Writing a Research Paper in Theological Studies
A guide in ten commandments
for students at Drew University Theological School

Like soup and sandwich, libraries and churches go together. Apart from the fact that many churches have libraries, served by the Church and Synagogue Library Association, and that some libraries maintain the hushed silence of a cloistered monastery (ours does not), the architecture of the two sometimes assimilates the one to the other. In New York City, the West End synagogue makes its home in a former public library, whose bookshelves, now part of a sacred space, accentuate the importance of study in Judaism. Conversely, in downtown Madison, the former public library (now the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts) was built so much on the model of a church, though it never functioned as one, that a popular guidebook to New Jersey mistakes it for one. However, a close inspection of the building reveals the word "Library" still engraved in stone above the entrance, an ongoing witness to its original function. Given this natural partnership, the librarians of Drew University hope all theological students will find in our library a second campus home.

1. Recognize that religion is already a bridge to research through the little prefix re, connoting repetition, that the two words share. Religion and research are both repetitive. But through repetition, they are learned. Both can be inscrutable, inflexible, and unyielding, but also enlightening, epiphanic*, and delightfully serendipitous. For another orientation to writing research papers, see the excellent guide at Purdue University's website, OWL or consult the recently published print guides to research:

1. Badke, William B. Research Strategies. 2d ed. New York: iUniverse, 2004.
2. Booth, Wayne, Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb. The Craft of Research. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
3. Stebbins, Leslie F. Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

Students who seek sustained immersion in theological research methods and writing, are invited to enroll in Theological Research and Writing (THEPH384)
In addition, an interactive online tutorial in research skills, with winsome graphics, called TILT, is available at the University of Texas website

*yes, this is a word, which can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary online through the library's online resources page

2. Formulate a research question. This derives from a (hopefully) genuine interest or topic that has engaged your curiosity or commitment. The research question will guide your research and focus your reading. The answer to it you find will become the thesis of your research paper.

For example: I arrive at Drew University. I am intrigued by the seminary chapel. I learn that Brothers College, where many of the undergraduate classes are held, has a room designated a chapel, but which now functions as the Writing Center. (A painting of Martin Luther burning the bull of excommunication visited upon him dominates the space.) The chapels of Drew University becomes my topic of research. I wonder: was there ever a chapel building, separate from the seminary and the college, that, from a vantage point independent of both, served the whole of the university (as, for example, Harvard University has, in addition to its Divinity School chapel)? I learn that there has never been one, and wonder why. That becomes a research question. As I research this question, I learn some of the reasons why Drew lacks a university chapel, and these combine in the formulation of my thesis: The absence of a university chapel at Drew is a function of what has been the increasing secularization of higher education in the U.S.

A thesis must be arguable (and can be wrong). A research question must invite interpretation in the answers it solicits. It is the interpretation you bring to the facts bearing on your question that invite and exercise your creativity. A question that a single fact or series of facts answers is not a research question.

3. Consult reference sources. These include encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and introductions. Reference sources outline the scope of your topic, identify key writers in the field, and suggest the gaps of knowledge within it where research questions may flourish. Two recent guides to reference sources in theological studies are:

Stewart, David R. The Literature of Theology. Revised and updated ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
Barber, Cyril J. and Robert M. Kraus. An Introduction to Theological Research. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.

Each of the subject areas that define the five divisions of the theological school--Biblical Studies, Church History, Theology and Philosophy, Church and Society, Practical Theology--are served by excellent reference sources. To find those in our library on your topic, search the library catalog by a term describing your topic combined with the parenthetical phrase: (encyclopedias or dictionaries or handbooks). If this search retrieves nothing, consider broader terms that subsume your topic and try the search again with those.

For example, my topic is the impact of religion on higher education in the United States. If the search phrase I enter in the catalog is: Religion and Higher Education and (encyclopedias or dictionaries or handbooks), I retrieve nothing. But if I redo the search, omitting Religion from the search phrase, I retrieve citations to several encyclopedias, including Higher Education in the United States: An Encyclopedia (2002), which includes two relevant articles, "Denominational Institutions" and "Spirituality in Higher Education".

Most of the most useful reference sources in religion are still in print form only. However, some potentially useful online reference sources available to all Drew students from the Library's Online Resources webpage include:

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Grove Art Online
Oxford English Dictionary
Encyclopedia Judaica

Reference sources generally contain bibliography, which segues to the fourth commandment:

4. Build bibliography as you go. A bibliography is a record of the sources someone has found useful on a given topic. The term is now misleading, since it may include, beyond books (biblio-), digitial sources and other media. Annotated bibliographies and bibliographic essays are especially useful to research (and are sometimes themselves assigned as projects in addition to, or in lieu of, research papers). Bibliographies appear in books, journals, and online electronic sources. The search terms, "bibliography" or sometimes "review essay" retrieve them from their sometimes hidden niches. Because of their importance to research, professional catalogers and indexers draw attention to them when they come across them in books or articles.

