- By Jason Bacot
- Published 12/28/2010
Sometimes having an idea of what not to do can be every bit as helpful as knowing what to do. Suppose you’ve been assigned to write a research paper. You’ve been over the assignment with your instructor. You know how long the paper should be, what intermediate steps you’ll have to turn in for grades (such as an outline, rough draft, etc.), and how long you have to complete the assignment. If you’re responsible for choosing your own topic, you have the luxury of choosing something (perhaps within certain prescribed limitations) that interests you, which is good. Far easier to delve into a topic you like than to have to slog through research on something that is of no interest to you. With the freedom to choose comes the responsibility to choose well. You want a topic with a good store of documentation available. You want something about which you can make a statement: “Standardized testing appears to affect student competence in the following ways: A., B., and C.” Sometimes, however, it’s good to know what topics not to choose for a research paper. There are, of course, no hard and fast rules, but in general, there are some topics that you should avoid.
Avoid topics that have been overdone and where you are unlikely to change anyone’s mind. With these topics, it is extremely likely that a student has made the same arguments many times before, and honestly, instructors tire of reading papers on these topics. After all,
they’re only human. Some of the topics you’re best avoiding include: creationism versus evolution, legalized abortion, gun control laws, and capital punishment laws. Sure, these topics are important, and you should have reasoned and principled opinions on them. But they’re not ideal for research papers. Avoid conspiracy theory topics. With internet saturation nearly total, it’s possible to find “documentation” of just about any theory you can come up with, whether it’s the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 cover-up theories, theories that Shakespeare didn’t really write all his plays, or the theory that Elvis Presley is still living (in which case he would be very old indeed). The main problem is producing reputable research on the topic to back up your thesis. And fair or not, teachers will generally not take you seriously if you choose such topics, and this can affect your grade. Finally, you may want to avoid topics that are simply too new. The latest scientific research is often exciting, but it can take years for the meaning of the research to sort itself out. As an example, think of the shifting medical perceptions of hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women over the decade from 1995 to 2005. Using the latest scientific research is important, but it should be on topics where there is enough of a track record of scientific findings to build upon.
Whatever topic you choose when you’re allowed to select your own research paper topic, it’s always a good idea to clear it with your instructor before you start digging into the research.