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Research: Where to Begin

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Research isn't something that only scientists and professors do. Any time you use sources to investigate claims or reach new conclusions, you are performing research. Research happens in virtually all fields, so it’s vitally important to know how to conduct research and navigate through source material regardless of your professional or academic role.

Choosing and Narrowing Your Research Topic

Before beginning the process of looking for sources, it’s important to choose a research topic that is specific enough to explore in-depth. If your focus is too broad, it will be difficult to find sources that back up what you’re trying to say.

If your instructor gives you the flexibility to choose your own research topic, you might begin by brainstorming a list of topics that interest you (click here to visit an OWL page that can help you get started brainstorming or prewriting). Once you find something that grabs your attention, the next step is to narrow your topic to a manageable scope. Some ways to narrow your focus are by sub-topic, demographic, or time period.

For example, suppose that you want to research cancer treatments. Cancer treatment is a fairly broad topic, so you would be wise to at least consider narrowing your scope. For example, you could focus on a sub-topic of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. However, these are still broad topics, so you might also narrow your topic to a narrower sub-topic or even examine how these topics relate to a specific demographic or time period. In the end, you might decide to research how radiation therapy for women over fifty has changed in the past twenty years. In sum, having a specific idea of what you want to research helps you find a topic that feels more manageable.

Writing Your Research Question

Writing your research topic as a question helps you focus your topic in a clear and concise way. It ensure that your topic is arguable. While not all research papers have to offer an explicit argument, many do.

For the above example, you might phrase your research question like this: "How has radiation therapy changed in the past twenty years for women over fifty?" Of course, phrasing this topic as a question assumes that the research has, in fact, changed. Reading your sources (or, to begin with, at least summaries and abstracts of those sources) will help you formulate a research question that makes sense.

Knowing What Types of Sources You Need

Depending on the type of research you’re doing, you may need to use different types of sources. Research is usually divided into scholarly and popular, and primary and secondary. For more information on specific details about these types of sources, visit our "Where to Begin" page in our "Evaluating Sources" subsection. This subsection contains additional pages that explore various kinds of sources (like, e.g., internet sources) in more detail.

Asking Productive Questions

Before you begin your research, you should ask yourself questions that help narrow your search parameters.

What kind of information are you looking for?

Different types of research will require different sources. It’s important to know what kinds of sources your research demands. Ask whether you need facts or opinions, news reports, research studies, statistics and data, personal reflections, archival research, etc. Restricting yourself to only the most relevant kinds of sources will make the research process seem less daunting.

Where do you need to look for your research?

Your research topic will also dictate where you find your sources. This extends beyond simply whether you use the internet or a print source. For example, if you are searching for information on a current event, a well-regarded newspaper like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal could be a useful source. If you are searching for statistics on some aspect of the U.S. population, then you might want to start with government documents, such as census reports. While much high-level academic research relies mainly on the sorts of academic journal articles and scholarly books that can be found in university libraries, depending the nature of your research project, you may need to look elsewhere.

How much information do you need?

Different research projects require different numbers of sources. For example, if you need to address both sides of a controversial issue, you may need to find more sources than if you were pursuing a non-controversial topic. Be sure to speak with your instructor if you are unclear on how many sources you will be expected to use.

How timely does your research need to be?

Depending on your research topic, the timeliness of your source may or may not matter. For example, if you are looking into recent changes in a specific scientific field, you would want the most up-to-date research. However, if you were researching the War of 1812, you might benefit from finding primary sources written during that time period.