Monthly Archives: February 2017

Research Questions

You must do a research question to my satisfaction before you can move to the rest of the class.

TOPICS – you will need to develop a topic related to Old World (every thing except North and South America) ancient history between about 4,000 BCE and 700CE.  This gives you a lot of possibilities:  Greek sages, Roman generals, Byzantine emperors (and empresses), Franks,   Nubians, Carthaginians, Persians,  Harappans, climate change as the reason the Roman Empire fell, new theories on how the pyramids were built,  and many, many more .  NO VIKINGS AND NO CELTS.*  

HISTORY MAJORS & MINORS:   can choose any historical time and any place to write about EXCEPT  Vikings & Celts.

You cannot use any topics I use for examples for your own research question.  Since I’m using less common topics, it shouldn’t be a problem.

*Why no Vikings or Celts?  Mostly because I’m tired of seeing them abused.   The Vikings and their history are much more complicated  (and interesting) than the History Channel’s fictional show.  And there’s a lot more to the Celts than the Druids; plus, there are more groups of Celts than the ones that end up in Britain and Ireland.

Okay, if you absolutely have to write about Celts, Vikings or another time period,  you can , but you have to clear the topic thtouhdfvdfc

NOTE:  want to write on a religious topic?   Since this is a library science course on history,  you have to use historical standards of evidence.  For this class, that means you must use evidence that someone who doesn’t share your beliefs will accept.

For example:  you’re interested in miracles.  You cannot write that miracles are proof of Jesus’ divine nature, because there isn’t  evidence that a non-believer would accept.  However, you can write that people who followed Jesus believed in miracles because there is evidence that would be acceptable to non-believers.


One of the goals of this course is to teach you ways to find better information (i.e. the types of sources your instructor wants) with less work.  You have to have a good research question to accomplish this goal.

Most instructors have their own definition of research question.  Some prefer that students do complex research questions while others (like me) believe a simpler question is more useful.  For the purposes of this class, a research question is a way of focusing and simplifying your topic to make it easier to find appropriate sources.

A research question is NOT:
  • A thesis statement
  • An explanation of what you expect to find
  • An introduction to your paper

Writing a good research question is not as easy as it sounds.  You need to walk a fine line between a question that is too general and one that is too focused.  There are different ways to do this.  One way that I’ve found useful is to start by determining the topic, writing a core question and then using the core question as the basis for a research question.

Writing a research question:

        1. Topic
                   1.   If you have an assigned topic or theme, you need to decide how you’re going to approach the topic  –  this class falls here.

        2.  You need to choose a topic that fits the instructions your professor gave

                  No clue about a topic?  Check out your textbook, Wikipedia,  magazines or journals, ask a librarian, Google it, etc.

       2.  Core question
1.    The core question is a focused version of your topic in question form.

2.  A core question serves as a draft version of a research question.

At the core question stage, you need to have the basic components of what you want to research figured out.

For example:  topic = the later Roman empire

For the core question, I need to decide what about the later Roman Empire I’m interested in.

For example:  I decide that I’m interested in the role of women in the later empire.  This is too broad, so I decide to look at the role of royal women.    Still too broad, so I consider adding the term “Christian;”  however, all the royal women in the later Roman empire are at least nominally Christian, so that doesn’t help.  I decide to look at the role of royal women in the evolution of Christianity in the later Roman Empire.  This is much better, but there were a surprising number of empresses, queens, sisters and daughters, who fit into this category, so I  decide to focus on Galla Placidia, who unlike the other queens and empresses , was active in the Western Empire and a support of the papacy.

You may be wondering how I came up with this information.  In my case, it was easy:  course work, teaching and I read a lot.  I would expect you to start narrowing down on topics you don’t know a lot about by using Google, Wikipedia, an encyclopedia or something similar.

So, my core question might be:  what role did Galla Placidia play in the Roman Papacy?

I don’t need to add a time period because we know when Galla Placidia lived and was active in church matters, plus there wasn’t another person with that name.

