Department of Political Science
Queens College

How to Research a Political Science Paper

by Peter Liberman, Queens College Dept. of Political Science, September 2001

This brief memo provides some guidance for students embarking on research projects in political science, perhaps their first. It addresses several questions beginning researchers must grapple with as they decide what to work on and how to proceed:

1. What is a political science research paper?
The first biggest challenge in writing a research paper is choosing a question to answer. Research is all about answering questions, and not all questions are created equal. It is always better to work on important and interesting questions than irrelevant, obscure, trivial, or boring ones. An important question is one requiring new knowledge to solve a practical problem. "What do the experts think about X" simply calls for a summary of how others have answered the question, and thus provides nothing new.

Don't confuse topics with questions. You may have a general topic in mind, but it is unwise to start researching (not to mention writing) until you've narrowed down the topic down to a clear question. This will help you to narrow down the research sources you'll be looking for, and to write a coherent, focused paper.

While useful research solves problems, it is best to focus on questions where incomplete or flawed understanding impedes progress. Rather than tackle a big problem head on ("How to end the arms race?" "How to stop global warming?"), you will help make progress if you focus on aspects of arms races or global warming that we don't fully understand. Otherwise, your paper may end up an exercise in exhortation ("If we could only all stop building weapons" or "If everyone would only just stop burning fossil fuels") rather than in research.

Beginning researchers may want to cut their teeth on questions that have already been answered by others with more knowledge and experience. But as you get to be a more advanced researcher, you'll want to tackle questions that haven't been answered yet, at least not adequately.

There are several kinds of questions that political science students (and scholars) tackle. Some projects combine two or more of the following, but most focus on just one. All are valid and important contributions to political science and practical policy knowledge.

2. What kind of information is most useful for the various kinds of research papers?
All kinds of political science requires research, unless you are a genius spinning out original theoretical deductions from the armchair! The kind of research you need to do depends on the type of question and research project you are pursuing, as well as what kinds of relevant information, evidence, data, etc. are available for you to study.

Theory-proposing projects research requires the least research of all. But it is very difficult to come up with new theoretical insights without first mastering prior theoretical and empirical research on a subject (e.g., through stock-taking). Sometimes theoretical insights develop in the course of empirical research, other times by finding theories used to explain related or analogous phenomena, but not yet to the one at question.

Theory-testing research uses evidence intensively. Political scientists use all sorts of evidence: history, interviews of officials or elites, data on public opinion and any other variable bearing on political behavior, and even laboratory simulations. Researchers can often rely on evidence collected by others (e.g., published histories), contributing by scrutinizing it for different purposes or in different ways than has been done previously. Otherwise researchers have to collect the raw data themselves (e.g., going to the archives and other primary sources, in the case of historical evidence).

Stock-taking projects primarily require finding the best and most complete published research on a particular question.
Historical explanation is like theory testing research, except restricted to a single historical episode. The research required is primarily primary and secondary historical sources.

Policy analysis requires finding the best arguments for a policy, as well as existing theoretical, empirical, and theory-testing research to verify the arguments' factual and theoretical assumptions. A researcher might also engage in his or her own original deductive and empirical work to this end.

Predictive projects requires evidence on current events, and finding the best theoretical and theory-testing research bearing on the phenomena you wish to predict.

3. Where can college students find the best sources for their research?
Most research at the undergraduate level, due to time and resource constraints, is conducted in the library or using electronic media (via the internet). This does not limit students to stock-taking research projects. Indeed, many a political science professional has written theory-proposing, theory-testing, historical explanation, policy analysis, or predictive works relying on purely or mainly library research.

Of course, your college library is a lot smaller than leading research libraries, lacking not only their immense holdings of journals and books, but also some useful bibliographic tools. But one of the best research libraries in the world is right in Manhattan, the New York Public Library's research branch at 41st Street and Fifth Ave. (The research branch's stacks are closed and its books do not circulate; you must request each book you want and use it in the reading room). In addition, your library subscribes to some powerful on-line bibliographic tools, reference works, and full-text newspapers, policy journals, and scholarly journals. (See below).

Beyond that, there is the public domain world wide web, which contains vast array of information. But students beware: most of the information on the web is useless, erroneous, incomplete, and almost always of lesser quality than published materials. Anybody with a computer can post whatever they want on the web, while publication is a more costly process that tends to filter out material of low quality. As a general rule, it is usually inadvisable to use as a research source information from the world wide web that has not also been published in a reputable press or journal. (The scholarly journals available via the library's on-line subscriptions are examples of the latter).

