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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 7

Access to Academics

Tackling the Research Paper: Tips and Tools for Success for People with Vision Loss

For high school and college students, research papers are either viewed as a walk in the park or the bane of one's existence. Some may be able to reel off several pages on a given topic in a matter of a couple of hours, while for others the very thought of a 10- or 20-page research paper on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire is cause for cringing. If you are a cringer, this article provides tips and tools to help make that next research paper a bit easier. Even those who enjoy writing research papers might learn a thing or two.

Getting Organized

Before tackling any research paper, it's a good idea to get your house in order, so to speak. The tools you use to gather and sort your research don't need to be fancy, but they do need to be functional and efficient. Using a laptop computer or notetaker, consider creating a new, project-specific directory in which to store any relevant data or information you run across in your research. When you find an article or piece of information, simply drop a text file into this directory. Be sure to include the title, author, publisher, copyright date, page numbers, and website URL in a consistent spot in your file. This will make it exponentially simpler to cite your sources later. You may also wish to write some notes near the top of the file describing the specific information or facts you plan on using from the source. These additional steps may seem a bit tedious, but they'll likely help you out in the end, especially if you're the type to finish your paper at the very last minute.

If your research includes printed materials, attempt to obtain these materials in an accessible format. As we'll discuss below, many common sources are available online. Others can be digitized using scanning software such as Omnipage or Kurzweil 1000 or a portable system such as the KNFB Reader Mobile or Intel Reader. Alternatively, a human reader may be able to help you write down important information from your printed research. Having these documents in a digital format will allow for easier searching later on, especially when you may not be able to find someone with enough vision to read the printed material.

Defining your Topic and Beginning your Research

Sometimes your instructor will assign a topic or area as your paper's subject, while at other times you may be given the freedom to choose a topic within given parameters. In either case, you may have some leeway in the exact topic you write about. A common mistake is to pick a topic that is either too broad or too narrow for the type and size of the paper. For example, suppose you are assigned the topic "My home state of Michigan" for a 12-page paper. Michigan became a state in 1836. It would be impossible to cover all 170 years of Michigan's history in a dozen pages. Instead, you will need to decide on an area to focus on. Through your initial research, you might learn about Michigan's role in shaping the automobile industry, Michgan's tourist attractions, or the effects of the recent economic downturn on the state. These are much more manageable topics for a paper. Now that you have a narrower focus, you can do some more preliminary research. If it seems that the topic you've chosen does not have much written about it, you may need to broaden your scope. Conversely, if it seems like there is too much to cover in a single paper, you will want to narrow your topic even further.

Effective Online Research

Begin your online research with the basics: Google and Wikipedia. While neither of these references functions well as a primary source, each can be a great jumping off point for further research.

Successful and efficient searching with Google requires some skill. Searching for the term "Michigan" will return all sorts of likely irrelevant results including the Michigan Lottery and the University of Michigan. Google is not smart enough to read your mind; instead of a single general search term, include additional keywords to limit and target your search. Searching for "automobile history Michigan" returns an entire page of relevant results. The first result, in fact, is an entire page of automobile history links from the State of Michigan's own website—a great starting point for this topic. Google includes dozens of powerful and often hidden features that can be used to perform more powerful searches. This page of Google Search Tips includes helpful advice and strategies.

Though most professors, for good reason, frown upon the use of Wikipedia as a source, it's still a great idea to read Wikipedia entries related to your chosen topic. Good Wikipedia entries will include a list of sources for the topic, such as this entry on the history of the automobile. As you read through this entry, you will notice a series of numbered links. These refer to the sources cited in this article. By selecting one of these linked numbers, you will be able to view the footnote, which gives the title, author, and other location information for the source. Well-researched Wikipedia articles such as this one also include a "Further Reading" heading which provides a list of additional books and articles to consult.

While Bookshare is well-known as a source for accessible textbooks and leisure reading materials, recent improvements have increased its usefulness for performing research. Bookshare now includes roughly 100,000 books available in a digital form. It's free for any United States student with a qualifying disability and $50 a year for anyone else. Among the more recent improvements to the website is a full text search of its collection. Typing the search terms "history automobile" into Bookshare reveals a variety of potentially useful book results including Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile In America and Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout—and Beyond, both of which may provide useful information for the automobile industry's modern history. Bookshare also includes an immense collection of fiction, as well as many opinionated and editorial selections, so be careful to include accurate and pertinent information when performing your research. While on Bookshare, try searching for any books listed in the Wikipedia entries you've read; you may locate some of these sources in an electronic form.

Using School Resources

Most colleges and some high schools provide online research tools for students, often linked to the school's library website. Sometimes you must be physically present at the library to perform the research, while in other cases a student can log in to access information from home. If you are required to be at the library for your research, ask if it is possible to log in from your own computer or one that provides your required accessibility tools. By law, it is the library's duty to provide you an accessible means to access their research collections.

From our experience, most online research collections are quite accessible to use and navigate. Most include some form of a textual layout for searching. Some of the search forms include a wide array of options and features, so it may be necessary to closely examine their structure in order to obtain the most relevant results. Some collections, especially those including 19th and earlier 20th century newspapers, offer materials in a scanned PDF format. While these may seem inaccessible on the surface, they can usually be converted using an OCR program such as Omnipage or Kurzweil 1000. If you don't have access to one of these programs, try one of the many OCR conversion websites such as OCR Terminal. Many of these sites are free or provide a set amount of free pages per month.

While at the library, don't overlook the more traditional methods of research. Many older books and periodicals are not easily attainable in a digital format; a reference librarian or student aid may be able to help you locate these items. To save time, use your library's website to research available relevant materials. Make a list of the sources you're interested in, print it out, and bring it with you when you visit. You can use a website such as WorldCat to search many libraries at once for information. If you find a book or source at a library other than your branch, find out if it's possible to have it delivered to your local library.

Citing your Sources

Creating your bibliography or "Works Cited" page is often seen as very tedious, but putting this important list together should be one of the simpler parts of your paper. One common mistake made by students is waiting until they are finished with a paper before tackling this list. It's much easier to create your citation list as you write your paper. Microsoft Word and other modern word processors provide for a means to add footnotes to your paper. Each time you add a note, move to the footnotes section of your document to enter the title, author, and other source information. This will avoid the problem of trying to remember where you found a specific piece of information when you need to cite it later. There are several acceptable citation forms; find out from your instructor which is required for your paper. Free online tools such as BibMe can be used to properly format your citations. BibMe asks for various information about your sources and then outputs a bibliography in the format you chose.

A Word on Plagiarism

You may at some point find it tempting to copy a few sentences or even an entire paragraph from an article directly into your paper, without proper attribution. Doing so is plagiarism, a very serious academic offense. Plagiarism usually results in a failing grade for a class, and in some cases leads to expulsion. Always be careful to properly cite your sources. Many students (and teachers) use Turnitin to check papers for plagiarism. Turnitin compares submitted text to practically every page on the Internet, research indexes and journals, and papers written by other students.


With the expansion and proliferation of the Internet, online research has transitioned from a luxury to a near necessity. While the Internet does not render your local library obsolete, it's certainly suitable for a wide variety of research tasks. Online research also helps to level the playing field for performing research as a blind or visually impaired student. Given the proper tools and techniques and a bit of perseverance, that next research paper may be a bit easier to tackle.

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Copyright © 2011 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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