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Information Literacy: Research Strategy

5 Steps to Research

Research, Assignment, & Writing Assistance


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Research Strategy

There are three basic steps to follow when researching a topic for a class or paper. Follow them, and remember: if you have questions do not be afraid to ask! 

Before you begin your research:
  • Make sure you understand your assignment instructions and your instructor's expectations for your work. Ask questions if something is unclear.
  • Select a topic that interests you, is unique, or current. Be original!
  • Plan out your project, break large assignments into smaller tasks, and do a little each day or week so that you aren't rushed toward the end.
  • Reach out to your instructor for help with topic selection.
During your research:
  • Use library ebooks and databases to assure high-quality, relevant resources. See our ANSWER on Ways to Research for more information.
  • Select resources that are credible and related to or that support your topic.
  • If you are having difficulty finding sources using topical keywords: search for terms that are related to, or appear frequently in relation to your topic.
  • Keep notes about each resource that you discover. Your notes should include information about the source, why it relates to your topic, and how it fits into your research plan.
  • DON'T copy notes word for word. Create your own ideas using the information you've discovered.
  • Reach out to a librarian if you get stuck, need help navigating databases, or need additional resources.

 Keywords  are significant words that appear within your Research Questions or Thesis. Selecting terms for a "keyword search" can be challenging. Good choices for keyword searches are the topic words or synonyms of the topic, major elements of the topic and can be combined using in a search query using boolean terms.

If you're trying to select a topic to write about, be sure the topic you select:

  • Matches the assignment.
    • For example, if you're to write a process paper for English composition, be sure your topic is an actual process someone can do.  That's a different type of topic than what you would choose for an informative/expository paper in which you'd explain about something or inform your reader.
  • Will allow you to fulfill all required elements of the assignment.
    • Required length
    • Required number and types of sources
    • Specific sections, such as application or evaluation or comparison
  • Is something about which you are interested in learning.
    • It does not need to be a topic on which you're already well informed.  The purpose of college is for you to learn new things, so let your writing assignments help you to do just that!
  • Is something for which you can find credible sources of information.
    • Your sources should shape and support your theories, arguments, or conclusions.
    • Personal opinions need to be supported with facts and statistics.  Otherwise, you're just an opinionated person rather than a well-informed writer.

Which topics are "popular" for papers depends greatly on the actual assignments. Some great places for getting topic ideas are from the following resources

Library Lingo

Abstract: A brief summary of a book or article

Annotation: A short description including evaluation and reflection about a resource.

Bibliographic record: a bibliographic record refers to all the information necessary to identify one item. This information usually includes at least the title, author, publisher, and date of publication, sometimes more. 

Bibliography: A list of sources of information (articles, books, and other materials) on a specific topic. Bibliographies can be found at an end of a book or article to refer to the resources used in writing the book or article, or to refer researchers to recommended further reading. Bibliographies can also be independent works that are annotated.

Boolean operators (terms): The words "and", "or", "not" used in keyword searching to broaden, narrow, or limit a search.

Citation: A citation is a standardized description of an item (book, article, video or audio recording, etc.) containing sufficient information necessary to locate the item. Citations in modern indexes are usually accompanied by abstracts summarizing the information in the articles or other documents represented. Frequently, a citation in an online index leads directly to the full text of the article represented, either in the same database or via a link to another site.

Basic required elements of citations include author, title, and publication information.

  • A citation for a book:
    Author, title, place of publication, name of publisher, date.
  • A citation for a magazine article:
    Author (if any), article title, journal title, volume and issue number (if any), date, page number(s).


Citation style: A standardized system for citing materials used when writing books or papers. Citation styles are often created by professional organizations such the American Psychological Association (APA).

Cite: The act of indicating the source of information. Authors cite their sources for two important reasons: 1. To give credit to the originator of an idea or research they wish to discuss, and 2. to allow readers to locate the source of the information and read it in context.

Controlled vocabulary: Set of established terms used in indexes, catalogs, and databases used to provide access to records. Library of Congress subject headings are one example of a controlled vocabulary. Subject thesauri are also controlled vocabularies.

Database: an organized collection of information. Commonly, the term "databases" refers to electronic or computer databases. Databases consist of records, which in turn consist of fields. In libraries, databases are used for listings and indexes. Each record represents a single item or document, and specific fields hold author name, title, and publishing information.

Descriptor: A controlled vocabulary term, or standardized term, assigned to an item in an index or database that is used for a search, also called a subject heading in a library catalog.

Holdings: the materials owned by a library.

Index: An alphabetical list subjects, authors or titles used in a book or set of volumes with corresponding page numbers. Can also be a separate work that indicates information located in other sources.

Interlibrary Loan (ILL): Interlibrary loan is a service provided by libraries to give patrons access to materials available in other libraries. 

Journal: A professional or academic periodical usually issued monthly or quarterly which contains scholarly articles, reports, research, and/or papers.

Keywords: Keywords are significant words that appear anywhere in the bibliographic record for an item. Selecting terms for a "keyword search" can be challenging. Good choices for keyword searches are the topic words or synonyms of the topic, major elements of the topic and can be combined using in a search query using boolean terms.


Keyword searching: A search made up of keywords and/or boolean terms. When used in context of searching, the researcher chooses keywords rather than using the controlled vocabulary of the system. 

Periodical: A publication that appears on a continuous and predictable schedule. Examples include newspapers (daily or weekly), magazines, and journals.

Peer reviewed: A level of scholarship. Peer reviewed articles have been evaluated by several researchers or subject specialist in the academic community prior to accepting it for publication.

Plagiarism: the use of another person's words, ideas, or research without crediting the source. Passing off another person's work as one's own.

Primary sources are original works. These sources represent original thinking, report on discoveries or events, or share new information. Usually these represent the first formal appearance of original research. Primary sources include statistical data, manuscripts, surveys, speeches, biographies/autobiographies, diaries, oral histories, interviews, works or art and literature, research reports, government documents, computer programs, original documents( birth certificates, trial transcripts...) etc.

Refereed: A level of scholarship. Refereed articles have been evaluated by at least one area specialist prior to acceptance for publication.

Search engines: Search engines are programs that search for significant words in pages stored in its database. Some search engines are programmed to search a single web site or database. Meta-searchers are capable of searching multiple search engines at one time. Search engines are proprietary. This means that not all search engines are the same.

Search statement: A search statement is the manner in which search terms are arranged when entered into a search engine. A search statement can consist of any combination of keywords, boolean terms, proximity, nesting, wildcard, and truncation symbols.

Secondary sources are usually studies by other researchers. They describe, analyze, and/or evaluate information found in primary sources. By repackaging information, secondary sources make information more accessible. A few examples of secondary sources are books, journal and magazine articles, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, periodical indexes, etc.

Subject headings: a standardized word or phrase describing a topic or concept. Also called descriptors or controlled vocabulary.

Thesaurus: A list of all subject heading or descriptors used in a database, catalog, or index. A thesaurus will indicate the correct controlled vocabulary to use for a given term.