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Undergraduate Research Toolkit: Getting Started with Your Research

Steps in the Research Process

A research paper is a process of trial and error. You must think of a topic, refine it, and then search with a plan. Your research strategy and thesis may change many times before you settle on a final method. The research process consists of a number of steps, including:

If you spend a few minutes developing your topic and choosing keywords at the beginning of your research, you will save time and energy because your work will be more thorough and succinct. This Toolkit will provide you with resources and tips for accomplishing each stage of your research so that you will start successfully and end with a paper you are proud of. Click on the links above to go to the topic you need help with.

Choosing a Topic

One of the most difficult parts of a research paper or project is getting started with a topic and knowing where to look for information that can help you narrow your topic.

The first step in conducting research is choosing a topic. Your instructor may assign a topic, or you may be able to select your own.

It can be overwhelming to choose your own topic. If you have to pick your own, choose one that interests you — after all, you'll have to spend the time researching and writing about it, so it might as well be something you like!

More tips on choosing a topic:
You can also check some of these places for ideas on contemporary issues: If you are still having problems with a topic, you can look in some news databases or Sterne Library's research guide, Contemporary Controversial Issues.

Topic Scope

You've picked a topic, but sometimes you need to narrow or expand your focus. If a topic is too broad, you will get too much information. If it is too narrow, you won't find enough. We're working on finding exactly what you need.

Some questions you might want to ask to broaden or narrow your search are:
  • What aspect of this topic do I want to investigate?
  • What time period will I focus on?
  • What geographic area will I focus on?
Make sure that you clearly understand your research assignment and any special instructions given to you by your instructor. You instructor may want to work with you on developing your topic or giving final approval. Be sure to consult with your instructor throughout your research project.

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Constructing a Search

Once you have found and narrowed or broadened your topic, you will have to develop a research strategy. I know you are used to putting terms in Google and having it figure out what you mean, but you need to be a little more specific when using library databases. This way of searching will also help you when you ARE searching Google. A few minutes spent at the beginning of your research on this step will end up saving you a lot of time and wasted energy.

If you want to work along with a guide, print out the Sterne Library's Research Worksheet.

First you need to Brainstorm Some Keyword Terms.

No matter what you're searching, you'll need to pick out the most important keywords and phrases to use as search terms. These are generally nouns. For example:

How widespread is Internet gambling among minors?
Other related words for gambling and minors might be:

gambling minors
gamble wagering teenagers underage
gamblers wagers teenager youth
betting wager teens adolescents
bet   children  

When brainstorming for keywords, think of related words, synonyms, variations of keywords (e.g., plurals), alternate spellings, and abbreviations.

After you brainstorm for keywords, you can use them in searches for books and other items in the Local Catalog, for journal articles in databases, and for Web sites in Internet search engines.

Combining keywords from a topic helps you narrow or broaden a search. The connector words AND, OR, and NOT are important to use when you combine keywords. These words are also referred to as Boolean operators.

These connector words are especially useful when searching for books and articles.

When you want search results containing two or more ideas, you should connect the words in your search with AND. Using AND between keywords means that both terms must appear somewhere in the record. AND is used to narrow a search.

Using OR means that an article will be retrieved if it contains either keyword. OR is best used to search for synonyms of a concept. Because any one of these words could show up in your articles, OR broadens your search. You can use NOT to exclude keywords from search results. Using NOT between keywords means that an article will be retrieved if it contains the first word but not the second.

You can use NOT to exclude keywords from search results. Using NOT between keywords means that an article will be retrieved if it contains the first word but not the second.

For more information on using Boolean operators, refer to that section of WIT.

You can also use truncation to expand on words so that rather than having to type (gamble OR gambling OR gamblers), you can type gambl*. The * stands for any letters that follow the initial letters.

Be careful not to truncate the term so that you will get too many results. If you use cat* when searching for articles about cats, you will also retrieve articles about catalogs, catastrophes, and catatonia.

Some databases use one symbol when searching for multiple characters following the root and a different symbol when searching for a single character. Consult the database or contact a Reference Librarian for help.

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Choosing Where and What to Search

Where you look to find resources will depend largely on the requirements of your assignment and how up-to-date you need your information to be. Use the table below for some general guidelines on resource types. (Note: You may need to use one or all three major resource types for your paper).

Resource Type Where to Find Characteristics
Books Catalog Can take years to write and publish; Not very current; Helpful for background information and context.
Scholarly Journals Use databases to find articles on a topic; use the catalog or the Electronic Journals List to locate a journal by title. Articles are reviewed by professors and other scholars (called "peer review"); Can take a long time to review, though are usually more current than books; Helpful for finding research studies and for topics of academic interest.
Newspapers & Popular Magazines Usually, a general database such as Academic Search Elite. No peer review; Not based on extensive research studies; Very current; Helpful for learning about the latest general-interest news and events.

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Finding Articles

Databases are your primary search tool for finding articles on a topic. To choose an appropriate database, ask yourself which disciplines are relevant to your topic. A paper about global warming, for example, may be relevant to a number of disciplines including environmental science, political science, and business. Once you decide which discipline(s) to focus on, look at the databases by subject.

You can conduct a literature review, which is a compilation of previous research conducted on a topic area. Be sure to check the "peer reviewed" or "scholarly" box if you only want scholarly journals. For more information on the difference between peer reviewed, popular magazines or newspapers, or trade journals, refer to the Sterne Library's research guide on the topic.

If you get too many results, you can add search terms or limit your results to certain date ranges, populations, languages, or document types.

Access an article via SFX using the     button. When the full text is available, the "Full Text" link on the pop-up window launched by this icon will lead to the article. If the article is not available in a database, check the library catalog holdings using the "Holdings in Mervyn H. Sterne Library catalog" link. If the article is still not available, contact a reference librarian for help.

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Finding Books

You will also want to gather the various books that are written about your subject. To locate books, you will look in the library's local catalog. You can use the same search terms for finding books as you used for articles. Sterne library uses the Library of Congress (LC) cataloging system. This is different from the Dewey Decimal system used by many public and school libraries.

The Library of Congress system consists of a series of letters and numbers. Although they are horizontal in our catalog, they are vertical on the shelves.

For example, the book Reading Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury: Glossary and Commentary has the call number PS 3511 .A86 S856 1996. On the shelf, the call number will look like this:

PS The first part of an LC call number starts with letters. These are shelved alphabetically. PS represents American Literature.
Once you locate the materials that start with the letters PS, look at the number that follows. This book is shelved after 3500.
1996 This book was published in 1996.

For more information on locating books, including e-books, consult Sterne Library's section of WIT.

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Citing Materials

Once you have gathered your resources, you want to make sure you have properly cited the information in your paper to give the authors of the work you are referencing proper credit. You also want others who read your paper to be able to look at the resources you used.

Each discipline uses its own citation style. You should make sure that you are using the appropriate format for your paper.

Sterne Library has a guide, Citing your Sources, that will help you with many citation styles. If you have any questions, you can always contact a Reference Librarian. Sterne Library also offers citation consultations.

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Locating More Information

The best sources for information are the librarians. They are there to help you and will certainly be able to assist you with your research efforts. Do not hesitate to call on them for help. You'll be glad you did! Sterne Library has also created guides and tutorials to help you with your research. In addition, Sterne Library has a list of FAQ. Try the links below for more information:

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