For example, a search in the Drew Library catalog for: Higher Education and bibliography, retrieves this item:

Title: Religious higher education in the United States: a source book / edited by Thomas C. Hunt, James C. Carper
Publication Information: New York : Garland Pub., 1996
Physical Description: xi, 635 p. ; 23 cm.
Series Garland reference library of social science ; v. 950. Source books on education ; v. 46
Subject Term Church and college United States Bibliography


5. Search library catalogs for books. Though in religious contexts, the concept of searching has spiritual connotations (cf. Eccles 3:6 and Matt 7:7), in library research the meaning is quite pragmatic: to search is to try to match terms you feed a database to terms already in the database. There is an art to this. Terms you use to describe your topic may not be the ones the library uses. Libraries almost universally take the terms they use to describe topics from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It is these terms that you find arrayed in an alphabetical list if you perform a Subject search in Browse mode within Drew's catalog.

For example, Browse-searching under Universities and Colleges we find these useful headings for Religion, embedded in the list of subject terms:

  • Universities and colleges--United States--Records and correspondence.  1 Title
  • Universities and colleges--United States--Religion15 Titles
  • Universities and colleges--United States--Religion--History.  1 Title
  • Universities and colleges--United States--Safety measures.  2 Titles
  • The catalog is telling us that the libary has 15 books to which the subject heading Universities and colleges--United States--Religion has been assigned, and 1 book to which the heading Universities and Colleges--United States--Religion--History has been assigned. The one book listed under the last heading looks especially relevant to our illustrative topic:

    Personal Author:
    Burtchaell, James Tunstead
    The dying of the light : the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churches / James Tunstead Burtchaell.
    Publication Information
    Grand Rapids, Mich. : W. B. Eerdmans Pub., Co, c1998.
    Physical Description
    xx, 868 p. ; 24 cm.
    Subject Term:

    Church and college United States History.
    Universities and colleges United States Religion History.
    Church colleges United States History.
    Secularization United States History.

    Within an active search of the library catalog, the subject terms listed in the record are live links to other books assigned the same subject terms in the catalog

    For a detailed guide to searching Drew's library catalog, click the Help button in the upper left corner of the Library Catalog home page.

    Library catalogs are freely available to the public. Click here for a list of library catalogs of possible interest to Drew students.

    Worldcat, which files towards the bottom of the library's list of databases, is a union catalog showing the holdings of over 9000 libraries, totaling over 67 million records. Use Worldcat to explore the holdings of other libraries on your topic. You can borrow books from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan.


    6. Search electronic sources. These include the databases to which the Library subscribes, and websites freely available on the Internet. Because the subscription (or proprietary) databases exhibit greater internal cohesion than the Internet, and typically yield more useful and substantive results, begin your electronic searches with these. For theological and religious studies ATLAS+. produced by the American Theological Library Association, is indispensable. For biblical studies, use Old Testament Abstracts and/or New Testamant Abstracts. Given how interdisciplinary theological studies has become, it is wise to check databases in other subjects as appropriate. Some suggestions:

    For work in: Consider consulting:
    Biblical Studies MLA Bibliography
    Church History America: History & Life; Historical Abstracts; International Medieval Bibliography Online
    Theology & Philosophy Philosopher's Index
    Church and Society

    Sociological Abstracts; Women's Studies International; GenderWatch; Ethnic NewsWatch

    Pastoral Theology PsycInfo; Social Services Abstracts; International Index to the Performing Arts
    All these databases are available through the library, but only the highlighted ones have User Guides written by library staff

    Most of these databases link to some fulltext online. Consult the Article Linker guide to see how that works.

    In addition, some databases are almost exclusively fulltext: Academic Search Premier, Proquest, LexisNexis . However, these are general indexes and will miss much of the material pertinent to theological research topics.

    Some databases are really vehicles for storing electronic versions of print articles, and do not lend themselves so easily to subject searching. These include JSTOR, Project Muse, and EBSCOHostEJS. Article Linker will refer you to these databases when they contain articles to which you find citations (but not fulltext) in other databases.

    There are 2 routes to public (free) websites on the Internet: directories and search engines. A directory is a classified list of websites, often evaluated or at least examined by the directory author. A directory in theological studies we recommend is The Wabash Center. See also the Library's list of recommended public websites in religious and theological studies. For guidance using search engines, see the Library's English 2: Guide to Locating Public Internet Sources

    The websites retrieved by search engine inquiries stand in special need of your evaluative judgment. Unlike print sources, which do not appear on the library shelves until they have first been evaluated by the publishers who produce them and the librarians who purchase them, public websites pass through no evaluative screening process.


