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Start Your Research: Step-by-Step Guide

This guide is designed to walk students through the research process, step-by-step.

Purpose of this Guide

This step-by-step 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.

Need Help? Ask Your Librarian

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Step 1: 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.

Step 2: Decide on Sources

Consider the ACT UP criteria as you review search results and select sources for your research.  These criteria work for all formats (websites, articles, books, videos, and more).
 

Criteria

Questions to Ask

Authority

  • Who (person, organization, company) created the source?
  • What are their credentials/affiliation or experience that qualify them on this topic?
  •  What editorial process was used to disseminate this resource? Peer review? Journalism?
  • If a website, does the URL provide insight? Examples .gov, .edu, .com, .org, .net

Currency

  • Does your topic require current information? If so, when was the source written and published?
  • Has the information been revised or updated recently?

Truth

  • How accurate is the information? Can you verify the claims in other resources?
  • Has the information been reviewed? Is there a bibliography?
  • What type of evidence is used to support claims or arguments?

Unbiased

  • Is the information presented to impact your emotions or your reason?
  • Is the purpose to sell? To teach? To persuade? To entertain?
  • Does the point of view appear objective or unbiased?

Privilege

  • Check the privilege of the author(s). Who is missing from the conversation?
  • Critically evaluate the subject terms associated with each resource you find. How are they described? What are the inherent biases?
  • What is the purpose of the publication? To sell, teach, persuade or entertain?
Adapted from Dawn Stahura, "ACT UP: Evaluating Sources," accessed March 22, 2018, https://goo.gl/9G1KTH

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. http://smj.sma.org.sg/4907/4907emw1.pdf 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
Anthropology Pottery Design Depicting a Dragon, Artefact from Peru (search for "pottery dragon" in Credo Reference) 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! 

 

Step 3: 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
    OR
  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.

 

Step 4: Tips for Reading and Notetaking

When reading peer reviewed or academic articles, do not read them straight through!  Instead, read the sections in the order that will best help you understand and analyze the content in relation to your own research question.

  • Read articles more than once. 
  • Read first for the big picture, then go back and re-read for the details. 
  • Look up words/concepts that are unfamiliar. 
  • Take notes in your own words, perhaps as answers to the questions posed below.

Chart derived from “How to Read and Comprehend Scientific Research Articles”,
a short video produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries

 

Created by...

Amy Odwarka, as an intern for Instruction & Curriculum Support, fall 2019, Michelle Guittar, Head of Instruction & Curriculum Support, and other librarians: Chris Davidson, Becca Greenstein, Jason Kruse, Jeannette Moss, Gina Petersen, and Anne Zald.