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The Research Process

This guide details the research process in six steps with an additional page that defines common library jargon. Click on the boxes below to get started.

> Read the assignment

The first step to successful research is planning. Read your assignment carefully and ask yourself: 

  • What is the purpose of the assignment? (e.g., to write a paper or create a presentation)
  • Do I pick my own topic? Does it need approval?
  • How long does the paper or presentation need to be? 
  • How many sources do I need to use?
  • What type of sources? (primary vs. secondary; articles vs. books)
  • What is the citation style?
  • How long do I have to work on the assignment?

> Select and develop a topic

  • Choose a topic that interests you! Look for potential topics in your textbook or course materials. You can also browse Wikipedia or other encyclopedias for inspiration.
  • Consider what you already know or don’t know about the topic. Develop some research questions based on that knowledge. Ask “how” and “why” questions that avoid simple answers. 
    • If you can answer it with a quick Google search, it probably isn’t a good research question.
  • Make a list of keywords related to the topic; these are similar to tags and will help you find relevant resources.
  • Browse for basic background information about the topic. Identify important facts such as dates, terminology, people, etc. Visit the library's Online Encyclopedias and Dictionaries or the reference stacks on the first floor.
  • Refine your topic. Are you finding too much information or too little? Specify or generalize as needed. The reference librarians can help you develop your research question.

> Find relevant library material

  • Your research question will impact the kind of sources you use. Some topics are more likely to be covered in books and others are more likely to be covered in the news. You may not be able to find books or peer reviewed articles on current topics because they take a long time to publish.
  • Consider who writes about your topic, e.g., “race and incarceration” might be explored by scholars in sociology, political science, public policy, or psychology. Our librarians list recommended sources for each discipline in the Subject Guides.
  • Use the Books and Media Search to find books at UMBC. The Find Books and Media page gives you more options for your searching.
  • The AOK Article Search contains millions of articles on a variety of topics. 
  • Check out the Primary Sources Guide
  • Browse our newspaper databases.
  • The Census & Statistics page takes you to major statistical websites. 
  • Check out our guide for finding Federal and Maryland government information.
  • Visit the library’s reference desk for assistance in person or online.

> Evaluate and organize sources

  • It’s important to evaluate your sources for currency (when was it published or updated?), relevance (to what extent does it answer your research question?), authority (can you describe the author’s expertise?), accuracy (can its facts be verified through another source?), and purpose (why was it written and for whom?).
  • Understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. 
    • Primary sources are material created by people or institutions from the time period of an event or historical period; these include speeches, diaries, letters, original artwork, and the first publication of a scientific study or original research.
    • Secondary sources are written by authors who analyze, evaluate, and form conclusions based on the primary source’s information; these include reviews of concerts or art shows, biographies, or books written about historical events.
  • Differentiate between types of periodicals. 
    • Scholarly or peer-reviewed journals present original research and ideas written by researchers or scholars; they tend to cover specific topics and always use citations.
    • Popular or general interest magazines provide general information and entertainment to the public on a wide variety of subjects; they include few if any references or citations.
    • Trade or industry magazines provide articles about current events or special interests within a particular profession or industry; they sometimes include footnotes or citations.
    • Newspapers detail current events or articles of general interest to the public; they include no references or citations.
  • Book time with a subject librarian for guidance.

> Outline and write

  • Outlines are an effective way to organize a paper or presentation in a logical and hierarchical order.
  • To create an outline:
    • List the major points of your research topic or thesis and label them as I, II, III, etc.
    • For each major point, list the supporting ideas or arguments as A, B, C, etc.
    • If needed, list additional ideas under the supporting ones as 1, 2, 3, etc.
  • AVOID PLAGIARISM. It takes many forms: failing to cite sources, copying information directly without quotations, or citing sources incorrectly.
    • Paraphrase the source in your own words with different vocabulary and sentence structure.
    • Put quotation marks around any exact lines taken directly from the source.
    • Cite all quotations, paraphrasing, and sources as according to the style guide (e.g., APA).
  • Make an appointment with the Writing Center for revision help.

> Cite your sources

  • By citing your sources, you avoid plagiarism, provide authority to your text’s statements, and allow others to find the source material you used. You should provide a citation whenever your writing is based on someone else’s work or ideas.
  • The three most common citation style guides are APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago/Turabian. The reference desk has handouts about how to cite using each style; there are also numerous online resources at Citing Sources.