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Research Process: Ideas for Researching Efficiently

A guide for understanding the research process designed and created by Clark Librarians

The Research Process

Image of lady working at a keyboardThe research process is a system for organizing your search for information. Following a system makes you a more efficient researcher and can save you time.

If you only need to look up one or two sources and your topic is clearly defined, you don't need to be too concerned with the research process.

But suppose you're writing a 5-10 page paper, and you need to collect a variety of sources: popular and scholarly, primary and secondary, books, articles, web sites. Very quickly, the project could get out of hand, and you could end up backtracking, starting over and wasting a lot of time. This scenario is where the research process will serve you well.

The Research Process - Linear

Quick Steps for Getting Started

  1. Start by defining your purpose/goal. This step includes defining the initial topic and starting a keyword list.
  2. Get an overview of your topic and collect background information by looking up your keywords in encyclopedias and scanning the articles. Subject-specific encyclopedias are particularly useful for this step. You may also want to perform a quick web search -- but keep it quick! You don't want to get bogged down with too many details yet.
  3. Collect information. You may choose any or all of the following steps, depending on your project, in any order:
    • Use the Library Catalog to locate books. Read footnotes and bibliographies to locate additional resources.
    • Use library databases to locate articles in newspapers, magazines, and/or journals. Ask a librarian for assistance in choosing an appropriate database. Once you find a relevant article, read footnotes and bibliographies for additional sources.
    • Find relevant, credible web resources. Evaluate every source before you use it.
    • Is there an association or a non-profit agency that might have information on your topic? Look in the Yellow Pages or Encyclopedia of Associations. Search the Web and limit your search to organizations (.org). Depending on your topic, you could perform this step at any point in the process.
    • Is there an expert on your topic you might interview? Did you find someone referenced in an article that you want to know more about?

Take Good Notes!

When it comes to taking notes you can be low-tech, high-tech, or a combination of both. What's important is that you set up a system that works for you.

Your notes should keep track of three kinds of things:

  1. The tools you use for searching, including
    • search engines
    • library catalog
    • library databases
    • people you talk to
    • programs you listen to
  2. The keywords you use for searching. Your keyword list can end up being a very long vocabulary list that includes:
    • any useful words you have used or want to use when looking for information
    • new words you learn while searching
    • names of people or organizations
    • places, dates, and events
  3. Sources that you think will be useful. There are many ways to keep track of useful sources, including:
    • use the email feature in library databases
    • open up a Google doc (or your own word processing software) and copy-paste results and links
    • keep written notes in a notebook
    • keep written cards for useful sources
    • print records of the sources and organize them in a notebook

Research Process - Fluid

You'll often see the research process as a set of linear steps. But the truth is, research is more of a cyclical process.

Just like the linear approach, the cycle starts with a topic or an idea. As you use reference sources to get background information, then catalogs, databases and the web to collect information, you're always building your keyword list, refining your topic, evaluating information, and documenting your sources. The steps are the same as the linear approach, but the research process "daisy" shown below reflects the fluidity of your topic and the ongoing changes that are a natural part of research.

graphic showing the cyclical steps of research described in the text.

Keeping good research notes will save time. Your notes should include information such as the date, what tools or databases you used, keywords you tried, results, revisions, leads to new ideas, and anything else that you might need to keep track of.

screenshot of a piece of paper with handwritten research notes.

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