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Understanding Research Assignments

Before you begin researching and writing, you should spend some time understanding your assignment and preparing your process and workflows. To make the most productive use of your time, you'll need to know what you're trying to accomplish and have a consistent process for gathering information, reading, and note-taking.

1) About Research Assignments

2) Avoiding Plagiarism

3) Organizing Your Readings

About Research Assignments

Most of your courses will require you to complete a research assignment of one kind or another. In general, the goal of a research assignment is to get you to gather information about a certain topic, analyze that information, and report what you’ve learned as part of a class presentation or research paper/essay.

Types of Research Assignments

You can find useful information about the different types of research and writing assignments at the Online Writing Lab.

Important Things to Note About Your Assignment

Relationship to other assignments: Some professors will design their assignments to flow together. You may find that each assignment requires you to do a little bit more work towards writing a big final paper.

Choice of topic: You may be given a list of possible research topics, or you may be asked to choose a topic of interest to you. In either case, it’s a good idea to chat with your prof and do some preliminary research before deciding.

Number and Type of Sources: Often, professors will ask that you use a minimum number of sources in your paper. Information sources can be almost anything, but you may be required to use only, or mostly, academic/peer-reviewed sources.

Citation/Referencing Style: There are many different styles for referencing your sources. The most commonly used styles are APA, MLA, Chicago, and CSE. Make sure you know which you are expected to use, and take a moment to learn the basics of the style.

Length: You will usually be asked to write a paper of specified length. Be sure to start early and give yourself enough time to do the appropriate amount of research and writing.

Library Access

Completing your assignments will require access to the library’s collection. These are specialized resources you won’t find available freely on the Internet. You can access the library’s online collections (databases) through our website. If you are off-campus, you’ll be required to authenticate with your WebAdvisor username and password.

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Avoiding Plagiarism

The following definition of plagiarism can be found in the University of Winnipeg Academic Misconduct Policy:

“Plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty in which students present published or unpublished work (written, digital, or other) of another person or persons, or one’s own prior work, in its entirety or in part, as their own original work.”

Every student is expected to produce work that follows the rules of academic integrity, so avoiding plagiarism is a fundamental skill in university. To be clear, you will generally be expected to use other people’s ideas to support the points in your paper, but the source of every idea that isn’t your own needs to be cited in a suitable format.

There are two ways that plagiarism can happen: intentionally and unintentionally. We’ll talk about each here.

Intentional Plagiarism

With the abundance of information available online, it’s incredibly easy to take credit for something you didn’t write, if that’s your intention. However, simply copying information from a website or blog and pasting it into your paper without crediting the source is considered plagiarism. Add this to the act of getting someone (or paying them) to write your paper for you, which is clearly unethical, and you have an idea of how intentional plagiarism happens.

As easy as it is, though, it’s also very easy to detect. If you plagiarize something, your professor only needs to do a couple of simple Google searches or use a plagiarism detection software to figure it out. Plus, your professors often craft their assignments to see how you develop as a researcher and writer during the course. If you are not producing original work, you won’t be effectively demonstrating your development and your grades may suffer, even if you don’t get caught.

Unintentional Plagiarism

Plagiarism can also happen by accident. This usually results from sloppy note-taking or by writing your paper in a rush. Even if you accidentally use another person’s idea without credit, you are still plagiarizing them. Also, most students don’t realize it’s possible to plagiarize yourself, by using your own published ideas without citation.

Basically, any idea that comes from a source (books, articles, websites, videos, previous papers, etc.) needs to be cited.

There can be serious penalties for plagiarism (again, see the Academic Misconduct Policy). It isn’t worth it to try, and taking the time to properly cite and reference your sources isn’t too difficult once you get in the habit.

Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism

  • Don’t procrastinate.
  • Create a reference for all your sources, in the format outlined by your prof.
  • Take detailed notes as your read each source, noting the page numbers for each idea.
  • Paraphrase major points and indicate if an idea is a direct quote.
  • In your paper, properly cite all the ideas from your sources.
  • Create a bibliography or works cited, including references for all your sources.

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Organizing Your Readings

Writing a research paper can be difficult and frustrating if you don’t keep your sources organized. Here’s some advice to keep your readings, notes, and bibliographies organized so you don’t run into trouble later.

  • Create a separate folder on your computer for each research project you’re working on.
  • Place all your full-text articles (PDFs) in this folder.
  • Create a complete bibliography entry for each of your sources (including books and other non-digital sources) and save the file to this folder.
  • As you read your sources, take notes under the bibliography entry. Be sure to note the page numbers as appropriate.


When it comes time to put these ideas together into a first draft of your paper, it will be easy to see which ideas came from which source. This will make writing a lot easier, but also help you to see how your sources agree or disagree on your topic, and make sure you avoid accidentally plagiarizing any of your sources.

Many students and researchers like to use a citation management tool to help keep their sources organized, and to create citations and references. If you're interested in this, you may want to have a look at this information about using Zotero, which is one example of a citation manager.

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