Where to Begin? Getting Started with Research

Developing a Research Process

image of detective Research helps us make connections between information and ideas, as well as broaden our perspectives. It happens in most aspects of our lives (academic, personal, and professional) for a multitude of reasons.

The research process involves several overlapping activities and usually takes more time than we expect. As we learn more about our topics, we realize that we need to find more information, use other source types, and/or change our focus.

Starting early, being patient, and using good strategies can help us get good results.

The following pages offer strategies for thinking critically about information needs and choosing source materials based on those needs. Using these strategies can help us save time and get better results from our research efforts.

Defining Information Needs

Our information needs are determined by an assignment's requirements, the research questions we're trying to answer, how much we already know about a topic, who will read our research, and many other factors.

So, it helps to think critically about our information needs before we start looking for sources. Answering questions like those listed below can help us develop a research plan, save us time, and reduce our frustration.


  • How much information do I need?
    • Do I need to read background information to learn more about my topic?
    • Should I include background information in my paper?
    • What kinds of details should I include?
    • What types of evidence should I use?
  • What kind of information do I need?
    • Should I use peer-reviewed articles? Books? Web sites? A mixture?
    • Do I need to locate research studies, historical overviews, and/or interviews?
    • Should I use primary or secondary sources? Both?
    • Should I include facts? Opinions? Both?
  • How current should my information be?
    • Does my topic involve rapidly changing factors?
    • Will my readers expect the information I use to be current, historical, or both?

Selecting Appropriate Sources

Potentially useful information can come from virtually anywhere: personal experience, books, articles, expert opinion, web sites, etc.

Unfortunately, it's easy to spend a lot of time locating sources that are not useful because they offer the wrong types of information. That's why defining our information needs before we start looking can save us time. We will know what to look for.

Our next step should involve thinking about the types of information various source types offer. Knowing these differences will help us figure out what kinds of sources match our information needs and which search tools to use.

Use the tabbed table to the right to view lists of primary uses for six basic source types: books, journals, magazines, newspapers, reference works, and Internet sites.

  • Put your cursor over a colored tab to view information about each source type.
  • Open the attached "Choosing Sources Based on Information Needs"pdf.

It is fairly easy to tell articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers apart when we look at them in print. However, we now access most periodical articles online, which can make telling them apart harder.

We can usually identify newspaper articles whether we read them in print or online. However, it is often more difficult to distinguish between articles from other periodical types when we read them online and when we locate them separately from their publications, which happens in most databases and other online search tools.

The next page gives specific characteristics that can help us identify three periodical types: scholarly journal, trade magazine/journal, and general interest magazine.

Identifying Periodical Types


Being able to identify the type of periodical an article came from can help us evaluate the appropriateness of the article to our information needs. It also helps us decide if it is the kind of source our intended readers would accept.

The attached "Distinguishing Between Periodical Types" pdf lists typical characteristics for three common types of journals and magazines:

  • scholary journals,
  • trade magazines or journals, and
  • popular or general interest magazines.


On the next page, we will learn the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Choosing Primary/Secondary Sources

When choosing appropriate sources, we also need to decide if we should use primary and/or secondary sources. Our research goals and our readers' expectations greatly influence which type we should use.

Primary and seconary sources are not necessarily defined by their formats or by the kinds of writing in them. They are defined by the author's proximity to the original event, experience, work, experiment, or research study.

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