  1. Research question
    1. A research question is your core question rewritten using appropriate (usually = academic)  keywords and phrases.
    2. You need to choose the best keywords and key phrases for the particular type of information that you need to find:
      1. If you use informal keywords & phrases, you will find more popular sources such as newspapers and magazines.
      2. If you use more formal, academic and/or technical terms, you will find more peer-reviewed and scholarly sources.
      3. NOTE:  In history you may need to use the same or similar  words to find popular and scholarly sources.  However, the language in the scholarly sources will be more formal.
        1. For example:   you’re interested in what kids were expected to do at home in the 1950s
          1. To find popular sources, use a research question like:  What kinds of work did kids do around the house in the 1950s?
          2. To find scholarly sources, use a question like:  What chores did children do in the 1950s?  
          3.  So, for scholarly sources use children instead of kids and chores instead of work around the house.  NOTE:  using the word chores will usually limit you to work around the home, but if not, try a phrase like:  household chores.
  2.  Be as concise as you can be while including all of the concepts you’re researching.

It isn’t always clear in history what is scholarly and what is not.  We’ll look at additional ways to tell  later in the class, but for the purposes of writing a research question, think in terms of using more formal, academic language.  More formal, academic language does not mean sounding like you swallowed a dictionary – that’s bad formal/academic language.

Example 1: (examples are  not limited to history in order to give you an idea of how the process works in all subject fields)

Assigned topic:  childhood obesity  (I must find both popular and scholarly sources.)

My approach to the topic:  the relationship (if any) between time spent on a computer and how much a kid weighs

My core question:  Does too much computer time make kids fat?

My research question:  Does computer use promote obesity in children?
(I am using more formal language because I need to find scholarly sources.  These terms will probably find some popular sources as well.)

Example 2:  

A topic I chose:  Was there an ocean in Kansas?

My core question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

My research question: (Because of the technical vocabulary, the difference between popular and scholarly topics in scientific fields is more defined than in other areas.)

I need mostly popular sources with a few scholarly sources

  • I’ll use my core question for my research question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

I need all scholarly sources:

  • My research question:  What is the vertebrate evidence for the Western Interior Seaway in late Cretaceous Kansas?  (I’ve limited the type of fossil (vertebrate) and the time period (late Cretaceous) and used one of the technical terms for the ocean (Western Interior Seaway).

HINT:  as you research, keep a list of keywords and key phrases you find in your sources – different library and web sources may use one term instead of another and there may be different terms for the same subject.  For example:  the Western Interior Seaway can also be called the inland sea, the Cretaceous Seaway and a couple of other names.   Keeping a list also keeps you from repeating searches because you can’t remember what you did earlier.

Also keep a list of where you’ve searched.  More on that in another reading.

Common problems with research questions:

  1. Topic is not appropriate for assignment
    For example:  You try to turn in a topic on Vikings for this course.  OR  You want to do a very current topic, but need 10 pages and scholarly sources (see below.)
  2. Question is not written in language appropriate for the assignment (you need formal, academic and/or technical language to find scholarly sources.)
  3. Research question is too unfocused/broad
  4. Research question is too focused/narrow
    1. Topic is too local – Usually, you can only find popular sources, such as newspaper articles and local TV websites,  on local topics.  You can do local topics, but expect to do oral interviews, use archives, etc.  Often, there are no scholarly articles on a local topic.
    2. Topic is too current – Usually, you can only find popular sources such as newspaper articles, CNN, etc.  It can take a year or more for a scholarly article to get published, even online.)
  5. Questions that can be answered by
    1. Yes/no
    2. A number
    3. A fact
      These types of questions don’t give you anything to research
  6.   High School questions –  these are very general questions such as “compare the Romans and the Greeks.”  These are okay in high school  because they’re trying to get you to learn about content and writing about the differences between Greeks and Romans helps you learn that information.   As a rule, you will not find these types of questions acceptable at the university level.
    1. If you do find these questions at the college level, it’s usually for one of two reasons:
      1. You have a brand new instructor who’s just learning
      2. Your instructor has an ulterior motive of some sort.  I had an instructor once who asked us to discuss the Bronze Age.  He wanted people to take one focused aspect (I did trade routes) and show how the chosen aspect  fit into the idea of a global (- the Americas) Bronze Age.

Not sure what to write on? 

  1. Scan magazines and/or journals in the topic area
  2. Ask your instructor
  3. Ask a librarian
  4. Ask friends
  5. Try a Google search
  6. Check out Wikipedia

Assigned topic?

  1. Do a Google Search
  2. Check out Wikipedia
  3. Remember, you can almost always manipulate an assigned topic into something you’re interested in:
    1. Have to write on geometry?  Do a paper on geometry and hair styling or geometry and baseball or geometry and snowboarding.
    2. Remember Barbie dolls fondly?  Write on the evolution of the Barbie doll as indicative of the role of women in American society.
    3. Still have scars from the very existence of Barbie dolls?  Write about the influence of the unrealistic proportions of Barbie dolls on female body image in the United States.
    4. Want to write about hunting for a history class?  Write about the role of hunting in the development of wildlife conservation legislation or the role of hunting in Britain’s royal families.
    5. Need a new and different topic for a presentation in automotive technology?   Research all the things that were developed because of cars (traffic lights, traffic police, driver’s licenses, license plates, car seats for children, seat belts, good roads, motels, truck stops, rest areas . . .)


