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The Research Process



This tutorial is intended to give you a broad overview of the Research Process. You will learn the different steps to research and why they are important.

This is a text-only printer-friendly version of the The Research Process Tutorial. It does not include any picture examples or interactive questions provided in the primary version of this tutorial.

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When you do it for class, you call it research. If you are doing it for yourself, you might call it just surfing. You are looking for information and either way the process is the same. You could just jump in, feet first, without any planning, and in a very short time you will be banging your head against the wall. Have you ever tried to find something on the Internet and either got thousands of hits, or maybe none at all? Frustrating, isn't it?

If you step back and take a little time to work through the research process you will get better results and much less frustration.

This tutorial is an overview and explanation of the five steps to the Research Process.*

The Research Process:
  1. Clearly define your topic or "information need"
  2. Collect/find information
  3. Evaluate the information you find
  4. Use and/or do something with the information
  5. Use the information ethically and legally
*In Academia, and in the Library world, this is also called "Information Literacy."

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1. Clearly define your topic or "information need"

What is your "information need?" What exactly do you want to know? Are you researching your own personal interests or do you need information for a class or assignment?

If you have been given an assignment to write a research paper for a class, sometimes the hardest thing is coming up with a topic to research. If you are having a hard time:
  • Try to think of a topic you are interested in. If you are curious about your topic, you'll do a better job than you will if you are bored with your topic.
  • Brainstorm! Just start writing whatever comes to mind. Eventually you might just come up with something that you'll be interested in researching.
  • Scan newspapers or watch the news. Watch for topics that interests you.
  • Look at the Ready Reference Position Papers web page. It has resources collected to help students look for topics for papers.
A good way to start your research is to state your topic as a question. This will help you clarify your thoughts and focus on your topic. You need to be very clear and very specific about what information you need before you will be able to find it.

Let's look at two examples, one personal research and the other academic research for a paper.

Personal Example - You are going to buy a car, and need to figure out which one to buy:
  • What cars are available right now?
  • How much can I afford to spend on a car?
  • What cars are available in my price range?
  • What features am I interested in having in my new car?
  • What cars are available with the features I'm interested in and in my price range?
  • "What cars should I consider purchasing, taking into consideration cost, safety and gas mileage, given my available cash, credit, and income" is a very specific question.
Academic Example - Your assignment is to write a paper on media violence:
  • Is there more violence in the media today than in years past?
  • Where do you see violence in the media?
  • Are children exposed to violence in the media?
  • Does violence in the media affect children's behavior?
Once you have stated your topic as a question, you need to identify the main concepts in the question. Do this by picking out the significant terms in your question.:

Personal Example:
  • What cars should I consider purchasing, taking into consideration cost, safety and gas mileage, given my available cash, credit, and income."
Academic Example :
  • Does violence in the media affect children's behavior?
When you actually start looking for information these will be the keywords or "terms" you will use in your searches. Once you have these terms think of any synonyms and related terms you might use:

Personal Example:
terms car(s) cost safety mileage
related
terms
automobile(s) price   economy
  expense    

Academic Example :
terms violence media child(ren) behavior
related
terms
brutality broadcast(ing) youth conduct
    juvenile(s)  
    adolescent(s)  


Using connecting words "and" and "or" and truncation symbols you can construct a search statement which will return the best possible results. In this case something like:

Personal Example:
(car* or automobile*) and (cost or price or expense) and safety and (mileage or economy)

Academic Example :
(violence or brutality) and (media or broadcast*) and (child* or youth or juvenile* or adolescent*) and (mileage or economy)

For more information on using search terms and building search statements, see the Searching Techniques and Strategies Tutorial.

Once you have a topic and begin your research, you might find that at some point you want to refine your topic.
  • Are you overwhelmed by the amount of information available? You may need to narrow your topic.
  • Can't find enough information? You may need to broaden your topic.
  • How much time do you have? If your topic is just too much for you to do in the time allotted, choose another topic or narrow your current topic.
  • Are all the sources you need easily accessible (all on-hand), given interlibrary loan time limits, etc.
  • Maybe you ran across a particular aspect of your topic that really struck your interest and you want to focus on that.
  • How long is your paper supposed to be? If you are writing a short paper (5 pages) your topic will have to be more narrow than if you are writing a longer (20 page) paper.
Don't be discouraged if this happens. It's part of the process. Just revise your topic question, and re-think the terms you will search for.

