Understanding Your Research Needs

By Craig Fansler

How does research happen? When doing research, what materials would one use? There are many ways of doing research, especially within different disciplines, and therefore no one method that everyone uses. However, there are some best practices and likely steps in doing research. Traditionally, moving from general resources (like dictionaries and encyclopedias) to specific ones (like a peer-reviewed journal article) is a good, systematic approach. The general resources help you define your topic and learn the concepts and keywords surrounding it as you target more specific sources.

Peer Review

As an undergraduate conducting your own research, the majority of your research will be using ‘peer reviewed’ materials. This kind of material is read and reviewed by experts in the field, who determine if it is good enough to publish. If an article passes the ‘peer review’ test then it will be added to the overall body of knowledge.

Why is this kind of article so important and used by so many of your professors? It is important not only because it is so well scrutinized by experts, but because it often is a way of creating new thoughts, ideas and knowledge. The review process, produces articles and books called “refereed” examines all the areas of an article: is this article logical, does it make sense, is it accurate and is it “new knowledge.” Many article submissions are rejected during this process, especially by prestigious journals. Those articles accepted by the peer review process are then available for the next researcher to read and learn from and then develop their own new idea. As for college professors, many of them are required to publish peer-reviewed articles to maintain their positions and often they must also earn grants to fund their research.

Information Sources

Reference Books

These are sources that give you helpful information and allow you to answer specific questions or to determine a fact. One would seldom read a reference book entirely, but would consult it for the fact that helps you define your research. Reference books are often housed in a specific area of your library.

Scholarly Journals

These contain articles on a very specific topic. At the beginning of each chapter is an abstract. This abstract will tell you about the general topic covered in that article. Journal articles are meant to be read in their entirety. Journals are another information source that might be more current. Journals are usually written around specific subjects and often have a scholarly focus. They are usually published by a university, professional or scholarly group. In most college research, a peer-reviewed article is what you are looking for. Popular magazines (such as People) have articles about current topics and may in fact be accurate, but are not peer-reviewed nor do they have reference sources to back up the written work. Often a popular magazine may be biased as well because the focus is on specific areas and there might be a point of view the editors are trying to communicate to readers.


Until now, books might be the first source one would consider for research. These give you the context for what your topic is, with reference sources at the end. These can be read cover to cover or used for the content in specific chapters. Books are edited and therefore considered reliable sources, especially when selected by your library. On the other hand, books are printed at a specific time and if it was published a long time ago it might not be as up to date as you’d like. Books are good sources for getting the whole picture about a subject because authors have had the time to see how their subject fits into a large scheme over time. By the time a book has been written, an author has had the time to see a particular subject in better context than a newspaper of journal author. Time adds perspective to the content of a book.


Databases contain large volumes of articles grouped together by subject. The larger databases cover a range of subjects. Databases are also offered by specific subjects such as social sciences, history or business. This makes it easy to search for an article targeted by subject. Using these databases, one may search current articles on a variety of subjects by using one source. This is also a great way to identify scholarly articles on a topic by narrowing your search within the database. Like most library catalogues, databases have an Advanced Search tab that allows targeted searching over a range of aspects for journal articles within the database using Boolean operators (and, not, or).

Web Sites

Web sites are often the most current and most popular information sources we use. On the other hand, a web site might not be as trustworthy as a peer-reviewed journal because essentially anyone can say almost anything on the web (and they do). This fact means one should evaluate each web site. Even Google does a sort of ranking of their content using an algorithm that takes into account several factors, but favors sites that have the most links to them. There are also sites that have paid for a higher ranking. For an individual who is evaluating a web site, you might consider some of these factors:

  • WHO (owns the website and why should I believe them?)
  • WHAT (does the site say and is it in agreement with other sources?)
  • WHEN (was the information published and does this matter or affect what the site is saying?)
  • WHY (was the information on the site placed there?)

Some of this might be self-evident when you look at the site, while other sites are more, shall we say, subversive. It might surprise you to know that the site is operated by a white supremacist group or that is a site created by a performance artist. Using the site name alone or even viewing the site, might not tip you off what the true nature of the site is. It is easy to see that all web sites are not just there to help you find information, and many are actually there to spread inaccurate information to support a belief or cause. Each individual has the responsibility to evaluate these sites so that any information they use from a site is valid, unbiased and verifiable.

