Conducting Research

Research can be conducted in two modes: prewriting research, and project research.

Prewriting research: This is the research you do before you have developed a working thesis and a plan. In this mode, you research as an exploration for gathering, connecting, and generating ideas. In other words, you can use research as a prewriting strategy in the same way you would use free-writing, thought-webbing, etc. This mode of research often involves using broad search terms, skimming many sources, reading only key parts of the sources, and taking note of the source just enough to help you find and return to it later for more formal note-taking. (But if you find specific ideas and information that you will begin using in your prewriting, it is best to note the full bibliographic information right away.)

Project research: This is the research you do after you have developed a working thesis and a plan. This kind of research is more focused than prewriting research; it is an attempt to find answers to the specific research questions you have formulated, and to find information about your working thesis, such as support for it, relevant facts about it, or even opposition to it. This mode of research involves using specific search terms and phrases, reading sources closely, and taking complete, formal notes intended for use in your essay (both in the text as summary, paraphrasis, and quotation, as well as on the Works Cited page as entry information).

Both modes of research use the same procedures and sources–the only difference is your specificity, depth, and formality–so the information below applies to conducting research either way.

Conducting Research

To begin conducting research (either prewriting or project research), you will select an avenue or medium for accessing sources, and you will browse or seek using search terms.

That should provide you with results, whether those results be news articles, scholarly papers, encyclopedic information, or other kinds of sources. Then you will sift through those results and focus on the ones most relevant to your aims and inquiries.

In both modes of research, you will be continually evaluating sources for legitimacy and reliability, as well as determining their relevance to your aims (including whether they would be primary, secondary, or tertiary sources for your project).

At some point in the process of your research, you will carefully read the best sources you have found and then put them to use in your essay.

That is the overview of conducting research, so in theory you could begin researching now, but there are key steps mentioned above that require a little more understanding before your engagement in research can become effective and efficient:

Search terms: You need to know what words and phrases to type into the various search features you will encounter, and you should know the methods for fine-tuning and customizing your search terms. That will be covered below first.

Avenues and media: You need to know where to look for sources, and which are the best or most efficient for research writing in college. That will be covered below second, organized by the type of avenue or media.

After you read the information below, you should try beginning your research. Then, once you do, you will need to understand and engage in the following:

Evaluating legitimacy and reliability: For information on this, see the section Legitimate and Reliable Sources.

Note-taking for research: For more information on this, see the section Note-Taking for Research.

Using research: For more information on this, see the section Using Research.

Search Terms

In order to conduct research, you will need to use key words and phrases–search terms–to find what you need. These will often be the words that express your subject or key concepts within your subject.

Typically, it is best to use terms in their noun forms, so rather than searching using the verb “adopt,” you should use the noun “adoption.”

It is also best to keep your search terms short, limited to one, two, or three words if possible. So rather than searching using the terms “the laws about the adoption of various breeds of dogs,” you should use the terms “dog adoption laws.”

You should be as precise as you can with the words you choose. This often means selecting the specialized terms (even jargon) used by professionals and experts in your subject. This might be difficult when in the mode of prewriting research, especially if you are not already familiar with your subject. In that case, finding out what the specialized terms are is part of your goal in such prewriting research. Once you do have a notion of the specialized terms within your subject, you should use them as your search terms. For example, within the subject of education, especially the study of and training for education, you won’t get the best search results by using the terms “methods and concepts for learning and teaching.” That is because the field of education has a specialized term for that: “pedagogy.” If you use the search term “pedagogy,” you will get much better results about methods and concepts for learning and teaching.

Finally, you should customize and alter your search terms to better control the results you get. This involves searching so as to find only sources that combine certain subjects, or eliminating sources that include some undesired aspect or version of the subject. You can do this by searching using Boolean logic, which is a kind of customization that uses operators such as and, or, not. Using Boolean phrases while searching can help you immensely in your research. Here are some examples of how you can use Boolean searches in Google’s search engine (these tell you what to add to your search in the search bar, all quoted from here):

  • Exclude words from your search: Put – in front of a word you want to leave out. For example, jaguar speed -car
  • Search for an exact match: Put a word or phrase inside quotes. For example, “tallest building”.
  • Search within a range of numbers: Put .. between two numbers. For example, camera $50..$100.
  • Combine searches: Put “OR” between each search query. For example, marathon OR race.
  • Search for a specific site: Put “site:” in front of a site or domain. For example, or
  • Search for related sites: Put “related:” in front of a web address you already know. For example,
  • Search social media: Put @ in front of a word to search social media. For example: @twitter.
  • Search hashtags: Put # in front of a word. For example: #throwbackthursday
  • See Google’s cached version of a site: Put “cache:” in front of the site address.


Although regular search engines, such as Google, might be more familiar to you, databases provide far better results for college essays in general. A database is a collection of publications and sources designed specifically for research, and they have three advantages over regular search engines:

  1. Databases provide results that regular search engines can’t, such as full articles that will not appear when doing a regular Google search. This is normally because of copyright permissions that databases have. This is also why access to databases have access fees, which many colleges cover automatically for currently enrolled students.
  2. Databases provide customizable search features, such as drop-down menus for Boolean operators. This makes customizing your search easier, and databases provide these features because, again, they are specifically designed for doing academic research.
  3. Databases provide more legitimate and reliable sources, and some databases even have search features that eliminate all but peer-reviewed sources. This take a lot of the work out of evaluating sources for legitimacy and reliability; your research process can move more quickly when you can be less skeptical about each source you find.

