ESL: Research Papers

From the ESL Student Handbook, by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

Is your research paper a portfolio project? What are differences between primary sources and secondary sources? Here is some basic information you should check out before starting your research project. 

The very notions of “research” and “a research paper” vary from culture to culture. In some cultures, students may not be encouraged to use sources outside of class for their research paper. However, students here are encouraged (or required) to use sources outside of class. The concepts of “academic source” and “non-academic source” can be also quite different from culture to culture. For the research paper that requires an active inquiry into cultures, literacies, and languages, you will learn that everyday objects such as a lunch menu and everyday conversations you have with your family and friends may serve as sources for your research projects. You will have opportunities to conduct various types of research and write up various types of research papers during your academic career.

Types of Research & Types of Data

There are two types of research: primary research and secondary research. Primary research is conducted by the use of primary data sources. A primary data source refers to a source that provides first-hand evidence. Primary data sources are collected through observation, interviews, surveys, and artifact collection. Ethnographic research and fieldwork are examples of primary research.

Secondary research is conducted by the use of secondary data sources. A secondary data source refers to a source that was written “about” or analyzed “about” the primary source. Basically, the secondary data analyzes and/or synthesizes primary data sources. Thus, it may contain the primary data sources within the source itself. Examples of secondary sources include scholarly journals, articles, books, etc. A literature review paper is a good example of secondary research.  

There is also a tertiary data source. A tertiary data source provides a quick overview about a topic or a concept and compiles or summarizes secondary sources. It often presents references for further reading on the topic or the concept. Examples of tertiary sources are dictionaries, encyclopedias, Wikipedia, etc.

However, secondary and tertiary sources can be also primary data sources depending on the context in which primary sources are used. For example, if a student is comparing different types of dictionaries (e.g. encoding dictionaries vs. decoding dictionaries), the dictionaries are primary data sources for the student’s research project.  

The same idea goes for a newspaper. If a student uses a New York Times article that reports the latest American football game, the newspaper is a primary data source. If you use the editorial of the New York Times that examines or analyzes a certain aspect of the football game, the newspaper becomes a secondary data source for the student’s project.

Writing across Cultures         

When you visit your home country, bring back some artifacts that capture key aspects of your culture or any artifacts that have some symbolic meanings in your culture. You can create a global moment both in your local classroom and on our campus by introducing your own cultures and customs. Your instructors will appreciate your bringing the significant objects and introducing your cultures to the class. Those cultural mementos can be also invaluable primary data sources for research projects in many courses that require an active inquiry into cultures, literacies, and languages. Also, each quarter, a variety of cultural events are arranged by the Office of Student Life and other student organizations on campus. You can use those artifacts to participate in the cultural events that take place on our campus (e.g. Diversity Programs).

Quantitative Data Analysis

If your research paper involves quantitative questions and statistical data (e.g. numbers, figures, diagrams, tables, etc.) and you are required to write up the process of your quantitative reasoning and analysis in your paper, you should visit the Quantitative Skills Center (QSC). Quantifying your data can be an effective way to qualify your claim and argument (See the section “Hedging/Qualifying Your Claim” for further information).  The QSC tutors are trained to work with students on any assignments that involve quantitative reasoning and mathematical concepts. Their tutoring is on a drop-in basis (you don’t need to make an appointment). You can find further information about their services on its website (

Undergraduate Research

Some undergraduate students may perceive the task of conducting research and writing research papers just as course work—the work they have to do for the sake of fulfilling their course requirements. However, as you conduct various types of research and write up various types of research papers during your undergraduate career, it is very important to think about how to connect your research experience with your professional goals and other purposes such as scholarship and internship applications (graduate school applications as well if you are planning to go to graduate school).

UW-Bothell puts great emphasis on developing undergraduate students’ research abilities. The significance of developing undergraduate students’ research abilities is reflected in a variety of events and workshops held on our campus each quarter. They are offered by the Undergraduate Research Office located in the Student Success Center on the first floor of UW 1. The workshops and events will facilitate your research and writing processes. You can also check out some resources (e.g. iPads and Microsoft Surface Tablet) from the Office. Further information about the events and workshops can be found on the following websites:

Undergraduate Research and Creative Practice Symposium

Undergraduate Research Week


For More Information on this Handbook

 Contact Young-Kyunng Min, PhD
Lecturer, Education Program