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The Research Process: A Step-By-Step Tutorial


What is Information Literacy?

Man with Laptop ComputerAs a student, there are several steps you should follow when writing a research paper. Knowing and understanding these steps will help you become "Information Literate," which means that you "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." (American Library Association, 1989). We will explore these steps in this tutorial, and then relate them specifically to online research.

Because information is so easy to find on the Internet, many students will settle for the first source they find that seems relevant to their topic. However, it is important to remember that anyone with an Internet connection (including you!) can be a publisher on the Web, and that there are no quality control standards in place. No one "owns" the Internet. You should apply the same criteria for finding, choosing and evaluating the information that you find on the Web as you would to more traditional information that you find in books.


Topic Selection

Defining and Developing your Research Topic

Woman Studying

Sometimes you will be assigned a topic and asked to write a research paper about it. More often, you will decide on your own topic, with some guidelines from your professor. For instance, you might be told to choose a controversial topic that is in the news and asked to write an argument supporting or opposing the issue. Or you could be asked to explore a historical subject, or write a critical examination of the work of a famous author, or write an exploratory paper on a current or a historical topic. Each of these types of assignments would require a different approach to finding the information you would need to use. Once you have chosen your topic, keep in mind that it should be neither too broad nor too specific. A general topic such as nutrition would be far too broad. That is, you would have a hard time defining the issues and deciding which aspects of the topic to write about. A narrower and more specific topic, such as The nutritional needs of young children would be easier to define and to write about in a standard research paper.

You might find that after you begin your research and see how much information is available, you will re-focus your topic. This often happens. If there is far too much information, you may want to narrow your topic even further. (Alternatively, you might find that you need to broaden your topic if you find there is not enough information about it).

For example, if you were researching Martin Luther King, Jr., it might be wise to limit your search to a particular time in his life--his Civil Rights years or his assassination, for instance--because so much has been written about him.


Search Strategies

Developing a Search Strategy for Finding the Information you Need

Woman Reading Newspaper

Points to consider as you begin your research include these:

  • What do I need to know about this topic?
  • Does it involve researching people, places, events, or a particular time in history?
  • How current must my information be?
  • Do I need facts and statistics?
  • Do I need a general overview of my subject, or a lot of detail?
  • Do I need to find out both sides of an argument?
  • Is my topic controversial or still being explored? Will there be differing viewpoints in different sources?

The kind of research sources you need will depend on your answers to these types of questions. Today's students have many options to choose from. In addition to traditional print reference works and books that are available through the library's circulating (lending) collection, college libraries also provide access to journal, magazine, and newspaper article databases, eBook collections, and streaming educational films. In some cases, a Web search may be your best option. As you develop your search strategy, you will need to decide which of these types of resources will be best for your particular purposes.

Points to consider in determining your search strategy include these:

  • Reference sources, such as encyclopedias or almanacs, are a good starting place for an overview of your topic and for gathering facts and statistics.
  • If your topic requires you to get information from books, you would want to search the MCCD Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), to see if the library system has books that you can check out.
  • Do you need to find current information on your topic? If so, you would want to search online periodical databases for full-text newspaper and journal articles. These periodical databases allow you to limit your search to specific dates and titles of particular journals or newspapers, so that you can specify very precise search parameters when you do your searches.
  • If your topic requires a broad overview of information, you may want to search an online encyclopedia. These encyclopedias are generally easy to use and can give you a large amount of information in a short period of time.
  • In addition to the above resources, you may also want to search the Web for either general or specific information. The Web has some very valuable information to offer, but you need to carefully evaluate the website and the information it provides. Just because it was found on the Web doesn't necessarily make the information valid. And it doesn't necessarily make it invalid, either. It just needs to be evaluated critically in the same way that you would evaluate any other information you would use. The remaining steps in this tutorial will help you find, evaluate and cite information that you retrieve from the Internet.



Locating Information Using Search Terms

Woman with Laptop

Now that you have decided on a topic, identified the kind of information you need, and developed a search strategy regarding the types of sources you will use, the next step is to select search terms or "keywords" from your topic to use to conduct your search. These keywords, which describe the topic you are researching, are the terms you will use when you search in any kind of electronic database, as well as on the Web.

Search operators, such as AND, OR and NOT, are terms that allow you to group your keywords together to retrieve a number of different types of results. Operators are words that may add or subtract a concept to your search. This is called Boolean Searching.

Boolean searching allows you to group words together in different combinations to produce a variety of results.

  1. Boolean - AND queries.

    This is the most widely used Boolean operator. The query "second hand smoke" AND cancer will retrieve all the documents containing both of these terms. The use of AND limits the search or makes it smaller.

    Venn diagram - Second-hand Smoke AND Cancer  


  2. Boolean - OR queries

    Doing a Boolean search with the operator OR will broaden the search or make the search larger. The documents will contain either the words reptiles OR snakes OR lizards, but not necessarily all. So, the use of OR greatly increases the number of documents you will retrieve.

