A pair of binoculars
Get a good look at your topic through background reading.

Tip: Go Slow to Go Fast

It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic once you have it. For one reason, you probably don’t know much about it yet. For another, such reading will help you learn the terms used by professionals and scholars who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms are certain to be helpful when you’re looking for sources later, so jot them down or otherwise remember them.

For instance, if you were going to do research about the treatment for humans with bird flu, this background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term avian influenza instead of bird flu when they write about it. (Often, they also use H1N1 or H1N9 to identify the strain.) If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment.

Most sources other than journal articles are good sources for this initial reading, including the New York Times or other mainline American news outlets, Wikipedia, encyclopedias for the discipline your topic is in (horticulture for the crabapple bud development topic, for instance), dictionaries for the discipline, and manuals, handbooks, blogs, and web pages that could be relevant.

This initial reading could cause you to narrow your topic further, which is fine because narrower topics lead to greater specificity for what you have to find out.After this upfront work, you’re ready to start developing the research question(s) you will try to answer for your assignment.

Tip: Keep Track of Your Information

While you are in the background reading phase of your research you will come across a lot of sources and won’t know yet if they will prove useful in the long run.

Copy the citations immediately, not just the URLs.  Make sure you write down at least one author, the title, and the larger work (like journal of newspaper name)  so you can find it again for sure without searching again by keyword.  Sometimes the URLs change or don’t work.  NJIT Library website urls often have authentication links embedded in them… so they may not work, depending on where you are located when you copy them.  Better yet, use the cite feature available in most library databases, to copy the whole citation into your notes.  Take a moment to make sure it is correct and complete.  It will save time later.

Keep track of what you find.  You can use a document, listing your sources, and making notes about them.  But a handy type of software to help you keep track of all your sources is called citation management software. It lets you build a little online library of YOUR sources with your own tags and notes, and can save time when you start writing your paper.  It works with WORD and lets you pop in a citation as needed, move, and edit them easily.  Two of these tools are available for free to NJIT students, staff and faculty.  Learn more about these tools,   Endnote  or  Mendeley.

Save pdf’s in one place.  When you download a pdf for closer reading later, rename the file with the author’s last name-publication year.  Then put them all in one folder labeled Sources for my paper.  This way they will all be in alphabetical order in your folder, just as they will be in your reference list.

Fuel Your Inspiration

Reading, scanning, looking at, and listening to information resources is useful during any step of the process to develop research questions.  Doing so can jog our memories, give us details that will help us focus, and help us connect disparate information–all of which will help us come up with research questions that we find interesting.


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Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research Copyright © 2015 by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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