Research Paper: The Scholarly Conversation

The next leg of the research paper asks you to map out a scholarly debate about your research topic, outlining its contours and offering your reader an account of the principal perspectives or poles of that debate. Although not every discipline uses this kind of programmatic “literature review,” any longer research project will require you to map out the field and give the reader a sense of the central points of agreement and contention.

You are not making arguments, nor, generally, evaluating the scholars’ work in detail. Rather, you are seeking to determine the shape and evolution of the debate among scholars and introduce us to the conversation and its participants. In your process of discovery, you will research the topic (in databases), find at least eight or so academic sources that engage with the topic in some way, then present some—three or four—of those sources to your readers. Keep in mind that presenting engaging sources is analytical work. Avoid listing mini-summaries for each source. Instead, demonstrate that you have understood the key questions, debates, approaches, etc. related to your research topic. Do not despair if you find that “nobody has written on your question.” It’s unlikely that you will find sources that address your precise topic (that’s a good thing!), but you will find scholars who, for example, investigate the same source or who focus on a different source, but offer a methodological lens that might prove useful for your project.


 “Engaging Sources” chapter from The Craft of Research is a useful resource.

You will search in specific library databases and we encourage you to use Zotero to save your sources, tag them with keywords that seem to you to name aspects of the debate, and take notes on them. Write as you read. Be descriptive in your notes. Zotero is a powerful organizing tool for research and writing in the academy. Learn it and use it now and you will be less stressed with research projects throughout your time at Davidson.

Some Resources:

If you have questions or problems with the install process, the librarians are certainly happy to help you troubleshoot if you email them at or make an appointment through their Ask Us page.


An excellent scholarly conversation:

  • discovers, represents, and connects participants in a scholarly conversation, engaging rather than reporting sources;
  • helps your reader understand what that conversation is and why it matters to the participants;
  • includes in the bibliography at least eight citations of scholars or critics whom you have consulted in developing an understanding of the debate;
  • presents and describes the work of three or four representative scholars or critics;
  • supports your representations  of scholars’ claims and arguments with adequate textual evidence and key quotations from their work; integrates those quotations seamlessly into the summary; 
  • presents your readings with clarity and grace, and thus avoids verbal clutter, clichés, typos, awkward syntax, and overly colloquial phrases;
  • acknowledges the work and ideas of others;

Follow the The Chicago Manual of Style Notes and Bibliography citation format

1000 words or so (not including notes and bibliography); 12-point Times New Roman font; 1-inch margins