Research Paper Evaluation Criteria
I. Sources: Does the paper use the right kinds of scholarly or popular-scholarly sources to support its claims?
While no number of sources can be called automatically "enough," the assignment requires that you find sources of sufficient quality to support what you say you know about your topic. Scholarly sources are preferable, but in some disciplines the popular-scholarly source can be used for support if corroborated by scholarly sources. See me for advice about this. In the end, though, one of the most complex and subtle measures of your readiness for upper-division college writing will be your ability to match source quantity and quality to the strength of claims made by your thesis and the demands your readers are likely to make.
Is the paper based on at least some recent article-length sources?
Articles are the sources of the most recent and most tightly focused analysis on your topic. Students who rely on books because the Library catalogue is easier to use, or because books appear to have "more on the topic," are still thinking at a pre-college level. They do not understand how quickly book-length manuscripts become outdated, and how books' much larger theses can make it difficult for students to extract useful support from them without misunderstanding what they are borrowing.
Does it use at least one scholarly source, or does it contain a well-written endnote or footnote which explains exactly why there are no scholarly sources available on this topic?
Take seriously the task of reading scholarship in your field. The popular works available will not give you the authority to say things that will persuade your professors. You can use popular-scholarly journals and scholarly reference works to give you a "ladder of expertise" so that you can read professional scholars' work, but you eventually will have to join the dialogue they are conducting several times each year in their field's scholarly journals. You can learn a lot from "negative success" at reading scholarly work, too. If you are trying your hardest, using all the aids available (including asking teachers in the subject for help), and you still cannot read the scholarship near the end of your first year of study, you probably should rethink your intended major.
If the topic requires it, are the sources recent enough to be persuasive?
Scholarship in the social and natural sciences becomes outdated quickly. Conclusions based on out of date evidence fail to persuade. Students who want to succeed in these majors must become persistent enough researchers to seek out the most recent and authoritative sources on their topics. Humanities sources have undergone immense theoretical upheavals in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, and for many fields, secondary scholarship written much before 1980 can be suspect or unacceptable because its analytical methods are controlled by theoretical assumptions that are no longer acceptable. The fields cannot engage in wholesale book-burning and web-site erasure to eliminate these problematic sources, but an early part of Humanities' majors' upper-division work involves becoming familiar with the currently acceptable theories and analytical methods, and with the sources from earlier scholars work which are still acceptable.
II. Thesis: Is the paper organized by an independent thesis which at least uses reasoning and/or evidence from one article to contribute substantively to the reasoning and/or evidence in any other article, thus avoiding mere summary of the research? Is the thesis carefully composed to avoid claiming absolute knowledge if its evidence supports only possible or probable conclusions? Is the thesis supported by logically sound reasoning?
These questions are asking whether the author has moved beyond the stage of merely reporting what others say, and into the stage of being able to think creatively about the topic. Early attempts to do this may be tentative and uncertain. To protect your reputation for careful thinking, make sure you distinguish clearly among certain, probable, and possible conclusions. Be content to claim your conclusions are "possibly" correct unless you can eliminate many of the contending conclusions to claim they are "probably' correct. Do not claim your conclusions "certainly" explain the evidence unless you have eliminated all alternative explanations. Logical fallacies often arise because writers unconsciously struggle to force their research to support to their earliest intuitions, guesses, hunches, or hypotheses about what is true. (Think of how often you heard high-school writers say "I'm going to do some research to get sources that support my thesis.") Beware your own prejudices about what you think the evidence will reveal before you've impartially examined it. Let the evidence speak and you can hardly go far wrong.
III. Audience: Does the paper address a scholarly audience and correctly estimate the level of knowledge that audience can be expected to possess? Does it avoid telling experts obvious things, like defining terms of art or basic concepts, providing needless "background," and identifying experts to each other with unnecessary specificity (e.g., "the biologist Lewis Thomas" in a paper addressed to biologists)? Does it always specify the source of generalizations about evidence by correct citations of scholarship?
Writing like professional scholar takes practice, but now is the time to start. Look carefully at the ways your sources establish the tone of their relationship with their own readers. Notice what things the writers assume their audiences know and what things they take care to reveal about their sources and methods. Then, do what they do in your own paper.
IV. Mechanics and Documentation: Does the paper use standard academic English usage and sentence construction, coherent and well-ordered paragraphs, logical paragraph transition, and a fully functional title, introduction, and conclusion? Does the paper accurately and consistently use a documentation style appropriate to the discipline (MLA, APA, CBE, or U. Chicago), or does it at least use MLA style accurately and consistently?
This set of questions is really an extension of III. above, but it's such an important element of research writing for 200- and 300-level courses that it's worth its own weighted evaluation in this project. Failure to write grammatically when making a scholarly claim automatically exposes the writer to suspicion that the basic thinking underlying the paper is faulty, too. This is especially difficult for student writers because when the mind must concentrate on difficult, newly learned concepts and methods, grammar and syntax almost always deteriorate. The Writing Center tutors' help will be more important than ever when your intellectual efforts are most challenged by your topic and your readers' expectations. Involve the tutors you work with in your brainstorming, and in your early drafting, not just in your proof-reading of the final draft.
Be especially careful when using terms of art and jargon from the discipline you're just entering. As an "apprentice," you may make mistakes that a more experienced scholar would not make, and they're the kind of mistakes that damage your authority, so you should pay special attention to those peculiar kinds of words and phrases. Are you using them as and when a specialist would use them? For in intriguing website that explains Computer Science jargon, see Jargon 4.2.0, by Arjan de Mes at University of Amsterdam. It's a little out of date by now because it was last updated in 2000, but many of its terms are still in use.
Double your efforts to proofread your final draft in order to catch these old errors that will come back when you least want them to appear. You can prevent one typical source of dangerous errors if you start your paper's first draft with a list of sources as you accumulate them in your research, properly formatted in the documentation style appropriate for your topic's discipline. This is far to important to leave for the last five minutes of the writing process, and if you develop the habit of doing it early you will save yourself countless disappointments in later papers. Just build the paper on top of that source list, and add to it every time you develop a new source, and you can spend your last hours polishing your prose rather than worrying about documentation format.
If you compare these questions with those I was asking of the Film and Hawthorne papers, you will notice that there are only four rather than five. The earlier questions have been reorganized to focus far more on the use of sources, and on the author's relationship with the scholarly audience and the evidence acquired from the sources. This assignment, like the "PPR" at the start of the semester, is another "bridge" paper, but this one is heading to a higher level of authority. It collapses some of the previous two papers' concerns for rhetorical coherence, mechanical errors, and format, into one big heading, but it does not omit them. You still have to write clean prose in upper division courses, but just avoiding errors will not produce a successful paper. Try to keep your writing process balanced to allow time for all four of these major elements of writing quality.