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Stages of Research: Suggestions

A common error in the early stages of research is forcing the specific research question or argument at the beginning of the research process. This is actually a backwards approach to research. You're not setting yourself up for success if you want the sources to tell you what you want them to tell you. Research doesn't work this way!  Research is not linear. It's best to let the sources speak for themselves, which may just require you to re-visit the direction that you are taking your topic. Remember, a topic isn't a research question. A topic is a subject matter. A research question is one specific take or argument that touches upon the subject at hand. You need to start with a broad topic though. One suggested approach at the early stages of research can look like this: 

  1. My broad topic is _________. 
  2. Create a mind map to explore the different ways that the topic can take.
  3. From this mind map, start to brainstorm search terms.
  4. Search terms can be intuitive language that makes sense to you, or professional jargon.
  5. If you're having trouble finding search terms, go to the web and start to find background information on your topic's direction. Often, you'll learn new search terms. Note them down. 
  6. Now you can start to play around with different kinds of sources: professional association websites, newspapers, professional scholarly articles, books, blogs, interviews, etc. It's very important to know how sources compare to each other and why one might not be a good format to use for your research project. Identifying the purpose of the source is vital. Identifying bias and opinions is also important. 
  7. After you've had some time to play around with different kinds of sources, re-assess your research question. Is it still valid? What are the sources telling you? It's never too late to change direction while keeping the same topic, or realizing that the sources aren't there. Conversation is very important at this stage--whether you talk to a friend, roommate, classmate, professor, or a librarian, they can all help you make better sense of how far you've come and give suggestions.
  8. Make sure you have a research journal or a place where you can keep track of what you've done. This is the place where you'll note down useful search terms, experts or authors that keep popping up, journal titles, websites, databases, and article citations.

Search Terms

Comparing Source Formats

Engagement & Curriculum Collection Librarian

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Teri Holford
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