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Getting Started with Research

In general, a research assignment can be broken down into a few steps:

  • choosing and developing a topic into a research question or thesis
  • finding sources to answer your research question or test your thesis
  • evaluating the sources for relevance, credibility, timeliness and authority
  • incorporating the sources into your research paper or other project
  • citing the sources correctly according to the citation format being used

The process isn't always neat and tidy, though, so you may find yourself repeating steps as you go along!

Choosing and Developing a Topic

Steps to Follow

  • Select a topic that is not too broad for your assignment, grounded in fact, and challenging enough to hold your interest.
  • Find background information about your topic in encyclopedias, textbooks, and online to refine your research  topic and learn more about your topic before you begin looking for sources.
  • Compare what you do know with what you still need to know, and develop research questions that will form the basis of your research.
  • Identify descriptive keywords in your research questions that you can use to search for information in the library catalog or online information sources.
  • Refine your topic as you become familiar with current research and trends.

Topic development is ongoing - your topic can and probably will shift!

Example #1

Broad topic: Fad diets
Narrow topic: Negative health effects of low carbohydrate diets
Research question: What are the negative health effects of low carbohydrate diets?
Keywords: (negative) effects, "low carbohydrate diets"

Example #2

Broad topic: Teen suicide
Narrow topic: Use of anti-depressant drugs and teen suicide
Research question: How has the widespread use of antidepressant drugs affected teen suicide rates?
Keywords: antidepressant, drugs, teen, suicide

Find Information

Using Books for Research


  • in-depth coverage of a subject
  • useful for background information
  • provide more context for your topic


  • books take years to publish
  • the most recent information may not appear even in a new book

Using Articles for Research


  • scholarly articles go through peer review
  • information is validated, edits are made for improvement
  • contain original research and data
  • provide a more focused treatment of a topic


  • narrow focus makes articles a poor resource for general interest topics
  • peer review takes some time, so they may not contain cutting edge information

Using Websites for Research


  • up-to-the-minute information about current topics
  • government reports and statistics are a useful source of data


  • no formal quality control means websites may contain biased, outdated, or inaccurate information
  • some scholarly publishing is available for free on the web, but only a fraction of what is produced

Evaluating Information

Questions to Ask


  • Who is the intended audience of the source?
  • Is the information at the appropriate level for your needs?
  • Does it answer your research questions?


  • What is the purpose of the information? (persuade, entertain, inform, teach)
  • Is the information supported by facts or data?
  • Is the information impartial? (If not, is the other side represented?)


  • When was the information published?
  • Is there a more recent edition?
  • Is the information current enough for your topic?


  • Who is the author or publisher and what are their credentials or institutional affiliation?
  • Is there a logical relationship between author or publisher and the information?
  • Is there contact information for the author or publisher?

Integrating Sources

Quoting and Paraphrasing

Quoting: using exact words from a source

  • short quotations (40 or fewer words) should be enclosed in quotation marks and followed by an in-text citation
  • long quotations (more than 40 words) should be placed in block format, with the entire quote indented 1/2 inch, without quotation marks, and followed by an in-text citation
  • quotes should always be attributed to the original author with an in-text citation

Quote when the exact wording is important to retain meaning

  • when you’re reproducing an exact definition
  • when you can’t say the same thing more memorably or more succinctly
  • when you want to respond to the author’s direct wording to strengthen your argument

Paraphrasing: restating someone else's ideas in your own words

  • a paraphrase is usually shorter than the original passage because it involves condensing an idea
  • do this to summarize or to focus on an important point
  • a paraphrase is preferable to a quotation because it is presented in the context of your argument and in your own writing style
  • paraphrases should always be attributed to the original author with an in-text citation

Paraphrase to restate the author’s idea in your own words

  • summarize and synthesize ideas when you can
  • adapt the information to the context of your paper
  • retain your own writing style

Citing Sources

Citation in Brief

Citation is quoting or otherwise referring to an author or their work to illustrate a point or to support an argument in your own essay or research paper. When you do this, you must acknowledge the contribution of that author with an in-text citation and a bibliographic citation. An in-text citation is a short reference to that part of the work you have used within the body of your paper, and a bibliographic citation is a full citation included in a list at the end of your paper, formatted according to the style you are using - usually APA or MLA style.

Citation is a Two-Part Process

In-Text Citation

Brief reference to an author’s work in the body of your paper, pointing your reader to the corresponding entry in the reference list. MLA Style uses author-page format. APA style uses author-date format.

List of Cited Works

List of full citations for all resources used, arranged alphabetically by authors’ last names. MLA style refers to this as Works Cited. APA Style and Chicago Author-Date style refer to this as References. Chicago NB style refers to this as Bibliography.

Cite or Don't Cite?

Do Cite It

  • when you quote or paraphrase someone else's words, ideas, analysis, or opinions
  • when you use data collected or created by someone else
  • when you use someone else's images or illustrations

Don't Cite It

  • when information is common knowledge, something your reader already knows
  • when you use data you collected yourself, like an informal student poll or survey
  • when you use your own images or illustrations
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