    Venn diagram - Reptiles OR Snakes OR Lizards  


  3. Boolean - NOT queries

    Another type of Boolean searching tool is the NOT operator which allows you to exclude words from the search. If a document has a word that you would like to search but that document also contains another word that you do not want to retrieve, then it will exclude that document from your search query results. The query reptiles AND snakes NOT lizards will find all the documents containing the words reptiles and snakes, and exclude the documents containing the word lizards. The use of NOT limits your retrieval.

    Venn diagram - Reptiles AND Snakes NOT Lizards  

There are many other Boolean operators, but these are the basic ones to help you get started with your searching.

As a reminder, if you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using the AND operator:

For example:

college AND students AND health AND drugs

Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic. For example, look for information on students, rather than college students. Link synonymous search terms with OR:

For Example:

drugs or cocaine or pcp or crack.

Search Engines

How do you decide which search engine to use when searching the Web? There are a variety of different search engines to choose from depending on your information need. Whichever search engine you choose, it is important to keep in mind that the Web is fluid, and what you find on day may not be there the next. If the source is from a reputable organization, it is more likely that the information will be consistently available.

No search engine searches the entire Web. After all, there are billions of pages available online. The largest search engines, Google, Yahoo, and Bing, search the most Web content. The reasons for the differences in pages searched are complicated; they have to do with the way the engines search and the way content is indexed.

To help you decide which search engine to use, review Which Search Engine When? for a description of the features of the different types of search engines.

Try your search terms in several different engines and look at the sources you retrieve and the way they are displayed. You will develop a few favorites once you experiment with them. Remember that no one search engine searches the entire Web, and it is a good idea to use two or three search engines for your search.



Evaluating Your Information

Man ConcentratingCritical thinking is an essential part of your research. You have already used critical thinking skills as you learned about choosing and narrowing your topic, and as you developed search terms that would retrieve the kind of information that you needed to find. Once you have found an apparently suitable article, book, or other piece of information, however, you will need to examine it critically and decide whether it is suitable for your research purpose.

These critical thinking skills become even more important when using information found on the Internet. With the growth of the Web and the ability for anyone to 'publish' on the Internet, you must look at information very closely and critically. With such a vast amount of information available on the Internet, it can be tempting to choose the first few sources you find, rather than take the time to look at them carefully and be sure they offer quality information.

Any time you look at a site, notice that there is a location box at the top of the computer screen containing the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or address of the site. This will begin with http. You can tell from the suffix on the URL where a site originates. Some of the most common suffixes are:

A tilde (~) in the URL usually means that this page is a personal page put up by someone with no official affiliation to the host site. Personal pages are more likely to appear and disappear than pages associated with educational institutions, governments, or organizations.

Knowing where the site originated will often help you evaluate the type of information you have found.

Here are some criteria to consider when you are evaluating an Internet resource:

  • Author's credentials: If the author is with a reputable organization or educational institution and his or her credentials are provided, this may add some validity to the information. Many institutional or organizational Web sites include statements about the type and source of information which is provided on their home pages, as well as the purpose of the organization itself. If this information is not offered, be especially careful about evaluating the data you find there. It is more important than ever on the Internet to distinguish between fact and opinion.


  • Currency: Currency has taken on a new meaning in the digital age. On the Web, it is often unclear how old the information is. Copyright dates are not always provided, and updates can be erratic. Sometimes you will see a statement at the bottom of the page that indicates when the material was last updated. This may give you a clue as to currency. On the other hand, the latest research and information is often published for the first time on the Web, long before it makes its way into print, so the Internet can be an excellent source of the very latest and most current information.


  • Relevancy: Relevancy is more important than ever in the digital environment. There are billions of documents on the Web - so choose carefully, and don't just settle for the first thing you find. Make sure the information you are selecting is appropriate and relevant for your needs.


  • Reliability: Determining the reliability of information found online can be challenging because authors on the Web do not always list their sources.  Be critical in your evaluation process, and rely on information given about the author's credentials to make your decision. Checking the "About Us" section on a website will often provide information about the author or sponsoring organization that is useful in determining reliability. 


  • Purpose of the document: Is the purpose of the document or information clear? This will help you determine the validity of the information provided. Is it a scholarly research paper posted by an academic, or a piece of propaganda intended to present a specific point of view, or simply a personal collection of information put up by a single individual? Once again, examining the URL and determining the domain (.com, .org, .edu, or .gov) can help you to decide this.


  • Completeness of the information: Is this document complete and can it stand alone? Or does it seem to be a portion of information taken from some other source?


  • Organization: Is there a bibliography at the end of the document to indicate that there was research performed?

These are just some of the criteria to consider when you are using sources from the Web. While there is a lot of excellent information to be found online, you must evaluate this information more critically than information you find in a library or on a library website.



Citing Online Resources

Woman at Computer

When citing online resources, slightly different conventions are followed than those used for print materials. The important thing to remember is that, in addition to the information traditionally provided in a print citation, a resource cited from the Web usually needs to include the URL (or address of the site) and/or the date the information was last accessed or modified, depending on the citation style used (i.e., MLA, APA, etc.). 

The rules for citing online resources are often updated and subject to change. Visit Rio Salado Library's Citing Your Sources page for the most up-to-date information on citing both print and Web resources in MLA, APA, and other commonly used styles.

Test yourself! Take this self-grading Information Literacy Quiz to see how much you have learned.