4. How can students find relevant and quality sources?
This is not to say that published materials are always correct or of high quality. A major challenge of writing a research paper is finding the right sources. There are basically two criteria to keep in mind as you troll for sources: relevance to your question and quality. One good article or book that helps you answer your question is worth more than than dozens that are either poorly done or are peripheral to the question. So you have to be choosy.

Once you have focused on a particular question, the next task is locating relevant sources of information. If your research requires scholarly books or articles or news accounts, particularly if recent, you will probably want to try first on-line catalogues and bibliographic tools. These enable you to search titles, abstracts, and sometimes even full content (for full text journal subscriptions) by keyword. Subject searches tend to cast a wider net, but standard subject categorization (established by the U.S. Library Congress) often includes sub-categories that can narrow down the field.

Keyword searches are usually the best way to identify works relevant to your specific question. The trick is to design a keyword search so that its broad enough to return all the sources that might be relevant, but not so broad so that it returns too many irrelevant ones, forcing you to waste a lot of time separating wheat from chaff. It is often worthwhile to learn and use advanced search options, which enable you to limit by publication date, use boolean ('AND', 'OR', 'NOT'), positional ('X must be within 2 words of Y'), and wildcard operators. Unfortunately, there is no single master database containing all useful sources, so you may have to learn your way around a few collections and their search engines.

One helpful technique for finding relevant works is to find a high-caliber research work that addresses the question you're interested in, and cites in the footnotes what the author believes to be the best work on the subject. Sometimes you might find whole review essays (stock-taking research) surveying the literature on your question. Some books and articles have annotated bibliographies with recommendations "for further reading." For this purpose, recent works are usually better than older ones; even if they are of inferior quality or say nothing new, they might cite more recently published research.

While the above method works backward, by looking for citations to prior research, a neat bibliography called the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) allows you to work forward. The SSCI allows you to find all the journal articles in a given time frame (year, five years, or many years at once if you're using on-line or CD-ROM versions) that cited a specific earlier work. You just look up the earlier work, and it lists all the articles published that mention that work in a footnote. This is especially useful if you know of a seminal article or book directly on the topic you're interested in, and that all good subsequent articles on the same topic would cite. (Unfortunately, QC's subscription to the SSCI lapsed in 1989, and cannot help you find anything published after that date.)

Reference librarians are highly trained in these kinds of bibliographic resources and tools, and they are happy to help students navigate them. There is even a reference librarian specializing in the social sciences. All students unfamiliar with these resources and tools should avail themselves of this free tutoring these librarians can provide!

Distinguishing high-caliber research and sources of information is difficult. You have to know something of the lay of the land of a field. As a general rule, articles from refereed journals and books from university presses are preferable to other sources, because they have been reviewed by other scholars prior to publication. Refereed journals and university presses vary in selectivity, with some having higher standards than others.

Often you can tell something about the quality of a source by taking a look at its sources. Are there many citations or are there few? More is almost always better; it demonstrates that the author actually found sources for claims made, and is happy to have you check for yourself in case you suspect he or she made it all up. Do the author's sources look credible, or are they a collection of unreliable web pages, editorials, and biased advocacy-group reports?

5. Political Science Research Resources available at Rosenthal Library and the New York Public Library
You can access QC's on-line database and journal subscriptions from computers in Rosenthal Library, or from home using a proxy server (see Note that QC's subscriptions change from time to time as reference librarians at the College and CUNY seek out the best resources subject to budgetary constraints. All of the QC online sources described below are available at A broader guide to social science resources will also be available soon.

Book Catalogs
CUNY+ DPAC is the online book catalog for the whole CUNY system.

CATNYP is the online book catalog for the NYPL research branch. It is available on-line at:

Article and Abstract Databases (QC only)
Wilson: Social Science Abstracts
Ebsco: Academic Search Premier

Hard-copy sources, available in Rosenthal Library.
International Political Science Abstracts (QC has 1968-present)
Social Science Citation Index (QC only has 1966-1989)

Full-text On-line Journals
On-line, full-text journal databases can be searched just as easily as abstract or title databases, but they also provide easy access to the full journal, when available. They also allow searching the text of the articles themselves (rather than just the titles or abstracts), which can help you find discussions of issues in articles that have a different central focus. Note: some of these databases have full text only for some journals in recent years, but include abstracts or titles for prior years, before full text became available electronically.

Queens College has the following:

Public Library resources:

Law Research Resources

Open Web Resources

6. Further reading on how to do political science research

Research and Writing Tips

Undergraduate Program
Faculty Resources
Course Offerings