    7. Evaluate your resources. A basic distinction in library research is between popular and scholarly journals. Consult the Library's User Guide on this distinction. Six features of almost any resource that ask for your evaluation are its: author(ity), audience, currency, credibility, perspective, and scope (what the source aims to include and what it actually excludes). Here are some guidelines, not all of which are always relevant, for evaluating these in different kinds of resources (take special care in evaluating websites):


      Authority Audience Currency Credibility Perspective Scope

    check author in Contemporary Authors or in
    National Faculty Directory; check publisher in Literary Marketplace

    read preface &/or introduction publication date is on title page or its verso look for footnotes and bibliographic references; check facts given against ones you know look for bias; note how well opposing views are presented read preface and/or introduction; note any omissions from intended scope
    Article in Journal

    check journal for author list; check journal in Ulrichsweb
    or in Magazines for Libraries

    read article's first few paragraphs; examine front matter of the journal publication date is usually on cover; watch for reprints same as above; same as above read first few paragraphs; note any omissions from intended scope
    Website determine domain name [which stops at first slash]; look for links to Home page; check author as above; check institutional authors in Encyclopedia of Associations look for the site's pitch: who is it addressing? look for the last time the site was updated same as above; check Google Advanced Search for other sites that link to it same as above compare what the site actually contains to what it claims to contain

    As in our writing, so in our reading we have to be on guard against unstated assumptions and unnoticed omissions. Uncovering these in the resources we use is the work of evaluation and it is ceaseless. For additional guidance evaluating websites in particular see the Library's guide for English 2: Evaluating Websites.


    8. Write clearly. Good scholarly writing involves several of the criteria we use to evaluate the sources we read, especially audience, credibility, perspective, and scope. In some ways, academic writing is simply an intensification of academic reading. At the same time, it is highly personal. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in his essay, "Friendship":

    The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend -- and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.1

    Theological writing may carry a different tone depending on whether it occurs in biblical exegesis, response to a philosophical text, sociological analysis, or sermon. But for a general guide to writing research papers in theological studies, we recommend:

    Core, Deborah. The Seminary Student Writes. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000.

    Another more challenging source:

    Yaghjian, Lucretia B. Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers. New York: Continuum, 2006.

    1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson Homepage: "Friendship," from Essays: First Series (1841). http://www.rwe.org/works/Essays-1st_Series_06_Friendship.htm


    9. Cite sources correctly. There are several citation styles but the one generally preferred in the Theological School is the University of Chicago Manual of Style, which the Library keeps on hand at the reference desk. It is also available online through the Library's list of online databases. A simplified adaptation of it in print is available in

    Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.

    A still more abbreviated version is available online through the Writing Center of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

    Note that library catalogs and indexes do not conform to University of Chicago style in the way they cite books and articles. Do not follow their example! In the examples from the Drew library catalog above, both the capitalization and punctuation style fail to follow Chicago style. Library catalogs and indexes answer to their own laws of citation style, which apply to no one else. For some examples of translation from library style to University of Chicago style, see: Some examples of Chicago citations


    10. DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. Plagiarizing is probably the single greatest temptation in any kind of writing. The danger of it is exacerbated by the fact that it so easily occurs unintentionally. Like poison ivy, it comes in different varieties. With regard to another writer's words, all of these acts are plagiarism if they do not properly credit him or her: copying the words exactly, paraphrasing them, expressing unique ideas behind them in your own words. Copied words must go within quotation marks and be footnoted; paraphrased words and restated unique ideas must be footnoted. For guidance in avoiding plagiarism, see:
    How to Avoid Unintentional Plagiarism
    (Drew University Theological School)
    Avoiding Plagiarism (Purdue University Writing Center)
    Plagiarism: What It Is and How To Recognize and Avoid It (Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services).

    A useful practice: take notes on what you read, especially ideas that impress you, recording as you go the sources of what you learn. If a phrase in a book or article strikes you, copy it exactly, enclose it in quotation marks and note the source.

    Take the plagiarism quiz, an interactive exercise in recognizing plagiarism (so as to avoid committing it) at Indiana University's webpage, "What is Plagiarism..."

    Finally, note in these newspaper articles the sad consequences of plagiarism, whether deliberate or not, once it has been uncovered:

    From the world of fiction publishing:
    Dinitia Smith, "Copying Wasn't Intentional, A Harvard Novelist Says." New York Times, April 25, 2006, sec. A.
    From the world of nonfiction publishing:
    Caleb Crain, review of White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America, by Fintan O'Toole, New York Times , Oct. 16, 2005, Book Review sec. [here, a reviewer notes phrases in a book strikingly similar to those in books published previously to it]
    From the world of public speaking:
    Lisa Vernon-Sparks, "Plagiarism Issue Still Burns in Madison District." The Star-Ledger , August 3, 2005, County News sec.

    All these articles are available online through the Library's webpage . For the first two, select LexisNexis and search within the New York Times. For the last, select the Star Ledger.


    Never hesitate to contact your theological librarian, or the library reference staff generally, for help writing papers.

    --Ernie Rubinstein
    Theological Librarian
    Drew University