Dr. Karen Palmer and Dr. Sandi Van Lieu

Conducting Research

Research at the university level requires expertise on a topic while drawing from a wide variety of sources. The YC Library is a wonderful source of information, with articles and even whole books accessible completely online. In addition, there are many reputable websites from which credible information can be gleaned.

As you research, remember that your goal is to find out more about your topic. Many students begin research simply by looking for quotes that will support their own opinions. This method does not create good arguments! Before you begin researching, write down some questions you have about your topic. Do your best to find the answers to those questions in your research.

Image in the public domain.

Determining Your Timeline

Begin with the amount of time you have to complete your project. Create a research and writing schedule that can realistically fit into your life and allow you to generate a quality product. Then stick with your plan. As with many time consuming tasks, if you fall off your schedule, you are likely to find yourself having to work long hours or having to make concessions in order to finish in time. Since such actions will probably result in an end product of lesser quality, making and keeping a schedule is an excellent idea.

As a rule, when you make a schedule, it’s best to plan to spend a little time each day as opposed to long blocks of time on a few days. Although, on a long project, you might find it beneficial to have some lengthy days, as a rule, long hours on a single project do not fit into one’s daily life very well.

As you schedule your time, plan for at least one spare day before the project is due as sort of an insurance policy. In other words, don’t set your schedule to include working through the last available minute. A spare day or two gives you some flexibility in case the process doesn’t flow along perfectly according to your plan.

If you plan to have others proofread your work, respectfully consider their schedules. You can’t make a plan that requires others to drop what they are doing to read your draft on your schedule.

Defining Your Research Question

When you are researching for an essay, your attitude and stamina are key to your success. If you let either of these issues get out of hand, you can seriously weaken your project. Before you begin what is essentially a month-long relationship with a topic, you should choose something that interests you, something about which you have an opinion. Even when it is on a topic you care deeply about, researching is often tedious and demands stamina. Assume from the beginning that the project will be time consuming and sometimes exhausting, so make sure to allot the needed time and energy to complete it.

If you feel strongly about a topic, you might find it a challenge to keep your attitude in check and to read your sources with an open mind. It’s critical not to let your personal opinions drive the information you choose to include. Try to create a well-rounded paper. If all the sources you find appear to agree with your viewpoints, actively search out a different viewpoint to strengthen your paper. Or consider changing your path entirely because if there really isn’t a range of sources out there, you’re probably not working with an arguable topic.

Along with keeping an open mind (attitude) and keeping to a schedule (stamina), you should, of course, read critically. In other words, you should evaluate the arguments and assumptions authors make and, when appropriate, present your evaluations within your paper. You can include biased information if you choose, but be certain to note the bias. This move might be appropriate in a persuasive essay if you are taking issue with a source with which you disagree.

Be careful not to settle for too easy a target in such an essay. Don’t pick on a fringe voice in the opposing camp when there’s a more reasonable argument that needs to be dealt with fairly. If a source is simply too biased to be useful even as an opposing argument, then you may choose not to include it as part of your essay. Your basic principle of selection for a source, regardless of whether you agree with it as a matter of opinion, should be based on whether you think the information includes sound assumptions, meaningful evidence, and logical conclusions.

You also need to pose productive questions throughout the process. If you are writing on a topic about which you already have a very clear stance, consider whether there is common ground you share with your ideological opponents that might lead to a more productive use of your time and theirs. In general, persuasive essays are more effective if they also solve problems instead of just staking out an inflexible position based on a core set of inflexible assumptions. It’s not that you shouldn’t write about abortion or capital punishment if these issues mean something to you, it’s just that you don’t want to go down the same path that’s been followed by millions of students who have come before you. So how do you ask fresh questions about classic topics? Often by rewinding to the causes of the effects people typically argue about or simply by pledging to report the facts of the matter in depth.

Old Question about Classic Topic New Questions about Classic Topic
Is abortion acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What forms of sexual education have been shown to be effective with teens most at risk of unplanned pregnancies?
  • What are some of the social and cultural causes of unplanned teen pregnancies?
Is capital punishment acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What are states doing to ensure fair and thorough trials for capital crimes?
  • What are the results in the capital crime rate in states that have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment?
  • What is the relative average cost to conduct a capital prosecution and execution versus life imprisonment without parole?
Is censorship acceptable under any circumstances?
  • What is the recent history of legislative and judicial rulings on First Amendment issues?
  • What are the commercial motivations of advertisers, music, television, and film producers to push the boundaries of decency?

Exercise 1

1. Using the table above as an example, choose four “high school” topics. Write down the classic question, and then write one or two new questions about the topic that might lead to a more interesting and unique research project.

Different Types of Sources

Your status as a student grants you access to your college library, and it is in your best interest to use it. Whether you are using your library online or in person, you will most likely need some guidance so that you know the research options available and how to access them.

If you are attending a traditional brick-and-mortar college, the quickest way to learn about your library options is to physically go to the library and meet with a librarian. If you are attending school mostly or completely online, look for online tutorials offered by your college library.

Within the array of online options available to you, the academic databases to which your library subscribes are generally more authoritative because they have been edited and in many cases peer reviewed before being approved for publication. These sources often appeared in print before being collected in the database.

However, databases can take you only so far in your research. If you have questions that need quick answers, especially involving facts or statistics, there’s nothing wrong with using popular search engines like Google or even online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, provided you use them critically. Confirm the truth of the information you find by finding corroboration from at least two other sources, and follow up on the sources listed in the sites to which you are directed.

The Internet also offers a variety of additional tools and services that are very useful to you as a researcher. Some of these options include citation builders and writing guides, dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, collections of famous quotations, government data, stock photo collections, collaboratively produced wikis and websites, and much more. An effective research project will likely combine source material from both academic databases and more popularly available online sites.