Narrowing a Topic

When doing your research, selecting a topic is an important step in a successful project. Topics that are too broad or general can lead to a paper that is not as meaningful and useful as you might like. It helps to narrow your topic by date, time or by asking a specific research question. By forming your research process into a question, it will help you narrow down your research process to manageable sources and in the end, a better paper.
These are a few examples of this technique. You can narrow a topic by:

  • Time:
    • Sports…….
      • Cycling………
        • Tour de France……..
          • Doping and the Tour de France since 2000
  • Area of Study:
    • Medicine….
      • The development of steroids….
        • Internal use of steroids…
          • Use of steroids for stomach disorders
  • Place:
    • Plants………
      • North American plants……….
        • N. A. Wildflowers…………
          • Wildflowers of N.C. Mountains

These are only a few ideas to get you started. You might start by phrasing your topic as a question, such as “When and why did coffee become such a popular drink?” You might also try the 5″W’s” – Who (person), What (limit by a particular aspect), When (time), Where (place), and Why (why is your topic important) to limit the background information you have found on your topic. A good way to come up with a topic is to separate the individual terms. So if you were writing a paper on the topic “Wildflowers in the North Carolina Mountains”, you might use separate search terms in a database search for: wildflowers, North Carolina and mountains. This might reveal multiple synonyms to use as search terms. Using synonyms is an excellent strategy for finding ‘search strings’ within a database. Often, in a database, the terms used may not be ones we suspect. Therefore, using a strategy of using synonyms could unlock information we can use in our research.

Information Timeline

When looking at kinds of research sources, it is good to understand how information comes to us. We often do this by using an “information timeline.” Using the information timeline is helps us understand how we get our information and how long it takes to get scholarly information. Because scholarly information takes a longer time to research and produce, it might not be available on very current topics. Publication cycles for many journals are a year, and books are a much longer time period, so this means it also takes longer for us to get this information.

A timeline helps you understand the order events happen. In an information timeline, you can understand how sources of information will be available to you on your research topic. Scholarly work takes a considerable amount of time to develop, research, verify, write and get published. If you think of the information timeline in terms of speed, the fastest information you get (say on TV or the internet) may also be the least accurate. It takes time to investigate any event or topic and therefore, by definition, the fastest information you get cannot be thoroughly researched. In addition, the fastest information you get cannot be put into perspective and fit into a larger framework: this takes time.

The information timeline is a chronological concept about how information gets to the users of that information. When an event happens (for example, the fall of the Berlin Wall), the first way we learn about the event is word of mouth, the web, television and radio. These sources can track and report news quickly. In 1-3 days, this information will be available in most newspapers as well. In a week, the information will be available in popular and mass market magazines (such as Time). It will take several months before the information makes its way into a scholarly journal article (such as Nature); two years, on average for a book, and possibly longer for some print forms, like encyclopedias. Publication times for journals vary, but most are around a year or longer. The more research that goes into it, the longer it will take to write. Some of the first books on Hurricane Katrina came out a few months after the storm hit in 2006. These early books, however, were only able to examine the impact of Katrina in a very narrow way because so little time had passed and the effects of the hurricane were still being discovered and understood. The last information forms on the information timeline are the most reliable because there has been enough time for scholars to verify and analyze the event. This analysis is really important since it puts each event into context. Scholarly journals and books are superior sources of information because they have been able to spend the time to conduct research, analyze, discuss topics in detail and reflect on the meaning of a particular event or topic.


Knowledge Organization

The advent of the internet has changed dramatically the way we access information. Physical materials (books, manuscripts, etc.) only exist and are accessible in one place. The classification system used by most academic libraries, The Library of Congress Classification helps libraries to organize all these physical items so they become searchable and findable to users. Libraries organize materials using a system which places them in the stacks by categories and subject. This would make it easy to find books on zoology for instance, in the same basic location without running into books on English literature mixed in. To add a different wrinkle to searching today, by using the internet you might be able to find multiple items by using one simple search. This gives you access to a larger section of sources opens up research in a way that searching for one book on one shelf does not.

Libraries organize their materials in ways that make it possible to easily retrieve them. There are several systems to do this, but most academic libraries (in colleges and universities) use the Library of Congress system (known as “LC”). This system essentially assigns numbers to books with similar subjects so they are grouped together. From a patron’s point of view, this system is usually experienced through the Call Numbers placed on the spines of books. This organized system of letters and numbers arranges materials together in a way that makes it easy for both patrons and librarians to find them. Books, journals, videos and many other library materials are arranged by call number. Call numbers are a group of numbers and letters on two, three or more lines. It is a hierarchical list. Once you find the numbers corresponding to the first line of the call number, you proceed to the next line, then the next line and so on. These numbers are essentially location numbers that help us find the materials we need.

Call numbers are also directly tied to another way libraries organize their materials: subject terms. Call numbers are based on subject terms assigned to each book, DVD, journal article or other library material. These subject terms are assigned by the Library of Congress (known as Library of Congress Subject Headings or LCSH) and help libraries nationwide to organize their materials in a similar way. By using a call number and understanding where the materials you need are stored, it is easy to find whatever you may need in all the libraries using this system.

This organization of knowledge is important for the role of research in society. The organization of materials physically and intellectually is one part of the research process. This organization makes it possible for scholars to do their work.


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