What research writing is and isn't

Note: The following samples depend on these websites:

This one isn't research:

Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist, and was one of the most important developers of ragtime music. He was born in Texarkana, Texas and taught himself piano as a child. In his teens he became a traveling pianist in the low-life districts that provided the main employment for black musicians. He settled in St. Louis in 1885. In 1893 he played at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri.

This extract is drawn word-for-word from Encarta, but I haven't mentioned the source. Yes, I did make some changes, but they didn't represent original thinking or analysis on my part. All I did was to make the beginning read more like a paragraph and substitute occasional words ("traveling" for "itinerate," for example). This isn't original writing; it's editing. If I were to submit this as my own, I'd be committing plagiarism. Here's the same paragraph with my writing in black and Encarta's in red:

Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist, and was one of the most important developers of ragtime music. He was born in Texarkana, Texas and taught himself piano as a child. [seven words deleted] In his teens he became a traveling pianist in the low-life districts that provided the main employment for black musicians. He settled in St. Louis in 1885. In 1893 he played at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri.

Attempt #2—still not research:

In 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri. There he published (1899) his "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag" and opened a teaching studio. At first Joplin encountered rejections, and was unable to make any substantial sales, but then he sold "Maple Leaf Rag" to a white businessman, John Stark. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime.

This one was more work. It's something called Mosaic Plagiarism and consists of stringing together quotations from various sources, again without citation. I still haven't told you where my material came from, and I haven't done any real thinking; I just gathered quotations to glue together. Below you can see the Encarta material in red, the African Heritage in Classical Music material in green, and the Wikipedia material in purple.

In 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri. There he published (1899) his "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag" and opened a teaching studio. At first Joplin encountered rejections, and was unable to make any substantial sales, but then he sold "Maple Leaf Rag" to a white businessman, John Stark. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime.

Attempt #2a—at least it's honest (almost):

In 1894 Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he published (1899) his "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag" and opened a teaching studio (Vaughn). At first he encountered rejections, and was unable to make any substantial sales, but then he sold "Maple Leaf Rag" to a white businessman, John Stark (Zick). Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime (Wikipedia contributors).

This one is nearly honest because it does identify the sources of the material (though that last one doesn't give the impression that the whole one-cent royalty business came from Wikipedia—looks like material added by the author of this paper). It is a patchwork quilt. The main difference between this one and the mosaic plagiarism is that I've given you the idea I got the material from elsewhere—it's not the result of my personal experience and knowledge. I'm still simply gluing the sources together and not doing any real writing or thinking—I'm depending on the sources to do the writing itself (substituting a few pronouns hardly counts as "writing").

The patchwork quilt isn't too different from the "Middle School Report."

Attempt #3—the middle school report:

From Wikipedia I learned that Joplin began selling his music in 1895. His pieces included "Original Rags", "Please Say You Will", "A Picture of Her Face", "Maple Leaf Rag", "The Entertainer", "Elite Syncopations", "March Majestic", "Ragtime Dance", "The Chrysanthemum", "Bethena", and two operas, Treemonisha and A Guest of Honor. His final piece was "Magnetic Rag."

Well, there's nothing really wrong with this one, but it is a mere listing of titles. So much has been left out that the reader is mystified. It's not obvious, for example, that Treemonisha was much later than A Guest of Honor, that "Bethena" was a sad piece written as he was grieving over the death of his wife, or that "Magnetic Rag" was a result of Joplin finally going into the publishing business. It's not plagiarism; it's accurate; but it doesn't actually work toward making a point. The "Middle School Report" contains no critical thinking or synthesis; it's just a collation of sources.

Side journey: acceptable paraphrasing

When you use a source, you can either quote directly (getting the words exactly right) or you can paraphrase and summarize a source. Here is a link to a the Purdue OWL's discussion of good paraphrasing.

Attempt #4—I approve of the source:

"Joplin's music underwent a great revival after some of his compositions, including 'The Entertainer' (1902), were used as the background music in the film The Sting (1973)" (Vaughn). I really agree with Vaughn because I've never heard his music anywhere else, and The Sting plays it a lot. The music really adds to the movie and makes it a great experience. Now you hear his music a lot on the radio and in other movies.

This isn't really research. It's my opinion, triggered by something I read. The reader has learned nothing new about Joplin—at least nothing beyond the quoted material. Because I am not a respected authority on Joplin, my personal view ("I agree with this") is pointless. Scholarship from a respected Joplin authority would give backing for opinion beyond "I liked it." This comment has no critical thinking, only a shallow gut reaction.

Attempt #5: A research paper that makes a point

In spite of deep-seated white prejudice against Black musicians—Joplin apparently played at Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893 but would never be part of an official program there (Zick) and his early employment was restricted to "low-life districts" (Vaughn)—white benefactors helped Joplin's career significantly. His first piano teacher was a German neighbor in Texarkana (Vaughn), and his first major commercial success, "Maple Leaf Rag," was published by a white businessman, John Stark, who gave him an advance and royalties rather than simply buying the piece outright (Wikipedia contributors).

This is what we're aiming for: your own critical thinking that uses outside sources to back up and reinforce your point. A good critical thesis is a statement that is not immediately obvious and requires you to bring out evidence for support.

In spite of deep-seated white prejudice against Black musicians, white benefactors helped Joplin's career significantly.

Works Cited

Vaughn, Genevieve. "Scott Joplin." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. Microsoft, 17 July 2008. Web. 22 Oct. 2008.

Wikipedia contributors. "Scott Joplin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 Apr. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Zick, William. "Scott Joplin, African American Composer & Pianist." AfriClassical - African Heritage in Classical Music. AfriClassical.com, 17 July 2008. Web. 22 Oct. 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University
Revised 4/22/16 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu