The basic process of research can be described as: "questioning, finding information, analyzing the information, finding new information, analyzing some more and so on until the information gathered is adequate to solve the given research problem." While these steps present a valuable conceptual overview, it is important to look more closely at the specific steps commonly followed to complete a bibliographic research project. In this chapter, we will present a detailed description of the basic steps commonly followed in preparing to write a research paper. By following these steps, you will learn a model to guide you through the use of the numerous bibliographic research tools (e.g., databases, indexes, catalogs, search engines, reference materials and other specialized sources--both computerized and in print--that help you find the information you need) described later in this course.

The bibliographic research process is not one set of steps that must always be followed to do successful research. In fact, there are many different approaches used by different types of researchers for different research needs.

The model shown below presents a basic research process model commonly recommended for undergraduates preparing to write a research paper or other research project. This model should not be thought of as a precise formula for how to do research, but it should be used as a general guide to common steps in the process of doing a typical undergraduate research paper. (The terms listed in this basic model will be described below.)

If you had to do simpler research that only involved finding some specific pieces of information (such as to answer a specific factual question or to document a specific statement,) you would not need to follow this research process model. A simpler process, consisting primarily of the data collection procedures from the broader model, could be used.



Select a subject & topic;

periodical databases (initial check), encyclopedias, book catalogs (initial check)

Identify concepts to focus topic

same as above

Survey availability of sources;

same as above

Review background information;

research guides

Refine research question & develop initial hypothesis

encyclopedias, book catalogs & periodical databases (initial check)

Identify search terms;

subject headings in book catalogs & periodical databases

Design search strategy

subject headings indexes/thesauri

database directories/descriptions

Internet search tool help screens


Find articles for current, focused information:

periodical databases

a. Browse subject headings indexes or thesauri

controlled vocabulary lists

b. Use Boolean keyword searching

periodicals holdings lists

c. Review/evaluate results, revise/redo search

Find books for broader and retrospective information:

library catalogs (w /LCSH)

a. Browse subject headings indexes


b. Use Boolean keyword searching

c. Review/evaluate results, revise/redo search

Find Internet sites for varied info (very current, more subjective, less authoritative, more marginal...)

Internet search tools

Find & consult with experts in field:

biographical reference sources

E-mail discussion groups

Find specific facts, figures & specialized data:

factfinder reference sources

biographical reference sources

geographical reference sources

government documents

pamphlets & clippings files

web search tools


Evaluate articles

Magazines for Libraries

web sites of magazines and journals

author biographical sources

web search tools

Evaluate books

book reviews

author biographical sources

web search tools

Evaluate websites

web search tools

author biographical sources

Search Preparation

One of the most common problems students and other researchers encounter in bibliographic research is when they try to begin to find information on a topic before they have properly prepared their search. It is important to begin any research project by defining at least a general topic that you plan to explore. Even after you have come up with a good idea for your topic, there are a number of very important procedures that should be carried out before beginning the actual search for detailed information on a topic. These steps-- from choosing a topic through an initial survey of available sources to defining a research question, identifying search terms and developing a "search strategy"-- (sometimes collectively referred to as "front-end analysis") are absolutely critical in preparing researchers to be able to most effectively find the best sources on a topic.

To select a topic for a research project, you must first decide on a general subject that is interesting to you. Current periodicals (magazines and newspapers) can provide an overview of recent events and issues in which you might be interested. Various types of brainstorming exercises (described in many books on writing and available on computer programs) can help you develop your own thoughts on what to write about. (For a more detailed discussion of this step of the research process, see "Selecting a Topic.")

As you begin to decide on a general idea for your topic, it is important to try to get a sense of what and how much information is available on your topic and to start to gather some introductory information about your topic. Encyclopedias and research guides or handbooks are excellent tools that can help you narrow a topic, provide overviews of topics and list sources for additional information on topics. A brief preliminary check of a library's catalog and a few general periodical indexes can often give you a good sense of how much information may be available on a topic. Based on the background information that you find in carrying out the initial steps in your research, it is common to refine and focus your topic by refining a research question and developing a hypothesis.

As a preliminary research question and outline are developed, those ideas must be translated into a specific plan for how to gather detailed information on the topic. This plan, called the "search strategy", is critical to enable you to successfully find the most appropriate books, articles and other documents on your exact topic. A search strategy is particularly essential when using electronic research tools, including online catalogs, periodical databases and the Internet.