Effect vs. Affect

You need to be able to tell the difference between these two words.  Using the wrong word often means you will not find what you are looking for.


  • almost always used as a noun
  • means result or consequences
    • the effects of flooding on the town…


  • almost always used as a verb
  • means to influence, to have an influence on
    • the flooding affected the town…
  • exception:  in psychology affect (as a noun) refers to emotional states or the lack thereof
    • serial killers often have flat affects

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Information Ethics — intellectual property rights

The post on cheating looks at  information ethics in terms of right versus wrong.  In this post, we’ll  look at information ethics from a legal as well as an ethical perspective.

Intellectual property rights are concerned with the ownership of created works.  Created works include, but are not limited to,  books, articles, music, movies, games, software, art,  and websites.  The owners of created works have certain rights unless s/he has signed away those rights.

Copyright is the most familiar of these rights.  Copyright is a legal concept.  The laws governing copyright vary from place to place and with different time periods.   In current U.S. law, the person who created the work automatically has copyright without registration or payment (this is a change from previous U.S. copyright laws.)

Under U.S. law, copyright holders have the right to determine how their work will be used, with the exception of fair use, which we’ll look at later.  Copyright holders may also assign, or give, their copyright to another person, or more commonly, the company or institution they work for.

Copyright infringement is the use of copyrighted work without the author’s permission.  Historically, this has been difficult to prove for books and other printed materials, although the web is changing that.  As with plagiarism, it is easier both to infringe copyright and to catch the infringers thanks to the web.     Most successful lawsuits these days are brought against those who use music and/or film without getting permission from the copyright holder.  The term piracy is often used when discussing copyright infringement of music, movies and software.

When you infringe copyright you are also usually guilty of plagiarism.  However, you can plagiarize works without infringing copyright.  For example:  most government documents are in the public domain, which means you don’t have to ask permission to use  the information in them.  However, copying the information without giving credit is still plagiarism.  (Caution:  some government documents are copyrighted.   Copyrighted works will generally say so – check the back side of the title page.)

You may not think of yourself as a copyright holder (or owner), but if you take photos, create art (and crafts!), write, etc.,  then you are.  If you post photos, art, writings, etc., online, you need to be  careful that you are not signing away your rights when you post on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Before you post, check out the terms of service.  Yes, terms of service are headache inducing, but Facebook, and more  recently Instagram, have included language in their terms of service that would allow them to use your works pretty much however they wish.  Public outcry forced both to back down, but they have not changed their terms of service. (Check out Facebook’s Terms of Service, especially Section 2, #1, last sentence.)


Right about now you may be asking yourself  “how can I write a paper if I have to ask permission to use everything?”  The answer is fair use.  Fair Use  is a limitation on a copyright holder’s rights.  Thanks to fair use, you can quote brief passages from books, articles, etc., copy articles for personal use, make a mix list from music you own legally, use images and charts for educational purposes, etc.  YOU MUST STILL GIVE CREDIT or you  are guilty of plagiarism.

Fair use is generally limited to educational uses such as research papers, class presentations and art projects.  Most plays and movies presented on campus do not fall under fair use.  In most cases, you must purchase the right to present plays or movies for any group larger than a single class, and always if you charge admission (you could probably get away with asking for cans for the Food Bank for a movie shown at your religious institution of choice, but not much more).  Fair use may also apply to not-for-profit groups such as scouts and churches if the actual audience will be small.

General rules for fair use:

Things are more likely to fall under fair use if:

1.  Use is limited (for example:  one class)

2.  Only a small portion of a work is used

3.  The purpose is educational

Public Domain:  Works in the public domain  either are no longer covered by copyright or were never copyrighted (for example, many government publications.)  For research purposes, public domain means you can use large chunks of information without asking permission.  HOWEVER, you still must give credit or you are plagiarizing.

Copyright Expiration:  Copyright is granted for a specific period of time, which varies depending on the location and the most recent law.  In the U.S., current law says that all works created before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain.  CAUTION:  Some works, such as Huckleberry Finn or Pride and Prejudice,  that are out of copyright, may be published in new editions, in which some (for example, an introduction)  or all (for example, notes throughout the text)  of which may be protected by copyright.