The main disadvantages of databases are that they cost money to access, and that they are unfamiliar to most students. But, again, if you are a currently enrolled student, it is likely that your college automatically covers the access cost for you on some common databases, such as EBSCOhost. And the problem of being unfamiliar with how to use and sift through a database can be solved by taking time to explore and experiment with the features of a given database. Most databases have different designs and processes, so it is a good idea in general to spend time getting familiar with a database during prewriting research before needing the best results during project research.

To find out which databases your college provides access to, consult your professor or your college library (which often provides access through library Webpage features such as “electronic subscriptions”). Also note that some databases provide a limited number of free articles per year to currently enrolled students, so even if your college doesn’t provide access to the database you want, you might still be able to get cost-free access.

Some of the most popular databases are EBSCOhost, Project MUSE, JSTOR, and ProQuest. These provide full scholarly, academic, and peer-reviewed sources, and they are used by students and professional researchers alike. There are also databases such as Credo that are customized more for students writing research essays. Take time to explore the databases you have available to you.

Search Engines

When doing regular Internet research, you will typically use search engines, such as Google, Bing, or others. And then you will sift through the results and explore the Webpages or electronic resources among those results that seem to best fit your aims.

The primary advantages of doing this regular kind of search engine research is that it is familiar to most students, who already do this kind of research casually dozens of times a day, and that it will typically provide many, many results.

The great disadvantages are that the results are not as relevant nor as reliable as what databases provide, for most search engines are not designed for the kind of research you will do for college. As for the relevancy of the results, you always need to evaluate that, even with databases, but the high number of results most search engines provide (often in the millions) make this more difficult. And you will always need to evaluate your sources for legitimacy and reliability, but this is even more necessary with search-engine research, which, unlike databases, will provide results intentionally designed to confuse, misinform, and fool readers.

There are two ways to mitigate these disadvantages:

  • Use versions of popular search engines designed for research. One popular option is Google Scholar, which is free and available like regular Google is, and which provides database-like results.
  • Use Boolean operators as noted above to get only the kinds of results that are most relevant and reliable. Remember that you can use these operators to limit the results to only Websites that are connected with schools and colleges, such as “.edu” sites, or results that include the mention of being “peer-reviewed,” etc.

Print Resources

Print resources include a vast array of documents and publications. Electronic sources will likely make up the bulk of your research, and many electronic sources are digital forms of print resources, but there are still many sources that cannot be accessed in any way except in print. This is often due to restrictions in copyright law, but sometimes it is simply due to more specialized subjects not yet having all their legacy sources translated to electronic sources. The table below lists different types of print resources available at public and university libraries.

Library Print Resources

Resource Type Description Example(s)
Reference works

Reference works provide a summary of information about a particular topic. Almanacs, encyclopedias, atlases, medical reference books, and scientific abstracts are examples of reference works. In some cases, reference books may not be checked out of a library.

Note that reference works are many steps removed from original primary sources and are often brief, so these should be used only as a starting point when you gather information.

  • The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2010
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association
Nonfiction books Nonfiction books provide in-depth coverage of a topic. Trade books, biographies, and how-to guides are usually written for a general audience. Scholarly books and scientific studies are usually written for an audience that has specialized knowledge of a topic.
  • The Low-Carb Solution: A Slimmer You in 30 Days
  • Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins: Exploring the Relationship Between Macronutrient Ratios and Health Outcomes
Periodicals and news sources These sources are published at regular intervals—daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals are examples. Some periodicals provide articles on subjects of general interest, while others are more specialized.
  • New York Times
  • PC Magazine
  • JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association
Government publications Federal, state, and local government agencies publish information on a variety of topics. Government publications include reports, legislation, court documents, public records, statistics, studies, guides, programs, and forms.
  • The Census 2000 Profile
  • The Business Relocation Package published by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce
Business and nonprofit publications Businesses and nonprofit organizations produce publications designed to market a product, provide background about the organization, provide information on topics connected to the organization, or promote a cause. These publications include reports, newsletters, advertisements, manuals, brochures, and other print documents.
  • A company’s instruction manual explaining how to use a specific software program
  • A news release published by the Sierra Club

Some of these resources are also widely available in electronic format. In addition to the resources noted in the table, library holdings may include primary texts such as historical documents, letters, and diaries.

You can find print resources through three main methods:

  • Using the library’s online “card catalog,” which is a old term that means a search feature for finding print resources
  • Using databases and periodicals indexes, which can provide the information on print resources that you need in order to find them
  • Consulting librarians, who specialize in helping students find sources
  • Using the Library of Congress’s Website, which catalogs published books:


With so many print and electronic media readily available, it is easy to overlook another valuable information resource: other people. Consider whether you could use a person or group as a primary source. For instance, you might interview a professor who has expertise in a particular subject, a worker within a particular industry, or a representative from a political organization. Interviews can be a great way to get firsthand information.

Direct interviews are often allowed as sources in research essays, but not always, so make sure to check with your professor beforehand.

To get the most out of an interview, you will need to plan ahead. Contact your subject early in the research process and explain your purpose for requesting an interview. Prepare detailed questions. Open-ended questions, rather than questions with simple yes-or-no answers, are more likely to lead to an in-depth discussion. Schedule a time to meet, virtually or otherwise, or arrange an e-mail interview, and be sure to obtain your subject’s permission to record the interview and/or to use it as you intend. Get as precise as possible when recording what was said; this record, the transcript, is sometimes requested by professors who allow you to use interviews as sources in essays.


There are of course many different ways to find sources than only using the Internet or libraries. You might end up watching a documentary on television that will work as a source for your essay, or you might find artifacts of research on bookshelves or in boxes in your own home, or you might conduct primary research in the field or laboratory yourself. Remember that a source is anything published or produced in such a way that others can access it, so keep your mind and eyes open, and when in doubt about a source, consult with your professor.


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