Focus on Research| Top 10 Common Student Mistakes When Preparing Research Essays (PART ONE)

Each semester without fail I find myself correcting the exact same batch of student mistakes when marking research papers. In an effort to help students improve their writing skills (and quite frankly to make the reading experience more enjoyable on my end), I have compiled a top ten list of the most frequent and easily avoided errors when preparing and writing a research paper. Part One appears below and Part Two will be posted later in the week. Remember that a clear and easy-to-read paper that shows evidence of argument, research, and analysis is your end goal. 

1. Failing to state a thesis up front in the essay.

When first picking up and reading an essay, I am almost immediately trying to identify and understand what the paper’s thesis or core argument is all about. I wrote in a previous post about the importance of developing a topic question and a thesis statement to guide your efforts. Bottom line, you must state up front in the paper (ideally within the first paragraph or two) what exactly you are arguing.  Many students bury their thesis in the middle of their paper or sometimes state very clearly what they are arguing at the conclusion of their essays. Careful outlining and delaying the writing of your paper’s introduction until later in the writing process will help prevent this common mistake.

2. Not introducing sources correctly (or at all).

This is perhaps the most frustrating mistake that students make when preparing research papers, but also one of the riskiest since it can read as plagiarism to your professor. In its most common appearance, students will simply drop a quotation into their paper without properly introducing their source in any way.

For example, I will take a passage from a peer-reviewed article by Steven Goldsmith titled “The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution”  in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 42, No. 2 (Winter, 1983), pp. 197-208  to make my point.

The passage I have chosen to cite is on page 197 and reads:  “Not only did the readymades find their way into permanent museum collections, but they solidified their position in the academic history of art by crucially influencing later developments.”

Students will sometimes simply drop a quote like this into their papers without introducing the author in any way, so that they begin a sentence with the quoted passage. NEVER EVER DO THIS. This is not only a mistake, it can reads as though you are simply passing off the quotation as your own, even if you place it in quotes. The correct way to integrate a quote like this would be to introduce it:

  • As Goldsmith suggests in his essay concerning Duchamp, “Not only did the readymades find their way into permanent museum collections, but they solidified their position in the academic history of art by crucially influencing later developments" (197).

Alternatively, you could use only part of the quote, working the idea into your own words/thesis:

  • I agree with Goldsmith who argues that readymades “solidified their position in the academic history of art by crucially influencing later developments” (197) since this helps explain the rise of art writing about non-traditional art forms in the past twenty years.

Or, you could simply paraphrase the idea into your own words and offer the citation like this:

  • Goldsmith developed a landmark argument in his essay “The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution” by suggesting that the readymade was critical to the transformation of museum and art historical practices (197).

3. Padding a paper with large block quotes

Picking up on the previous error, some students end up simply inserting large block quotes into their papers without taking the time to comment on them and/or summarizing the importance of the quote in their own words. Remember that any large quote of more than 4 typed lines needs to be set off as a block quote, but it also has to be used sparingly and with proper introduction and commentary. Using the same Goldsmith article, here is an example where the block quote is properly introduced and then commented upon:

Goldsmith developed a landmark argument in his essay “The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution” by suggesting that the readymade was critical to the transformation of museum and art historical practices. As Goldsmith suggests: 
  • Not only did the readymades find their way into permanent museum collections, but they solidified their position in the academic history of art by crucially influencing later developments. Without Duchamp's experiments it is likely that the Pop Art celebration of everyday objects or the current profusion of "junk" sculpture might never have occurred. In any case, such vigorous movements have helped theorists perceive the inadequacies of traditional criteria for art, such as imitation or expression, and have encouraged them either to abandon definition altogether or pursue it in some other direction. (197)
Therefore, Goldsmith introduces an important idea concerning the limitations and oversights of the art world, arguing that the readymade revealed how many more options existed in the evaluation of art and art objects.

The mistake many students will make is to simply insert the block quote and then not comment on it, or fail to connect the ideas to their own paper. In this case, the use of large block quotes without proper contextualization reads as simple and lazy padding of the paper (or trying to get the word count up).

4. Incorrectly citing on-line and web based sources.

The use of electronic sources is an increasing reality in the world of academic research, but there is no excuse not to properly cite the various forms that exist. Nothing irritates professors more than glancing at a list of citations in a bibliography and seeing a list of decontextualized URLs! On the resources page of this blog, I have provided a link to both an MLA and a Chicago Style citation generator. The MLA version in particular is incredibly comprehensive and helps you create quick bibliographic citations for every imaginable type of electronic source, ranging from web-based videos to online magazine articles.

5. Mixing up citation styles.

Students also get confused with citation formats and/or combine them in error. When in doubt with humanities based paper (like art history), use the MLA or Modern Language Association style to cite your sources. Remember that page numbers are placed in parentheses after the idea or quote is used, and that it falls BEFORE the period, like this -à (156).  Remember too that not every source you look at for your research will always be cited in your paper, but anything you consult for your paper should be included in your bibliography. Professors are looking for evidence of rich research and the bibliography provides a visual roadmap of the ideas you traversed to arrive at your final paper. 

PART TWO of this post will appear later in the week, so stay tuned......