Step by Step through the Research Process
Step #1: Choosing Your Topic (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) This step can be notoriously difficult. Your instructor will probably give you the freedom to choose whatever you would like to write about as long as it interests you and you are able to investigate, detail, and argue a particular position. Performing a Google search is likely to overwhelm you with the immense number of results returned to you. Since current events or controversial issues provide tons of fodder for investigation and argument, there are a couple of resources that your librarians and instructors will guide you to for thought provoking topics. This is an excellent point to chat with a librarian to help you settle into a good direction for a manageable topic.
Step #2: Performing Background Research (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) After you have decided on a topic, you may not be very familiar with it. In that case, you will want to dig into some background research to educate yourself and find a way to narrow your focus to be manageable. Here are a few questions to ask as you dig; keep in mind that the librarians you consult may suggest more.
• What is the history of the issue? How have events affected it?
• What are the arguments that recur?
• Which areas of study (e.g., psychology, popular culture studies, religion, science, etc.) have addressed the topic?
• Who are the major players? People? Countries? Corporations?
• Which terms, combined with the major search terms you've already used, lead you to more detail?
Places to look for background research: Newspapers, Encyclopedias, and the Web
Step #3: Devising Your Research Question(s) (Time management tip: give yourself at least one day to a few days to work on this step.) After you have done some background research, you are more prepared to develop informed research questions that will not overwhelm you when you try to answer them. Keep in mind, though, that your questions may not have direct answers. Critical reading of what you find will present you with possibilities, and you may, often in fact, make logical jumps in reasoning to answer the question, using support from sources that you find.
Step #4: Identifying Resources (Time management tip: give yourself several hours to work on this step.) Now that you have been able to identify established, manageable issues (for the length of your paper) within your topic, you now have a much better idea how to approach it. Now you want to think about subjects or disciplines and how your issue fits best into one or several of them. Whenever you think about your topic, pay close attention to the issues authors address in your background information. These major subject areas will lead you to databases that have articles on a particular subject. Think about the following:
• How can I distill the issues and their questions into one- or two-word concepts? Are there significant recurring terms or phrases?
• What basic subjects do the authors confront? Pharmaceuticals? Government? Law? Health?
• For the length of my paper, how many subjects is it reasonable to address?
Step #5: Collecting Your Research and Examining Your Results (Time management tip: give yourself at least one week to work on this step.) After you identify your resources, you have to begin to think about the concepts and terminology you will use to discover the breadth and depth of information that can potentially answer your question. By “concept,” we mean a general idea, often abstract, of what something is. If that seems confusing, then that is the normal response. Essentially, we must assign a term to represent a concept. What's potentially challenging is that a concept can be named by a number of terms that are synonymous. For example, during each semester you are required to demonstrate what you have learned through something written or presented (orally and/or visually). This concept covers very similar terms, including test, exam, quiz, mid-term, “final,” and presentation, among others.
So, we must break down our research question into concepts and representative terminology in order to find the best information. As you do this for your own research purposes, keep in mind that academic research databases do not behave like Google, Yahoo, or any other open-web search engine. We must learn a different way to search, specifically using Boolean operators. You will most likely use the three most common Boolean operators: AND, OR, and NOT. Here is more information on search strategies including Boolean Operators and Truncation.
Step #6: Re-evaluating Research Question(s) (Time management tip: give yourself at least a day to work on this step.) This step is one that you will already have begun to consider in Step 5 as you read and think critically about the information in the articles that address your topic and research question. At this point, ask yourself the following questions:
• Have I found enough information to inform or support the explanations/assertions/claims that I have made?
• Has the abundance of information provided me with a new direction for my research question(s)?
• Have I found that my initial claims are unfounded and need to change direction and approach?
Step #7: Collect More Research (If Necessary) (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Steps #6 and #7 are repeatable as often as necessary, kind of like your shampoo tells you. The further we go in our academic careers, the more detailed and complex our research questions become. By the time someone becomes a graduate student and works on a dissertation, these two steps can be repeated umpteen times. A serious researcher can revisit his or her research questions and add additional ones many times over. You will, with experience, determine how many passes through Steps #6 and #7 are appropriate for your research needs.
Step #8: Synthesise Your Research (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Now, the fruits of your labor are all coming together. You have actually been synthesising your research in some shape or form since Step #2 because you have been reading and formulating strategies to present your ideas. The big question is, “how does it all fit together?” Stay focused on your research question(s) and look to the information in the articles (or books or websites that you have used) for the potential answers. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is there a straightforward answer to my question(s)?
• If not, how can I “read between the lines” and piece together information from various sources to construct an answer?
• Can I develop a strategy of support from the materials I have decided to use?
• Can I paraphrase general ideas and statements (more than I use direct quotes), which shows I understand each author’s conversation with me?
• Can I outline my approach in an organized and logical way?
Step #9: Express Your Findings! (Time management tip: give yourself several days or more to work on this step.) Well, you have reached the coup de grâce of the research process! It is time to write that paper! Of course, you've been “writing” all along. But at some point, you need to organize what you've written for your own purposes so it's more accessible and deliverable to another audience, including your instructor. If you have followed the research process in order and have kept good notes for each step, the outline for your paper should be a breeze. (Be sure to consult your instructor for advice and direction on organization.)
When you do work through drafting, revising, and editing, don’t forget that you must cite your sources, both in-text and on a references or works cited page. RefWorks can help you immensely. If you follow the suggestion to keep a running bibliography as you collected sources, this part is super easy.
Here's another extremely compelling reason to use RefWorks and other documentation guides your instructor or a librarian may recommend: you don’t want to find yourself in a position, intentionally or unintentionally, in which you have to defend yourself against claims of plagiarism.
Fanning, D.L. (2012). Research and stuff: Tools and strategies for the beginning academic researcher. In C.T. Jordan (Ed.), Open 2010: A composition textbook for WRTG 2010 at the University of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: University Writing Program, University of Utah.