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General Research Strategies

Getting Started with Research: Tips and Strategies

Step 1. Decide What You Want to Accomplish

A. Think about the nature of the project:
  • What is the size and scope of your assignment?
    • Is it a 500-word essay or a 300-page dissertation?
  • What is the purpose?
    • Will you argue a controversial point of view, simply report facts, or teach your audience how to do something?
  • What is the timeframe?
    • Do you have an hour to write your paper, or two years?

B. Coming up with a topic:
  • Try to do something that is meaningful to you
    • The greater your passion for the topic, the more pleasant and meaningful the research process will become
  • There are many sources of topics:
    • Advice from faculty, fellow students, or trusted friends and colleagues
    • Reviewing books or journals in the area of interest
    • A sudden inspiration in the bath!

C. Developing Your Topic:
  • It is best to state your topic as a question, such as:
    • Should we raise taxes to pay for road improvements?
    • How do you build a canoe?
    • How many people work in the automotive industry?
  • Return to faculty, fellow students, friends and colleagues to review and refine your ideas (now and at every step of the research process!)

Step 2. Find Background Information

In order to refine your topic and find out where to begin looking for more detailed research materials, it is a good idea to look over some basic information about your topic. The brief articles and essays in these sources will offer an effective overview of the topic, and can suggest interesting subtopics and good search terms to use in your research.

Encyclopedias are generally a good way to begin this step. Choose an encyclopedia that is appropriate for you topic--Oxford Reference Online and Gale Virtual Reference Library, for example, contain many such resources and are available on both the Library home page and the database list: And be open to the new directions these articles and essays may reveal to you.

Other sources may include basic or introductory textbooks on the topic (like your own class textbook), and general guides and handbooks. Also consider class notes and handouts, or course reserves. Finally, you may want to do a rough search on the open Internet. Remember that materials found on the open Internet may or may not be valid, and any information retrieved through this source should be confirmed or validated through other sources. These materials may, however, give you a feel for popular ideas and trends percolating through society.

Step 3. Narrow Your Topic by Expanding Your Knowledge

Now that you have formed your question—at least in rough terms—you will need to deepen your sources of information in order to answer it. It is a normal characteristic of this stage of your research that your expanding knowledge will help you to further refine the topic (your question), and begin to shape the message (your answer). This will involve examining the topics and terms you have identified in previous steps. This is normally best accomplished by searching for books and journal articles in the library’s catalogs and indexes.

A. Looking for Books at the Old Westbury Library:
  • Go to the online library catalog,OWLCat
    • You can search OWLCat by, title, author, subject, the book’s call number, or by using keywords (a good strategy for general searches)
    • There is a Help tab on the top right side of the page, or or ask for help from the library reference desk (515-876-3151).
  • If we do not have a book here at the Library, you can order it through ILLiad, our Interlibrary Loan service.

B. Looking for Journal Articles at the SUNY Old Westbury Library

  • The articles found in quality journals and periodicals are a great way to continue your research.
  • They provide information that is up-to-date, highly specific, and, when chosen carefully,
  • represent the work of the most talented scholars and researchers in the world.

Searching for journal articles can be a difficult process; it is best to approach the task systematically:
  • From the Library Web page, choose Online Databases, then Search Databases. (These resources are available with your valid Old Westbury user ID and password)
    • From this page you can find databases by subject, by title, or you can just view them all.
  • It is usually best to start with more general databases, like these:
  • With these general articles in hand, you are ready to go even deeper into your topic:
  • Use the bibliographies and reference lists from the articles you have found to locate more materials

Step 4. Evaluate and Select Your Resources

Now that you have located a reasonable body of research materials, it is time to sort through them to decide what should and should not be included in your research project. There are two primary considerations in evaluating research materials: their quality and the level of coverage they afford.
  • Quality
    • Quality is always the most important criterion. Consider the following when trying to evaluate the quality of a resource:
    • Publication:
      • What is the intended audience?
      • Check the mission statement, or the editor or publisher’s description of the publication, for clues.
      • Also look at the nature of the advertisements for indications as to the readership.
      • What is the tone? Is it academic, offering a serious treatment of its topics, or is the material written in a frivolous or overstated manner?
      • What is the purpose? Is this journal of a respected professional or academic association, a book published by a university press, or a commercial publication produced purely for profit?
    • Author:
      • What are the author’s credentials? Is this a respected name in the field or a faculty member of a major university? Does the publication report on the author’s credentials at all?
      • Has your professor heard of the author? Does the author agree or disagree with other colleagues? (not necessarily bad, but should be backed up with solid data)
    • Content:
      • What are the basic assumptions the author makes concerning the topic (does the author represent one side or the other of a controversy)?
      • Does the content agree with information you have obtained from other sources? If not, does the author make a compelling case for his or her opinion?
      • Is the material current? Have there been innovations or discoveries in this field that might render this work obsolete?
  • Coverage
    • Have you located an appropriate amount of material to properly examine your topic? You should consider:
      • · Quantity
        • Do you have enough material to support your arguments effectively, and back up your statements?
      • · Diversity
        • Have you represented the range of viewpoints and the different types of materials needed to give a fair treatment from all perspectives?

Step 5. Answer Your Question

Now, at last, you have assembled all the materials you need to answer your research question, and you have evaluated the materials to make sure they are of an appropriate quality for your purposes. Consider your answer carefully. You may now have several major points that must be covered to answer your research question, and you may have to arrange a variety of supporting materials for each of them. Also make sure that you are taking into account the many different viewpoints and perspectives that may exist concerning your research question. Give each of them fair treatment, and report honestly any controversy that exists among the various voices in the debate.

Step 6. Report Your Answer

Now that you have answered your question and assembled support for your answer, you must communicate the answer to others. This may take the form of a written report, a presentation in front of a group, an audio or video record of your research, or any combination of these and other elements. Be sure to recognize all of the authors and researchers whose work you have used in the course of your resource. Each field has its own format for crediting the work of others. Help is available from the Old Westbury Writing Center (office located on the upper floor of the Library) .

Step 7. Revise, Revise, Revise…

Submitting your research report—whether for a class, a publication, or any other purpose—can be stressful, particularly if the feedback you receive contains an element of criticism or correction. This difficult experience is, however, just a part of the research process…and a very valuable part at that! This is how researchers at every level improve their work and advance in their fields. The feedback received from mentors and colleagues helps them to identify opportunities for improvement.When you receive feedback, whether from a fellow student, from a professor, or from some other source, incorporate the comments into your report. You do not have to agree with every comment or criticism, but you need to respond—with further research, with a cogent argument in response (backed with valid support, of course), or even by simply clarifying your statements and ideas. Taken in this positive way, criticism can be one of the best tools available for improving your research and writing.