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Start Your Research

This guide is designed to help you navigate the research process.

Purpose of this Guide

This tutorial on research methods will help you gain practical skills and knowledge you can apply for all research needs.
Scroll down to learn about:
  1. Developing a Research Question: How do you get background knowledge? Develop a thesis? Start searching?
  2. Deciding on Sources: What's the difference between academic and popular sources, or primary and secondary sources?
  3. Locating Sources: How do you locate articles, books and literature reviews both from NUL and other academic institutions?
  4. Tips for Reading and Note-taking: What are different strategies for reading scholarly articles and books?
Have a question or need help? Contact any NUL Subject Specialist Librarian for personal assistance.

Develop a Research Question

Somewhere in between your initial idea and settling on a research question, you'll need to do background research on how scholars in a particular subject area have discussed your topic. You may find background research in your textbook or class readings, academic books in the library's collection, or reference sources.

The databases below compile reference sources from a variety of disciplines, and they can be a great way to consider how your topic has been studied from different angles.

Use NU Search to browse for books, reference entries, and periodicals to build background information.


After you have an initial project idea, you can think deeper about the idea by developing a "Topic + Question + Significance" sentence. This formula came from Kate Turabian's Student's Guide to Writing College Papers. Turabian notes that you can use it plan and test your question, but do not incorporate this sentence directly into your paper (p. 13):

TOPIC: I am working on the topic of __________,
QUESTION: because I want to find out __________,
SIGNIFICANCE: so that I can help others understand __________.

Remember: the shorter your final paper, the narrower your topic needs to be. Having trouble?

  • Which specific subset of the topic you can focus on? Specific people, places, or times?
  • Is there a cause and effect relationship you can explore?
  • Is there something about this topic that is not addressed in scholarship?

Turabian, Kate L. Student's Guide to Writing College Papers. 4th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010.

How do you move from a research question to searching in a database? You first have to pick out keywords from your research question.

Decide on Sources

When evaluating a source of information, consider both the content of the source itself and the context in which the source was created.  


  •  What does it say? What is its main point or argument? Relevance to your topic? What new information, facts, or opinions does it include? 
  •  Where did you find it? Where was it published? 
  •  When was it written? Within the past few days, weeks, or years? Is it historical? Has its information changed over time? 
  •  Who created this information? What are their credentials? 
  •  Why does this source exist? Is its purpose to inform, persuade, or entertain? 
  •  How does it incorporate data or evidence? What kinds of evidence?


  •  What is the audience for this source? General readers, people who work in a specific field, academics? Does it assume previous knowledge? 
  •  Where can you find other information about this topic? 
  •  When was this information last updated? Has it been revised, redacted, or challenged? 
  •  Who is missing from the conversation? Does it include opposing viewpoints, marginalized voices, or global perspectives? 
  •  Why do you need this information? Is it for an academic assignment, work project, personal decision-making, or to share with others?* 
  •  How did the information find you?  Was it through a relevance-ranked search, social media algorithm, advertising cookie, or press release? 

 *Sources that may be appropriate for sharing with others, deepening personal understanding, or decision-making may not be appropriate for an academic assignment or work presentation. When in doubt, check with your librarian or professor for more guidance! 

Adapted from Beyond the Source created by the DePaul University Libraries.

Not all "articles" are the same! They have different purposes and different "architecture".

  • Original article – information based on original research
  • Case reports – usually of a single case
  • Technical notes -  describe a specific technique or procedure
  • Pictorial essay – teaching article with images
  • Review – detailed analysis of recent research on a specific topic
  • Commentary – short article with author’s personal opinions
  • Editorial – often short review or critique of original articles
  • Letter to the Editor – short & on subject of interest to readers

Peh, WCG and NG, KH. (2008) "Basic Structure and Types of Scientific Papers."
Singapore Medical Journal, 48 (7) : 522-525. accessed 4/24/19.

Primary sources provide the raw data you use to support your arguments. Some common types of primary resources include manuscripts, diaries, court cases, maps, data sets, experiment results, news stories, polls, or original research.  One other way to think about primary sources is the author was there.

Secondary sources analyze primary sources, using primary source materials to answer research questions.  Secondary sources may analyze, criticize, interpret or summarize data from primary sources. The most common secondary resources are books, journal articles, or reviews of the literature. 

Depending on the subject in which you are doing your research, what counts as a primary or secondary source can vary!  Here are some examples of types of sources that relate to dragons in different disciplines:

If your class is in... Primary Source Example Secondary Source Example
English Beowulf More About the Fight With the Dragon

The Tello Obelisk (photo)

Encounters with Dragons: The Stones from Chavin
Biology Dragon's Blood Exerts Cardio-Protection Against Myocardial Injury... Dragon's Blood Secretion and Its Ecological Significance

There are many types of primary resources, so it is important to define your parameters by:

  • Discipline (e.g. art, history, physics, political science)
  • Format (e.g. book, manuscript, map, photograph)
  • Type of information you need (e.g. numerical data, images, polls, government reports, letters)
  • Date range

Look at the Primary and Secondary Sources guide for more clarification on what primary and secondary sources are in different disciplines! 


Locate Your Resources

Northwestern has access to millions of articles not available through Google!

From the library website, enter your keywords into the NUSearch search box. All results with those keywords in the title or description will appear in the search results. Limit your results to "Peer-reviewed Journals" for scholarly articles.

For a more specific search,  go to one of the Libraries' many scholarly databases. If you know the name of your database, find it with Databases A-Z. Find subject-specific lists of databases in our Research Guides.

Searching a scholarly database is different from using a Google search. When searching: 

  • Use an advanced search, which allows you to search for multiple keywords. "AND" allows you to enter more than one term in multiple search boxes to focus your search (e.g. apples AND oranges) for articles about both. "OR" broadens your results (e.g. apples OR oranges) for articles about either. 
  • The results may link to a full-text version of the article, but if one is not available, the library can likely get it for you! Clicking the "Find it @ NU" button on the database's left-hand navigation will display other Northwestern databases that may have access to it. If we don't have access to the article, request it through Interlibrary Loan. 

Locating Books

To locate a book, use the NUsearch. The catalog will tell you the location and call number for retrieval. You can also request for books to be pulled and picked up at the Circulation desk of your choosing.

Borrowing Materials from other Institutions

Need to borrow a book Northwestern does not own or have an article PDF scanned and sent to you? Log into (or create) your interlibrary loan account.  You may also check the status of your interlibrary loan requests here. Contact the Interlibrary Loan Department for more assistance.

Search for literature review articles in subject databases:

  1. Type the phrase "Literature Review" (with quotation marks) as a search term
  2. Look to see if there is an option to limit your search results by Document Type (this may appear underneath the search box or among the filters on the left side of the search results display).

Be careful
The document type "Review" is often used and may identify articles that are book reviews, software reviews or reviews of films, performances, art exhibits, etc.


Need Help? Ask Your Librarian

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Created and maintained by Instruction & Curriculum Support, with content also developed by Chris Davidson, Jason Kruse, Gina Petersen, and Amy Odwarka (intern, fall 2019).