The Seven Steps of the Research Process
The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you may need to rearrange or recycle these steps. Adapt this outline to your needs. We are ready to help you at every step in your research.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP YOUR TOPIC
SUMMARY: State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, "What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?" Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.
STEP 2: FIND BACKGROUND INFORMATION
SUMMARY: Look up your keywords in the indexes to subject encyclopedias. Read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles. Additional background information may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings.
SUMMARY: Use guided keyword searching to find materials by topic or subject. Print or write down the citation (author, title,etc.) and the location information (call number and library). Note the circulation status. When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject; they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. Check the standard subject subheading "--BIBLIOGRAPHIES," or titles beginning with Annual Review of... in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog.
Watch on YouTube: How to read citations
SUMMARY: Use periodical indexes and abstracts to find citations to articles. The indexes and abstracts may be in print or computer-based formats or both. Choose the indexes and format best suited to your particular topic; ask at the reference desk if you need help figuring out which index and format will be best. You can find periodical articles by the article author, title, or keyword by using the periodical indexes in the Library home page. If the full text is not linked in the index you are using, write down the citation from the index and search for the title of the periodical in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog. The catalog lists the print, microform, and electronic versions of periodicals at Cornell.
Watch on YouTube: How to read citations
STEP 5: FIND ADDITIONAL INTERNET RESOURCES
Nearly everyone is aware of and uses Google and its branches, Google Scholar, Google Books, Google News, YouTube, etc., to search and find information on the open Internet (as opposed to the subscription-only resources you will encounter in steps 2 through 4 above). Here are links to other search engines.
You can also check to see if there is a research guide (a subject guide or a course guide) created by librarians specifically for your topic or your class that links to recommended resources.
STEP 6: EVALUATE WHAT YOU FIND
SUMMARY: See How to Critically Analyze Information Sources and Distinguishing Scholarly from Non-Scholarly Periodicals: A Checklist of Criteria for suggestions on evaluating the authority and quality of the books and articles you located.
Watch on YouTube: Identifying scholarly journals Identifying substantive news sources
If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. Check with a reference librarian or your instructor.
When you're ready to write, here is an annotated list of books to help you organize, format, and write your paper.
STEP 7: CITE WHAT YOU FIND USING A STANDARD FORMAT
Give credit where credit is due; cite your sources.
Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes, it gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used, and it allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed as references.
Knowingly representing the work of others as your own is plagarism. (See Cornell's Code of Academic Integrity). Use one of the styles listed below or another style approved by your instructor. Handouts summarizing the APA and MLA styles are available at Uris and Olin Reference.
RefWorks is a web-based program that allows you to easily collect, manage, and organize bibliographic references by interfacing with databases. RefWorks also interfaces directly with Word, making it easy to import references and incorporate them into your writing, properly formatted according to the style of your choice.
Style guides in print (book) format:
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed. New York: MLA, 2009.
(Olin Reference LB 2369 .G53 2009 [shelved at the reference desk]; also Uris Reference, others)
This handbook is based on the MLA Style Manual (Olin and Uris Ref PN 147 .G444x 1998) and is intended as an aid for college students writing research papers. Included here is information on selecting a topic, researching the topic, note taking, the writing of footnotes and bibliographies, as well as sample pages of a research paper. Useful for the beginning researcher.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington: APA, 2010. (Olin Reference BF 76.7 .P83 2010 [shelved at the reference desk]; also Uris Reference, Mann Reference, others)
The authoritative style manual for anyone writing in the field of psychology. Useful for the social sciences generally. Chapters discuss the content and organization of a manuscript, writing style, the American Psychological Association citation style, and typing, mailing and proofreading.
If you are writing an annotated bibliography, see How to Prepare an Annotated Bibliography.
- WORK FROM THE GENERAL TO THE SPECIFIC.
- Find background information first, then use more specific and recent sources.
- RECORD WHAT YOU FIND AND WHERE YOU FOUND IT.
- Record the complete citation for each source you find; you may need it again later.
- TRANSLATE YOUR TOPIC INTO THE SUBJECT LANGUAGE OF THE INDEXES AND CATALOGS YOU USE.
- Check your topic words against a thesaurus or subject heading list.
Need help clarifying your topic?
Need ideas about where to look next?
Want to be sure you're using a reference source effectively?
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Revised 18 September 2012