Works created between 1924 and 1964 may or may not be protected by copyright.  You need to check each work to be sure.  Want to know more?  Check out the chart by Peter Hirtle of Cornell University.  (There’s a reason why intellectual property lawyers make a lot of money.)


Plagiarism:  using materials without giving proper credit (= cheating = unethical)

Falsification:  giving incorrect information, especially when giving credit  (= cheating = unethical)

Copyright Infringement:  using too much copyrighted material without getting permission  (illegal)

Fair Use:  The ability to use a small amount of copyrighted material for educational, or other non-profit purposes, without getting permission – if you give proper credit.

Public Domain:  a work  is in the public domain if the copyright has expired OR if the work was never copyrighted.

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Information Ethics — cheating

What do we mean by information ethics?  The short answer is:  it’s the ethical use of information.  The long answer is a bit more complex.   Joan M. Reitz, in her Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, defines it as:   “The branch of ethics that focuses on the relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information, and the ethical standards and moral codes governing  human conduct in society.”  (*

For students this means dealing with issues such as plagiarism, falsification, and intellectual property rights.   This post will cover cheating, the next post will look at intellectual property rights.

The Weber State University Student Honor Code (6.22.IV.30.2) details what the university considers unethical and what the results will be for students who exhibit such behaviors.  All students are responsible for knowing   what to avoid.  Ignorance is not considered an acceptable excuse.

What do you need to know?  The basic concepts relating to information ethics so you won’t accidentally do something that’s considered academic dishonesty.  If you do it on purpose – that’s on you.  For those of you who might be wavering, keep in mind that while it’s easier to cheat these days,  it’s even easier to catch someone cheating.

Plagiarism  – this is a term that covers several different types of cheating.  Basically, it means claiming someone else’s work as your own.  There are three important types:

  1. Direct plagiarism – this is what most people think about when they hear the word plagiarism.  It means copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own.
  2. Accidental or unintentional plagiarism –  there are several ways you can plagiarize accidentally.  These days, the  most common type of accidental plagiarism is when you give credit properly, but your source has plagiarized the information .  This happens when you use non-academic web sources (and it’s why you’re told to avoid them.)  Not giving proper credit and paraphrasing that are too close to the original are other ways people plagiarize accidentally.   I strongly advise you to avoid paraphrases – this is where most people have a problem.  Either do a direct quote or summarize.  Give credit to the author either way.
  3. Self-plagiarism is a related concept.  This is when you use part or all of a paper (or other assignment) that you did previously for a current assignment without indicating that you’re using previous work.  You can quote small sections (make sure to give yourself credit); however using long passages or giving a previously written paper a new title and re-submitting it are both considered cheating.

Even if you plagiarize accidentally, it’s still considered plagiarism and there are consequences if you get caught.  As I said above, ignorance is not considered an excuse.

Falsification – giving information that is false in some way.  The most common academic falsification is:   you can’t remember exactly where you found a quote.  The paper is due in one hour.  You guess and do a citation based on your guess.  You are wrong.  You’ve just committed falsification (also called misattribution.)  Falsification also includes activities such as falsifying data, making up sources and the like.

How do I deal with students who plagiarize?

First time:  you lose credit for the question and cannot revise.  I warn you about penalties if it happens again.
Second time:  in same assignment  –
     If I think it’s accidental (for example:  you confuse two citations but the rest looks good) – you lose points and can’t revise.
     If I think it was done on purpose (it’s an exact copy of a web source) – you fail the assignment and I report you to the Dean of Students. (NOTE:  the Dean of Students keeps a database of people who have been caught plagiarizing, cheating, etc.  Multiple incidents might result in academic probation or other penalties.)

Second time – different assignment – you fail the course, I report you to the Dean of Students.

The web makes it much easier to plagiarize either accidentally or on purpose.  It also makes it much easier for instructors to catch you.

How do you avoid cheating?  

  • Make the decision to do your own work.
  • Keep track of your research.
  • Avoid paraphrasing – it is very difficult to paraphrase without plagiarizing.  Summarize or use a direct quotation  instead.
  • Be very careful when you use non-academic sources on the web.
  • Give credit properly (we’ll look at this in the section on giving credit)

*I got the reference to this definition from the Wikipedia article on Information Ethics.  Finding useful sources is one of the ways you can use Wikipedia for academic assignments.

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