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Research Process Guide

The following steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper, writing the paper and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you may need to rearrange or recycle through these steps. Adapt this outline to your needs. 

  1. Getting Started
  2. Background Information
  3. Focus
  4. Resources Search
  5. Rough Draft
  6. Revise
  7. Final Product
  8. Additional Internet Resources on Research and Composition

Getting Started

Understand your assignment  

  • Is the topic assigned or can you choose it?
  • Must you research only scholarly or professional journals or may any type of source be used?
  • How long must your project be?
  • When is the project due? Start early. Create a timeline with deadlines set for yourself.
  • Must you prepare a list of sources to turn in?

Select a topic

  • If you can choose your own topic, choose one that interests you. For ideas, look through your required texts and readings, consult with your instructor, peruse newspapers and magazines, explore personal experiences and interests.
  • State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by teenagers, you might pose the question, "What effect does the use of alcoholic beverages have on teenagers?" Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question, e.g. alcoholic beverages and teenagers.
  • Look for background information. Start early; delay limits the materials available to support your topic. Develop a study strategy.

Background Information

  1. Look up your topic in almanacs and subject encyclopedias.
    • Locate them by doing a keyword search in BELCAT.
    • Most will probably be located in the Reference Area.
    • The librarians will be glad to help you find useful sources.
  2. Read articles in the sources you find to set the context of your research. Pay close attention to the vocabulary the authors use.
  3. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of these overview sources. They can provide leads to other useful books or articles.
  4. The purpose of this research is to educate yourself about the topic.You probably won't cite these sources in your paper.


  1. List terms to use in your search. Include synonyms and related terms.
    • Explore the Library of Congress Subject Headings (print or in BELCAT under Subject).
    • A broad term (BT) may be necessary to find enough relevant information.
    • A narrower term (NT) may prevent information overload.
  2. Make a brief outline of major topics you plan to cover in your project.
    Your resources search will provide the information to fill out your outline or help you revise it.
  3. Consider the types of sources appropriate to your topic. Will books suffice? Do you need primary sources? Should articles be exclusively from scholarly journals? Do you need statistics? 

Resources Search

Research Tips

  • Work from the general to the specific. Find background information first, then use more specific and recent sources.
  • Record what you find and where you found it. Write out a complete citation for each source you find; you may need it again later.
  • Translate your topics into the subject language of the indexes and catalogs you use. Check your topic words against a thesaurus or subject heading list.

Finding Books

Begin with the Online catalog.

  • Use keyword searching for a narrow or complex search topic. Use subject searching for a broad subject when you have already identified the Library of Congress Heading for your topic. Print the citation or write down all the information you will need to find it in the stacks (author, title,call number). Notice it's circulation status (Is it listed as available?)
  • When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography or footnotes for additional sources. Also remember to scan the shelves next to this title, since other books related to your topic may be located in the same call number area.
  • Watch for book length bibliographies (subject keyword: [your subject]-bibliographies) and annual reviews on your subject (titles beginning with Annual Review of...). They may list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. They may even subdivide the sources by type of source (primary, secondary, articles, government documents....)

Finding Journal and Magazine Articles

  • Magazine and journal articles provide more recent information than books. If your topic is very current you may not find it discussed in books and may need to go directly to articles.
  • Our collection has both scholarly and popular periodicals. Decide what level of scholarship you must have for your speech or paper. Consult "Distinguishing Scholarly Journals From Other Periodicals" for help.
  • The Library has numerous indexes and abstracts in print or computer-based formats. Choose indexes and formats best suited for your particular topic; a reference librarian will be able to advise you.
  • Some of the computer based indexes indicate if our library owns the periodical. When you have recorded or printed out the citation from the index, determine the years and format of our Library holdings by looking up the title of the periodical in BELCAT. There is also a print list of our holdings at the reference desk.
  • You may be able to find the full text of some articles online. A reference librarian will be able to help you.

Finding Information in Other Sources

Reference Sources
  • Statistics strengthen a speech or paper by quantifying the size and scope of a problem. The Library reference and government documents collections are a good source of data.
  • Definitions provide a common base of reference. Look in the general and specialized dictionaries located in reference.
  • Quotations can add interest and strength to almost any speech or paper. They often serve as effective attention grabbers and can summarize the theme of your topic in a few words. The Library has quotation volumes in the reference collection
    Some reliable sources are also available online.
Internet sources

There is a wealth of valuable information available on the Internet. Because the information is virtually unfiltered, you must take special care to critically evaluate what you find. The best place to begin is with pre-evaluated resource guides; such as virtual libraries (Internet Library...), directories (Yahoo....) and pages maintained by professional societies or noted educational institutions.

Evaluate What You have Found

Reading, digesting and analyzing the material is the most important step in communication. Critically review the information gathered for reliability, credibility, perspective and purpose. Listed below are a few of the questions good researchers should ask.

  • Who is the author?
  • What is the purpose of the article or book?
  • What makes the author qualified (or not) to write this?
  • For what audience is the source intended?
  • What particular bias does the author have or what assumptions does the author make?
  • What are the author's conclusions and are they justified from the research or experience presented? On what resources was the author's research based?

Once you have answered all these questions, do you find that other writers on this topic agree with your author's conclusions? If not, the points of disagreement can greatly illuminate the topic and form a part of your speech or paper.

Rough Draft

  1. Refine the outline you created earlier in your research and organize the information you have assembled to correspond to your outline. You may need to find more information for some topics and eliminate other topics.
  2. Check with your instructor or a reference librarian for resources to help you organize, write, and format your paper. Write your first draft.
  3. Use a standard citation format for your bibliography.
    Ask the library staff at the reference desk for help and check to see if your instructor requires one of these formats. 


You many need to repeat these steps sever times be fore you have a polished product.

  1. Put your project aside for a day or so. Reread it with a fresh eye for organization, content, grammar, etc... You may want to read it out loud. Have someone else read it and offer suggestions.
  2. Check for plagiarism. According to The Random House Webster's College Dictionary, plagiarism is "the unauthorized use of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own."
  3. Consult a style manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, for help in revising and formatting your paper.
  4. Finally, proofread carefully. Spell checkers and grammar checkers don't catch all mistakes.

Final Product

Congratulations, you have completed all the necessary steps to create a quality product. Reread your paper checking for format and grammar errors. Review the initial assignment to see that you have fulfilled all the requirements. You are ready to tackle your next project.

Need Assistance?

  • Need help clarifying your topic?
  • Need ideas about where to look next?
  • Want to be sure you're using a reference source effectively?

Ask for help the the reference desk at the library.

Internet Resources on Research and Composition

There are a number of useful sites on the Internet designed to help with the research process and the mechanics of writing. You may want to consult one of the sites listed below.

Portions adapted from: David A. Cofrin Library, University of Wisconsin Green Bay and Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin La Crosse.