In addition to print and online sources, you might also wish to find some primary sources, such as interviewing an expert, sorting through relevant documents, making observations, or attending an event that relates to your topic. For example, if you are researching the effects of inclusion on third grade students with special needs, you could add meaningful information to your paper by speaking with a local educator who has reviewed achievement scores before and after they have received inclusion services.

Exercise 2

1. Provide contact information, including personal name(s), for school library staff you could turn to for help when you start a research project.

2. Once you’ve gotten to know more about your library’s online databases, use what you already know about popular search engines to decide which would be an easier method of finding reliable, trustworthy sources for the following information:

  • an academic database or a popular search engine?
  • rates of military service in the United States since World War II
  • arguments in favor of and against the existence of climate change
  • studies on the effects of television viewing on infants
  • average age of first marriage among men and women every year since 1960
  • proposed solutions to unemployment
  • the highest grossing films of the last twenty years

3. Indicate three research topics of interest to you. Then describe a field source for each topic that you could use as a resource.

Using Databases

The YC Databases will prove to be your most important research tool over the course of your academic career. With the databases, you can find credible, academic sources online right from your computer. The databases even include a citation shortcut!

See this YC Library Tutorial for using databases: https://yc.libwizard.com/proquest-basics 

Choosing Search Terms

Whether you are searching research databases or conducting general online searches, the search terms and phrases you use will determine what information you find. Following some basic search term guidelines can make the process go smoothly.

When searching for articles within a database, start by using keywords that relate to your topic.

Example: alternative energy

To expand your search, use synonyms or components of the initial search terms.

Synonym Example: renewable energy

Components Example: algae energy, wind energy, biofuel

Another technique you can use is to refine the presentation of your search terms using suggestions in the following table:

Strategy Explanation Example
Use multiple words. Use multiple words to more narrowly define your search. renewable energy instead of energy
Use quotation marks. Place quotation marks around two or more words that you want to search for only in combination, never individually. “renewable energy”
Use “AND” to connect words. Use “AND” between words when you want to retrieve only articles that include both words. algae AND energy
Use “OR” to choose one or the other. Use “OR” to find information relating to one of two options but not both. This option works well when you have two terms that mean the same thing and you want to find articles regardless of which term has been chosen for use. ethanol OR ethyl alcohol
Use “NOT” to eliminate likely options. Use “NOT” to eliminate one category of ideas you know a search term will likely generate. algae NOT food
Use “*” or “?” to include alternate word endings. Use “*” or “?” to include a variety of word endings. This process is often called using a “wildcard.” alternate* energy
alternate? energy
Use parentheses to combine multiple searches. Use parentheses to combine multiple related terms into one single search using the different options presented in this table. (renewable OR algae OR biofuel OR solar) AND energy

When you find a helpful article or Internet site, look for additional search terms and sources that you can follow up on. If you don’t have time to follow up on them all when you find them, include them in your research log for later follow-up. When possible, copy and paste terms and links into your log. When you have to retype, take great care with spelling, spacing, and most of all, attributing direct quotations to their original source.

The aforementioned tips are general ideas for keyword searching. When you are searching within a database or a search engine, pay attention to any search tips or help screens that present methods that work well with the specific database or search engine. For example, you may have the option to narrow your search to “full text” entries only or to refine it to texts published within a certain time frame.

Making Ethical and Effective Choices

Three keys to referencing others’ ideas ethically are to know the difference between common knowledge and proprietary ideas, to be aware of how to properly summarize and paraphrase, and to understand the correct methods for citing sources. In addition, you need to make sure that material is available for use at any level.

Differentiating between Common Knowledge and Proprietary Ideas

Common knowledge is that bank of information that most people know. This information does not require a citation. One way to identify common knowledge is to note that it is presented in multiple sources without documentation. Another identification method is to realize that you, along with most people you know, are aware of the information. For example, you can write that “Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming” without needing a reference. On the other hand, if you were to note that there is a high rate of divorce in Cheyenne, you would need to cite that detail.

Making Sure Material Is Available for Use

As you are searching for sources, be sure to determine that you can ethically use the material. As a rule, you can reference most text as long as you properly cite it. Images are another issue. When you search online for images, you will find many private and for-profit sources. You should not use these images without contacting the source and requesting permission. For example, you might find a picture of a darling little boy from someone’s personal unprotected photo page or a good picture of an orderly closet from a company’s web page. Using such photos just because you can access them is not ethical. And citing the source is not adequate in these situations. You should either obtain written permission or forgo the use of such images.

Important Research Reminders:

  • ALWAYS, ALWAYS keep track of your sources!
  • You can keep a file on your computer where you save PDF articles.
  • You can open up a Word document that will be your essay or a blank Word document where you can copy/paste the links and notes you’ve found.
  • Be careful, though, if you are logged into your college account and on the library page searching databases. You will have to log in again to use the link.
  • You can have your own method; just be sure you do indeed have one.
  • You must know where a source came from so that you can go back and get the MLA information for your citations.

Exercise 3

1. Write a search term you could use if you wanted to search for sites about the Eisenhower family, but not about Dwight Eisenhower.

2. Write a search term that would work to find sites about athlete graduation rates but not about non-athlete graduation rates or other information about athletes.

3. Brainstorm a list of search terms to use when researching the topic “television violence.” Include all the techniques from this section at least once.

Additional Resources:

For a wonderful overview of the research process, watch this video: https://www.yc.edu/v5content/library/improve-research.htm




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Doing Research Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer and Dr. Sandi Van Lieu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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