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Research Process Guide: Getting Started

Understand Your Assignment

--Is the topic assigned or can you choose it?
--Must you use only scholarly or professional journals or may any type of source be used?
--How long must your project be?
--When is the project due? START EARLY. Create a timeline - deadlines set for yourself
--Must you prepare a list of sources to turn in?

Select a Topic

--If you can choose your own topic, choose one that interests you. For ideas, look through your required texts and readings, consult with your instructor, peruse newspapers and magazines, explore personal experiences and interests.

--State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by teenagers, you might pose the question, "What effect does the use of alcoholic beverages have on teenagers?" Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question, e.g. (alcoholic beverages OR alcohol) and (teenagers OR teens)

--Look for background information. Start early; delay limits the materials available to support your topic. Develop a study strategy.

Background Information - Overview

Quickly read up on the broad topic to find the issues and controversies.

Use Encyclopedia Britannica or Gale Virtual Reference Library to find summaries.

Read articles in the sources you find to set the context of your research. Pay close attention to the vocabulary the authors use.  What are the experts discussing?  How can you contribute to that conversation?

Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of these overview sources. They can provide leads to other useful books or articles.

The purpose of this research is to educate yourself about the topic.  You probably won't cite these sources in your paper.


List terms to use in your search. Include synonyms and related terms.

Make a brief outline of major topics you plan to cover in your project.
Your resources search will provide the information to fill out your outline or help you revise it.

Consider the types of sources appropriate to your topic. Will books suffice? Do you need primary sources for a science paper or primary sources for history research? Should articles be exclusively from scholarly journals? Do you need statistics?

Consider how to narrow down a broad topic.  You can focus on a specific geographical area, a particular culture, a disciplinary perspective, or population group.

Student Success and Engagement Librarian

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Tristan Draper
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