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2. Collect/find information

There are some key concepts to keep in mind as you start collecting information:
  • How much information will you need? That will depend on the reason you need the information. If you are writing a paper, what size does your paper need to be? Do you want a lot of in depth information, or just a little background information?
  • What kind of information do you need? What level, scholarly or popular? How current does it need to be? How thorough do you need the information to be? etc.
  • Plan your search strategy. Learn the subject terminology and try to have a general idea of what keywords are associated with your topic.
Where do you look for information?
  1. Reference Tools - There are a wide variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias and almanacs. Often you can find some which are ideally suited for information on your topic. Use reference tools to look for definitions, explanations, and to identify other possible sources of information. Reference tools can also help you find other ways to describe what you are looking for, i.e. develop more search terms.
    For more information on reference tools, see the Reference Tools Tutorial.

  2. A library's Online Catalog - Use the online catalog to look for books, Government Documents, and other information sources.
    For more information on using the Online Catalog, see the Online Catalog Tutorials.
    For more information on Government Documents, see the Government Documents Tutorials.

  3. Periodical Literature - Journals, newspapers, and magazines are all valuable sources of information. Print indexes and electronic databases are used to find citations for scholarly articles and other types of periodical articles.
    For more information on finding articles, see the Finding Periodical Articles Tutorial.

  4. The Internet - you can find some great information on the Internet, but you must always carefully evaluate the web pages you find. Educational sites (.edu) and US Government sites (.gov) are often reliable sources for information.
    For more information on using the Internet, see the Internet Tutorial.

  5. Anything else you can think of!
    • Do you know someone who is knowledgeable on your topic? Do they have books, journals, pamphlets you can look at. Can you interview them?
    • Visit a museum that deals with your topic.
    • If you have any resources in hand, use their bibliography. The sources in a bibliography can be great resources to furthur your own research.
    • Pamphlets, Flyers
    • etc.
    • Ask Us! There are a number of ways to find us at the LSU Libraries. Library hours are posted online at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/admin/hours, if you would like to call or stop by the reference desk, or you can contact us by e-mail or Live Assistance chat. See the Ask Us! web page for links.
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3. Evaluate the information you find

Once you have found some information, you must decide if it answers your question? Does it "meet your information need?" Is the information valid? What type of source is it coming from, and can you believe it? In other words, you need to evaluate it. Here are some guidelines
  • Authority: Where did the information come from? Did it come from an authority in the field? Is the publisher a reputable publisher?
  • Reliability: How reliable is this information source? Can you trust and believe it? Does the information seem accurate and is it well documented?
  • Currency: How old is this information? Is there newer information available?
  • Scope: Is the information complete or is it just a summary of another work? What level is the information? Who is the intended audience for the material?
  • Relevancy: Does the information source answer your questions? Does it "fill your information need?"
For more information on Evaluation, see the Evaluation of Information Sources Tutorials:
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4. Use and/or do something with that information

Once you've got the information you need, do something with it!
  • Read, watch, learn from the information you have found.
  • Organize your information - taking notes, or using an outline is always a good idea.
  • Present your information, usually in the form of a report, essay, paper, presentation, etc.
  • If your information need was a personal one, make that decision, or make that purchase!
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5. Behave ethically and legally with that information

First, there are a couple of terms you should be familiar with:
  • Copyright - is the legal protection of the creators rights to reproduction or use of their materials. Copyright covers, published or unpublished, anything literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial, audio-visual, and anything published on the Internet.
  • Plagiarism - is the taking of the ideas or work of another person without formal acknowledgment (citing your source). Or passing someone else's work off as your own. This is a serious ethical issue as well as a legal one. LSU has very strict rules regarding the copying of another person's work, be they another student, a book in the library, or a term paper service off the Internet.
The LSU Code of Student Conduct defines plagiarism as "the unacknowledged inclusion, in work submitted for credit, of someone else's words, ideas, or data."