A search strategy requires the development of a list of possible subject headings or search terms to use with each of the research tools and selecting the most appropriate research tools for your topic. The process of finding useful words to use in the search process is often referred to as developing "vocabulary control." The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) lists appropriate subject headings to use in catalogs when searching for books. Various thesauri are commonly used to find the best search terms to use in different periodical indexes. Research guides for various disciplines often provide references to useful databases and other research tools for a particular topic. Database directories provide general information about databases in all subject areas. To find out more detailed information about specific databases, it is common to refer to "database descriptions" which are usually available from the publishers or from online services which carry the databases. For Internet search tools, it is important to read the descriptions included in help screens, FAQs (frequently asked questions) and other online information provided. Database descriptions can also be used to help refine a search strategy through the use of specific fields and other special database capabilities such as truncation and proximity operators.

Data Collection

Identifying search terms and developing a search strategy prepares you to actually begin gathering the detailed information on your topic. This stage of the process is commonly called "data collection." The main sources of data are books, which generally provide overviews and retrospective information, periodical articles, which usually include recent and focused information on a topic, and online documents--which include a wide variety of types of information, particularly very current and popular information.

Finding books on a topic basically involves looking under the appropriate subject headings in a library's catalog. Catalogs of many libraries in your area or around the world may be accessed through various online connections. The Library of Congress Subject Headings should be used to find the best subject headings for a particular subject.

The steps in finding articles on a topic include selecting the proper periodical indexes by scanning the descriptions of various databases, finding the right search terms to use in the appropriate thesaurus for each index, and then following the proper procedures for the use of each index. Many periodical indexes are available through various online services and on the Internet.

Innumerable online documents on a topic may be found by using various Internet search tools. There are a wide assortment of these search tools and it is very important to select and use them appropriately.

A number of other types of sources may be used to collect additional information. Almanacs, handbooks and directories supply specific facts and figures. Government documents include a wide variety of reports, studies and statistics. Pamphlets and clippings, commonly found in a library's "vertical file", are usually commercially unpublished materials of immediate interest at the time of, or in the place of, publication. They are often produced by or for organizations. Materials in collections or anthologies, such as essays, short stories or poetry, may be located with the use of special indexes and other reference tools. Special biographical and geographical reference tools are also available for basic information on people and places. A completely distinct category of information sources are non-print media. These audiovisual materials are usually located in a separate section of the library and may be included in a catalog or in a listing which is independent of the library's book catalog.

Evaluating Data

After finding books and articles on your topic, it is very important to try to critically evaluate these sources. There are many clues to look for within the books, articles and other documents. There are also various reference sources--including book reviews, biographical sources on authors, periodical guides and citation indexes--that can help supply analytical information on particular books, articles or other documents or on the authors of those works.

Other Research Process Models

The bibliographic research model described above presents a general overview of the basic steps usually included in an undergraduate research project. Each of these steps are explained in more detail in subsequent sections of this book. It is important to keep in mind that no one research model is completely appropriate for all researchers and all research projects. When the research topic is particularly new or current, for example, it may not make sense to begin with encyclopedias because encyclopedias often do not have adequate information on contemporary events or issues. Instead it may make more sense to begin searching in recent newspapers, magazines or journals.

Researchers with background in a subject area often use a completely different research model which focuses on references in key articles and closely follows the development of a specific area of research as many different authors build on the studies and writings of each other. This type of research model corresponds to the way that many scholars and academic researchers conduct their work. A researcher may initially find out about a particularly useful article from discussions with a colleague, from listening to a lecture by an expert in the field, by scanning the latest issue of an academic journal in her subject area or from participating in online discussions with colleagues on the Internet. While reading the article, the researcher typically copies those sources cited in the article's bibliography (or notes) which seem most interesting. She then locates and reads those sources and, in turn, she follows up on the citations listed in those publications which seem promising to her research.

A special type of periodical index, called a citation index, can be used as short-cut in this process. Citation indexes provide the citation lists of articles in many scholarly journals, so that a researcher can keep track of who is citing whom without actually reading the articles. (For more information on citation indexes, see the section, "Citation Indexes", in the chapter, "Evaluating Sources.") A similar research process of associations is often used by legal researchers when they follow case citations. Legal researchers commonly use various methodologies and databases (such as Shepard's Citation Service) to find what earlier cases were cited in a particular case or what subsequent cases have cited a previous case.

An overview of this scholarly research model, which follows citations from an initial document to cited documents, is shown below.


To initiate the search:

colleagues, experts, librarians, known publications
(especially current journals in the field), periodical indexes,
catalogs, online discussions/electronic conferences





To develop a core bibliography through cycling:


(Locate the relevant citations in the bibliographies,


footnotes, and recommendations of the sources


found when the search was initiated; then repeat


with these citations' sources.)








(TOOL: Citation indexes can be used to retrieve lists of citations from journal articles.)

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last revised: 10-19-04 by Eric Brenner, Skyline College, San Bruno, CA

These materials may be used for educational purposes if you inform and credit the author and cite the source as: LSCI 106: Online Research. All commercial rights are reserved. To contact the author, send comments or suggestions to: Eric Brenner at