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ENGL 101/111 Research Guide

Research: The First Steps


The ability to perform research for a paper or other assignment provided by your instructor is a process that usually starts with you selecting a topic and ends with finished product, which could include a paper or annotated bibliography.  

Define your Topic/Get an Overview

Define your topic. 

Do you have a specific topic that you must research or did your instructor leave it open?  If you have a specific topic then you must research that topic.  If you have more options about a topic, then think about what interests you or what you would want to read about. 

Get an overview of your topic.

To get background information about your selected topic, use encyclopedias (either general or subject specific), lecture notes, or textbooks.  These resources will provide you with basic information about your topic and may help you further define what you will write about.

Tip: The library has a good selection of print/online encyclopedias (both general and subject specific) to provide a brief overview of many topics.

Develop a search plan!

Key concepts are those words or phrases that address the major themes of your topic. They are the words or phrases or both that you can draw directly from your research question.

When starting a search, use broad search terms - you can narrow the focus later. You can then apply the information you find in your initial search to find information about more specific aspects of your topic.

Here's a sample plan for selecting effective search terms to find valuable research information in a library catalog, database, or on the Internet.

A.  Write down your topic obesity
B.  Write down your research question How does fast food contribute to obesity in adolescents?
C.  List words from your research question that best describe your topic fast food, obesity, adolescents
D.  Determine the geographic location relevant to your topic statement (if any).  United States
E. Write down relevant synonyms or alternative terms for the key concepts you listed. Use a thesaurus if you need to! fast food: fast food restaurants, McDonald's, junk food

obesity: fat, overweight

adolescents: teens, youth, children
F. Write down different forms of the words or phrases you listed (if any). obese, child

You may also want to consider other factors when developing a research plan. Sometimes a date range is important. For example, maybe you are only interested in recent information published since 2005. The library catalog and databases let you configure date ranges when you search.

Putting you search terms together using Boolean operators

Now you have identified your keywords, but how do you combine and put them together to get great search results?

Unlike basic Google, the library catalog and research databases are not good with phrase searching. Just entering a string of keywords into a search box doesn't work well either.

What works best are Boolean operators - the combining words AND,OR,NOT between search terms. This video from the University of Auckland Libraries in Australia explains Boolean operators very well, and shows how they work in library catalogs, databases, and even Advanced Google.



From the chart in the previous box, I could create the following search statement using the Boolean operators AND and OR

Here is a basic Boolean statement using AND:

"fast food" AND obesity AND adolescents

For a more advanced search statement, throw in some related terms and synonyms grouped in parentheses using OR:

("fast food" OR McDonald's) AND obes* AND (adolescents OR child*)





Find Books, Articles, and Web Information

Find Books, Articles, and Web sites about your topic.

Once you have identified your keywords, you can look for books and articles using OneSearch.  OneSearch allows you to search the library's databases and the library's catalog all at once.

Websites – Your instructor may allow you to use websites in your research.  You will want to evaluate the information you have found. 

Tip 1: You should always look for other information sources for your paper and not rely solely on information from the internet. 

Tip 2: Once you have chosen information from a website, make sure you save information about that web site forc citing later in your process. A quick way to do this is to print out the web page to a printer or as a PDF.  

Read, Take Notes, Start Working on the Paper

Read and take notes from the books, articles, and web sites you have discovered.

Once you have gathered all your books, articles and other resources you are now ready for the most important part of the research process – reading and taking notes. 

You want to keep track of where your notes come from and note any direct quotations that you are going to use. 

Tip:  Attach the notes you have taken to the article or book that you are using for the assignment and set those aside.

Once you have completed this part of the process you are ready to write your paper.

Remember:  You must properly cite all information you have gathered from books, articles, and websites using the citation style your professor requires.

Additionally:  To avoid plagiarism, you must tell the reader where you got your information from in your paper/assignment both in the body of the work and the Works Cited page.