The LSU Code of Student Conduct also states "Failure to identify any source, published or unpublished, copyrighted or un-copyrighted from which information, terms, phrases, or concepts have been taken, constitutes plagiarism."

For more information on Plagiarism, see the Plagiarism Guide.

It is easy to avoid plagiarism as long as you remember to document, or cite, your sources. Always give people credit for their work by writing a bibliography or works cited list and including footnotes or end notes.

In addition to keeping you out of trouble with the dean of students, documenting your sources serves several other purposes:
  • It proves that you aren't just making something up. I could say that the moon is made of cheese, but do I have any documentation to back that up?
  • It allows someone to follow your research:
    • to confirm that you really DID the research, and that it what you are saying is true.
    • to get more information from your sources
    • and to continue the research
  • It gives credit to the person or place from which you got your information. When someone puts forth the time and effort to do research and publish it they deserve credit for that work. If you write a paper for class, and put a lot of work into it, you darned sure are going to put your name on it, and want the credit for it.
While providing documentation for your own sources of information, it's a good idea to be suspicious of someone who provides information, but does not provide full documentation for that information. "Found in a California Newspaper," "I heard it on Paul Harvey," or "A friend, of my cousin's father-in-law told me, so it must be true," do not constitute proper documentation. Which California paper, and what day? Paul Harvey? Really? When was it broadcast, and where did he get the information? Can you confirm this information? Can you go back and find the original source of information?

So how do you go about documenting, or citing, your sources?

A citation -
  • tells where you got your information.
  • is a reference to an exact source of information.
  • Includes all of the information someone might need in order to find that source of information again.
It is important that you have the FULL citation. This should include all of the information someone (maybe even you, years from now) might need to find that same source of information.

Full citations require the same basic information:
  • Author
  • Title
  • Publisher
  • Date of publication
Citations to journal articles also include:
  • Journal title
  • Volume, issue and page
Citations to electronic items also include:
  • Web address
  • Date item was accessed
Style guides tell you how to arrange and format the citation information consistently. Different academic disciplines tend to use different styles. If you are doing research for a class assignment your instructor will tell you which style to use. Some of the most common are:
  • APA (American Psychological Association). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association.
    Call Number: BF 76.7 .P83 2001
    In Middleton Library, the 5th edition is located at Reference Index Table 2 and a copy is also located at the Reference Desk (id required for the Reference Desk Copy).
  • MLA (Modern Language Association). MLA handbook for writers of research papers.
    Call Number: LB 2369 .G53 2003
    In Middleton Library, the 6th edition is located at the Reference Desk (id required for the Reference Desk Copy).
  • Chicago Manual of Style. The Chicago manual of style.
    Call Number: Z 253 .C57
    In Middleton Library, the 15th edition is located at Reference Index Table 2.
  • Turabian. A manual for writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations.
    Call Number LB 2369 .T8 1996
    In Middleton Library, the 6th edition is located at Reference Index Table 2.
Be sure to refer to a style guide for exactly how this information should be put together, and for other information which might be required.

For more information on citation styles see the Ready Reference Style Guides page.

Sample Citations:
  • Sample book citation in MLA format:

    Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

  • Sample journal article in MLA format:

    Baker, Joanne. "Don't panic!" Nature 435.7039 (12 May 2005): 148-149.

  • Sample book citation in APA format:

    Adams, D. (1979). The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. New York: Pocket Books.

  • Sample journal article in APA format:

    Baker, J. (2005, May 12). Don't panic!. Nature, 435 (7039), 148-149.

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Once again, to review, The Research Process:
  1. Clearly define your topic or "information need"
  2. Collect/find information
  3. Evaluate the information you find
  4. Use and/or do something with that information
  5. Behave ethically and legally with that information
In conclusion, it's worth noting that this is not always a straight linear process. It's not uncommon to have your topic defined, start collecting information, then realize you want or need to redefine your "information need." While you collect information, you might evaluate as you go. Once you start writing that paper, you might realize you need one more piece of information, so back you co collecting and evaluating.

No mater how you make your way through the process, remember all five steps, and keep your goals, or "information needs" in mind.

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