Five Steps for Library Research

last modified 2020-01-02T15:54:51-05:00

There are many different definitions for the research process. This Five Step Research Process for Library Research will help guide you through researching professional literature and other information. Keep in mind that research is not always linear, and you may find yourself repeating some steps, or working them in a different order.

1. Identify and Develop Your Topic

If you haven’t chosen a topic, you can discuss ideas with your professor or subject librarian. If you’re not sure where to start, you might also try browsing recent research in particular areas of interest, or looking at current topics of interest in the news.

Once you've chosen a topic, state it as a question. For example, instead of "athletics increase college revenue," you might ask "Do athletics programs increase revenue at colleges, and does this increase only impact the athletics programs?" Try to create a question you want to know the answer to!

Identify the main concepts and keywords in your question, and come up with alternatives. Ask yourself which words in your research topic are most important, and spend a few minutes thinking about alternate ways to phrase them. In our example, the most important keywords are "athletics programs," "revenue," and "college." You might replace "athletics programs" with "sports programs" or "sports teams," or even specific sports such as football.

2. Find the Context/Background Information on Your Topic

Once you've chosen a main topic, you can make your research process go more smoothly by finding some more background information. Look for a source with a broad overview of the topic so you can understand how your specific research question fits into the broader context of the topic. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks are all good places to look for general overviews. You can even use online sources like Wikipedia at this point, as long as you remember that they may not be entirely accurate. In general, information found at this stage of the research process, and the sources used, are not cited in the final product.

At this point, you may decide to further refine or change your research question. In fact, if you struggled to come up with a question, it's often useful to get some background information before deciding on a final topic.

3. Find Potential Resources

Once you've gained some familiarity with your research topic, you can find a variety of resources that can guide you in your research process and/or be cited in your final product. Exactly which types of sources you use depends on your research topic.

Primary and Secondary: For most research assignments, you will need to use both primary and secondary sources, which can be in any of the formats listed below. Whether something is a primary or secondary source varies by discipline and research topic. In the sciences, journal articles and conference proceedings describing a specific study are primary sources. In the humanities, interviews, manuscripts, newspaper articles and artwork are a few of the primary source types commonly used. For a more detailed list, check out this guide. If you're not sure whether or not a source is considered primary, check with your professor.

Books: In general, books should only be used for topics where the field is slower to develop. Neuroscience, for example, is such a fast-paced field that books are going to contain outdated information. Also remember that you do not need to use an entire book – many academic books contain chapters written by multiple authors, and you can use a single chapter.  
Where to look: search the Mercer Library Catalog to see what books are immediately available to you. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can search libraries worldwide via WorldCat, and request an item be sent to you.

Journal Articles: Academic Journal Articles are the primary resource for most academic research topics. Some articles and journals are more reputable than others; as you become familiar with the field, you will learn the names of the most reliable journals. In the meantime, ask your professor for suggestions.
Where to look: Library databases are the simplest way to search for articles. Check the subject guide for your area to find databases that will work well for your topic.

Other Sources: Newspapers, magazines, government data, documentaries and films, and audio recordings are some of the other sources you might use, depending on your topic. Talk to a librarian or your professor if you’re not sure whether or not they’re appropriate, or if you need help locating information.
Where to look: The library provides access to all of these types of information. Try searching the library catalog and/or databases, or ask a librarian for specific suggestions.

Once you've started finding sources, you can use the C.R.A.P. test to do a preliminary evaluation of the source and decide whether or not it is worth pursuing further. Remember that you should include highly relevant sources that describe the current state of knowledge on your research topic. As you progress into more advanced research, you will need to be able to articulate not only your research but how it relates to the larger academic conversation.

4. Evaluate What You Find

Critically read through the sources you've selected, keeping your research question in mind as you go. If your source has a summary or introduction, read through this carefully, and consider rejecting sources that don’t seem to be useful. With research articles, pay careful attention to the methods used and the discussion of the results, and watch out for potential errors or biases that might invalidate the results.

With any source, it is a good idea to jot down a few notes summarizing what you think are the key points, especially as they relate to your research question. Highlight passages that could be useful to quote or incorporate into your final product, and take note of any references to other sources you might find useful.

With significant research projects, you should always expect to read more sources than you actually use in your final product. Reading and rejecting sources is not a waste of time, as you are still gaining knowledge about the context of your topic.

5. Cite Your Sources

As you prepare your final product, whether that be a paper, presentation, or another form of sharing your research, you should always provide citations for your sources. You are probably aware of the concerns about plagiarism, but citing sources is also important because it allows your audience to locate those sources for themselves if they’re interested in learning more about the topic. In informal writing and presentations, citations may be as simple as a link to a relevant source, or a brief mention of the source in an audio format. In formal and academic forums, however, properly formatted citations are expected.

Which citation style you will use depends on your field and product. The most commonly used styles are MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), Chicago (The Chicago Manual of Style), and Turabian (A Manual for Writers by Kate Turabian). If you're not sure which to use, ask your professor what style they prefer. If you're writing an article for publication, be prepared to use a different citation style based on the publisher's requirements.

If you need assistance citing sources, librarians are happy to help format and review citations. You can also use software to automatically generate citations but bear in mind that you need to verify the formatting. Tarver Library recommends and supports Zotero, which is free to download and use.

If you need additional help please stop by the library and visit the library or contact a librarian via one of these methods.

This guide has been adapted from Cornell University's Seven Steps to Library Research.