The Research Process

Picking a Topic

Before you can begin writing a paper or speech, you must pick a subject to research. Sometimes your instructor will have assigned a topic for you. However, if you have to pick your own topic, here are some tips:

Back to Top

Gathering Background Information

When you have a general idea of a topic in mind, you should start looking for introductory information. When you don't know much about a subject, you will want to start by gathering background material.

Back to Top

Focusing Your Topic

After you have learned a little bit about your overall subject, you should start to think about the exact topic you want to focus on. Your topic shouldn't be too broad, or you will be faced with mountains of information much of which is not helpful. For example, the subject of gambling is too general. One way to help you narrow down a topic is to put it in the form of a question. You could focus on a specific aspect of gambling, such as:

Now, isolate the key words and/or phrases associated with the question you wrote. Generally, you will not have much luck if you put an entire quotation in one of the computer indexes. Instead, you want to put in only the really important terms. You may also need to think of multiple ways of wording things. Many words have synonyms, or broader or narrower terms that could also be used. If you were doing a paper on a topic relating to teenagers, the word adolescents might have been used instead of teenagers.

For example, if you were focusing on the question "How do Americans feel about gambling?  you should first break it down into the major concepts:

Americans and gambling and feel

Then, you may need to think of other words or phrases for each concept.

Americans and gambling and feel
Or or or
America casinos opinions
Or or or
American lotteries views
United States

Many times, you will be able to brainstorm and create these lists of words/phrases yourself. If you can't, the JSCC Library has a series of books, The Library of Congress Subject Headings, which can help you. These books are located in the Data Center, and list broader terms, narrower terms, and related terms for any topic you look up. When you begin your next step of finding information, you may need to refer back to the various words and phrases you listed.

Back to Top

Finding Other Material

Now that you know something about the topic you want to research, it is time to look for information. The type of resources you need will vary, depending on the subject matter, and on your professor's restrictions. Some teachers will require that you use a specific type of source. For instance, a professor may require that you use only scholarly journals. Periodical articles generally fall into one of two categories: scholarly journals or popular magazines.

Scholarly journals are concerned with academic study, especially research. The articles are generally written by experts in the field, and use language of the field. The average reader may not be able to follow all the discussion some background in the subject on the part of the reader is assumed. They generally have a "serious" look no photographs or color. They often contain many graphs and charts. Most articles will have extensive bibliographies at the end. Examples of scholarly journals are The Journal of the American Medical Association, Research in Higher Education, and Journal of Southern History.

Popular magazines are written in a language that anyone can understand. The articles are often written by staff writers, and very rarely cite sources. Articles tend to be shorter as well. Examples of popular magazines are Sports Illustrated, Ebony, Time, and Redbook.

Periodical articles are only one type of source. On the next two pages are descriptions of some resources you might need, and how to locate them:

Type of source

Good for:

To locate, use:


Periodical Articles

These and other electronic indexes are available via the Web from the Databases link on the library home page. Use the computers in the Data Center or ask us for the usernames and passwords you ll need to access them from home.

Newspaper Articles



Reference books, such as:

Back to Top

Evaluating Information

Now that you have located information on your topic, you should decide if the material is valid. Just because you found the information in a library does not mean that it is necessarily accurate, appropriate, or timely. Some of the criteria you should use to evaluate a source include the followiing:




Back to Top