The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper and documenting the sources you find.
Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library or web resources, you may need to rearrange or recycle these steps.
1a. Identify and Develop Your Topic
When you're starting a research project, it can be helpful to state your topic as a question.
EXAMPLEIf you are interested in finding out about the use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, “What effect does the use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?”
Once you've phrased your topic as a question to be answered, you can identify the main concepts or keywords in that question.
1b. Find Background Information
Before getting too deep into research, it's important to ensure you have solid background information on your topic.
A great way of finding background information is looking up your keywords in the indexes of subject encyclopedias. Then you can read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research.
You can also note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles, and look into those sources for further research.
1c. Use Catalogs to Find Books and Media
If you go to a public or academic library to do your research, use guided keyword searching to find materials by topic or subject in the library catalogue. Print or write down the citation (author, title, etc.) and the location information (call number).
When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject because they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area.
1d. Use Indexes to Find Periodical Articles
Next, you can use periodical indexes and abstracts to find citations to articles. The indexes and abstracts may be in print, in computer-based formats, or in both.
Choose the indexes and format best suited to your particular topic; ask at the reference desk if you need help figuring out which index and format will be best. You can find periodical articles by the article author, title, or keyword using the periodical indexes in the library's catalogue.
1e. Find Internet Resources
Using a search engine, such as Google, is often an efficient way to find web-based sources on your topic.
If you are searching for material that includes key phrases, a good strategy is to use quotation marks around these phrases in the search box. This ensures that you will only be shown results in which the words in those phrases appear together.
1f. Evaluate What You Find
You now need to evaluate the authority and quality of the books and articles you located.
If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. When you’re ready to write, keep an annotated list of books to help you organize, format, and draft your paper.
1g. Cite What You Find Using a Standard Format
In order to give credit where credit is due, you must cite your sources.
Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes:
Representing the work of others as your own is plagiarism, which we will discuss later in this course.
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "The Seven Steps of the Research Process" tutorial.