Whether you are seeking existing information or exploring new or complex questions, research builds on knowledge and information that others have created. Locating and using information from all types of sources is the core of the research process.
You may not always be aware of it, but whatever question you’re asking or problem you’re solving, you can break it into a series of steps. A puzzle is one way to visualize the steps. Each interconnected step represents a piece of the whole puzzle. If one piece is missing, the puzzle is incomplete. When you’re working on something new, the puzzle can help you focus on the important parts of the process.
As you learn more about your research options and the topic itself, you may return to some steps to do more work: the more you know, the more questions you can ask.
Most research begins by defining a task, question, or problem. If you have an assignment that requires research, your task may be completely or partially defined. Your job will be to understand the requirements. Read assignments carefully and ask your instructor or a librarian if you need help understanding them.
You’ll also encounter situations at work or in your personal life that require research. Although you may not always have the same details you would get from a teacher, you will likely have a purpose and a deadline. Though the requirements may be different, the process will be very similar.
Not all types of information serve the same purpose. Identifying options means choosing appropriate sources of information and the tools for finding that information.
Sources: Information can come from many different sources: people (such as experts), agencies, books, reference books, periodicals, broadcast media, and all kinds of sources on the Internet. Where is the information you need most likely to be published? Learning about the strengths and features of different types of information will help you select appropriate types of information.
Tools: Once you know the type of information you need, select the search tools that are best for your topic and type of information. Search tools include library catalogs, databases, search engines, and more.
Both the type of information and tools you choose determine what kind of information you will find. If you are disappointed what you’re finding, consider whether you’ve selected a tool that is designed for what you need.
Choose the appropriate tool for the type of information you need: library catalog? periodical database? Internet search engine?
Learn how each tool is organized so you can get the most from it. First, get more familiar with your topic by reading background or overview information in reference sources. Basic facts, issues, and context can help identify relevant keywords. Note subject terms and keywords that others use to describe your topic.
Search databases with logical combinations of relevant keywords to make the database do the work of sorting through thousands—or even millions of sources to find just those that might be useful.
Look closely at the results as you build a list of possible sources. Review your task occasionally to help decide whether the information is appropriate (the right kind) and relevant (the right topic).
You wouldn’t wear a down parka on a hot day, right? And you wouldn't choose a raincoat full of holes. Information is the same way: some sources are better than others.
Evaluation is at the center of the process because you must evaluate both strategy and content at every stage. Evaluate for your own needs and interests, your assignment or task, and the topic itself.
Early on, consider whether you are using the appropriate tools and strategies for the information you need. Later, when you’ve identified specific sources, evaluate the content: is it appropriate, reliable and relevant?
No evaluation process is complete without considering whether the sources you found have answered all of your research questions. Review your research question or task to decide whether you need to continue your search.
Imagine that you have collected a stack of articles, a pile of books, and a list links to web sites.
Now it's time to read through this information and try to make sense of it. In this step, you delve deeper into your sources to uncover answers and draw conclusions by reading or skimming the articles, books, and other information you found. Researchers usually take notes to keep track of information and sources.
This step often leads to more questions. When it does, return to other parts of the process armed with background information you’ve gathered, keywords you’ve brainstormed, or new questions that need answers.
The conclusion to your research process may be a paper or final product for your course or program. It represents the fruit of your efforts to craft a research problem, find, evaluate, interpret, and synthesize what you learned and present your findings in an original product to your instructor, your classmates, or someone else.
The word 'original' is important here. While you must include reliable sources of information, it is also your job to apply what you learned to the research question or problem you've chosen. In this process you are presenting your own ideas, but you are also:
Review and reflect on the information found in multiple sources. Express your ideas and share new knowledge within the guidelines of your assignment. Avoid plagiarism by balancing the information and perspectives you have gained with your previous knowledge. And, be sure to respect intellectual property rights as you use information and images that others created.
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