also like to see more curriculums using current ALA published books and even looking at current trends in librarianship to better prepare students once they complete the program.


  8. My classmates and I were overwhelmed with mysterious stories from previous classes. Thankfully, our professor was someone who enjoyed the process of data collection and analysis and understood the tight grip of a semester’s worth of work. She sectioned off the assignments into chapters so that we could tackle each responsibility with confidence and see the gradual ‘shape’ of the paper evolve. I personally found it difficult to ‘come up with a topic’ just for the assignment, but as I progressed, I found a close relationship with the data I found. I agree with Variegated Stacks in that the paper would better benefit the class if it mirrored current Library trends and piggybacked upon other professional studies.

    As for the necessity of the final research paper overall, it depends on the avenue of Librarianship a student plans to take. For our professor, these kinds of research analyses were crucial to her career, as she was required to contribute published studies to satisfy her tenure track.

    My program also gave students the option to take another class that centered around a private project, Internship, or other involvement, in which a delivered paper was also required. Unfortunately, communication at the Department level is not satisfactory, and many students go the entire program without knowing this is an available alternative.


  9. I also disagree with the article and agree with Katrina and Alex, who have cogently expressed exactly what I was going to say. A research paper is about just that – research – not a test of whether you can regurgitate what you have learned in class.


  10. Ah yes, the research paper…. Usually a dreaded undertaking for most students because, lets face it, most of us (well, me) tell ourselves that we work better under pressure. So, even with an assignment given the first week of class, if the deadline is at the end of class, most won’t even think about it for at least 4 weeks into the semester. So, although I don’t look forward to the assignment, it usually ends up being the exercise that helps me understand the topic better.

    As Katrina, Alex, Rose and Liz stated above (forgive me if I left anyone out), the research paper is not meant to overwhelm the student so that they are forced to be constantly under pressure. The paper is an assignment given to help the LIS student expand their horizons and look deeper into an aspect of a topic that can not be covered in class. For instance, in my first semester in the LIS program I did a paper and Powerpoint presentation on Volunteers in a Public Library. Nowhere is this topic found in our curriculum and yet I believe it to be a very important aspect of the industry. And let’s be perfectly honest here; I’m not about to do a research paper “just for fun”.


  11. Thanks for writing about this at the start of term.

    I support a well-designed term-paper. Learning the bad and good examples provides great preparation for embedded librarianship in an academic career. Another blog on transliteracy explored (don’t have citation, but not my original idea–any guesses?) precisely your questions: how is this process (and its result) relevant to real life? This is especially pertinent given the shortcuts many students take to produce a paper, thus missing the lessons and skills-acquisition.

    I was really lucky in my first semester to have a template of the semester-long process. When the instructor’s syllabus assigns a bibliography, annotated bib, article critique, paper, and presentation, the process is presented in a logical progression through small, cumulative steps. Also, one instructor provided a long list of articles for supplementary reading (highlighting pivotal articles in several areas) so you could add one or two to each week’s reading, allowing several weeks/months for some articles’ ideas to percolate (with a little early-days planning small steps are so much less intimidating for me). These then snowball into a robust supply of resources for a paper. The hard part remains editing down and focusing (at least for me).

    If a final portfolio or capstone project for the MLIS is the question, I am really excited about that process. Having accomplished one thesis (which greatly benefited from several term-paper preliminaries!), I look forward to the potential for an e-portfolio on my resume.

    May I suggest, as I plan to: let professors know early on or when submitting that I/you would appreciate extra-stringent grading or suggestions on how to improve my writing, perhaps with the goal of publishing. Instructors can’t guess which students want tougher grading or more suggestions on writing, and others may not feel comfortable as editors.


  12. Though I personally enjoyed writing papers in college, I agree with this post. There are lots of kinds of researched writing and it’s not a bad thing to get good at responding to ideas that are new to you fairly quickly using research skills–but the genre “research paper” suggests there is an audience of one – the teacher – and a simple purpose – to get an A – which is why Project Information Literacy and other research over the past thirty years at least suggests most undergraduates find ways to escape unscathed by the purported goals of the “research paper.” They find a strategy that works well for throwing them together at the last minute but it’s unclear to me how that advances either information literacy or writing skills appropriate to post-college situations.


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