Steps in the Research Process
A research paper is a process of trial and error and of defining and refining your ideas. Your research strategy may change several times before you settle on one approach. The research process consists of a number of steps, including:
This guide will provide you with resources and tips for accomplishing each stage of your research so that your project will be off to a successful start. Click on the links above to go the topic you need help with.
Deciding on a topic you'd like to write about and defining the parameters of your research is one of the most challenging and important aspects of the research process. The following resources will help you settle on an appropriate topic for your course assignment:
VCU Libraries Research Paper Topics Guide
This guide contains information about VCU library resources that will help you discover possible topics.
Once you decide on a topic you're interested in, you must refine it so that it's neither too broad or too narrow in scope. Otherwise, your topic will be difficult to research. To broaden or narrow your search, it's helpful to answer the following questions:
What aspect of this topic do I want to investigate?
Which geographic area is concerned?
Which time period will I focus on?
The next section, Developing a Research Strategy, will offer tips for narrowing and broadening your search by using keywords and other search techniques.
Since research is a process that can lead you on unexpected paths, it's a good idea to allow yourself sufficient time to complete your project and allow extra time for any unplanned delays. Use the University of Minnesota Libraries' Assignment Calculator to find out how much time you should allow to finish your paper on time.
Be sure that you clearly understand your research assignment and any special instructions given to you by your instructor. Your instructor may want to work with you on developing your topic or giving final approval on your choice. Be sure to consult with your instructor throughout your research project.
Gather Background Information
If you're relatively new to the topic you're investigating, consider beginning your research by using an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are terrific sources for many tasks including:
Finding keywords to use when searching for materials
Discovering key people, events, dates, and concepts
Understanding your topic in its proper context
The library has general encyclopedias like World Book and Encyclopaedia Britannica, which contain entries on a wide-range of topics. Or, you can use subject-specific encyclopedias that explore specific topics in-depth. For example, Cabell Library has subject-specific encyclopedias on topics as varied as feminist literature, junk food, and homelessness.
For a quick way to find encyclopedias related to your topic, search the catalog using the following terms:
encyclopedia and [your topic]
Find Keywords and Synonyms
As you prepare to search for resources on your topic, generate a list of relevant keywords and concepts that you discovered while searching for background information. Update this list throughout your research project. Here are some tips:
Think about your topic:
What are the key concepts?
What are synonyms for those concepts?
Constantly look for vocabulary words and key concepts:
You can find these terms in titles, abstracts, and subject headings
Develop a method of maintaining this list of terms using a word processing document, spreadsheet, database, PDA, or note cards.
Save, copy, print, or jot down search strategies
Record both those strategies that worked and those that did not.
Boolean operators are used to connect your keywords when doing a search in the library catalog or a database. Boolean operators consist of the words AND, OR, and NOT. They can help you to narrow or broaden your search.
Choose a Resource Type
Where you look to find resources will depend largely on the requirements of your assignment and how up-to-date you need your information to be. Use the table below for some general guidelines on resource types. (Note: You may need to use one or all three major resource types for your paper):
|Resource Type||Where to Find||Characteristics|
|Books||Catalog||Can take years to write and publish; Not very current; Helpful for background information and context.|
|Scholarly Journals||Use databases to find articles on a topic; Use the catalog to locate a journal title.||Articles are reviewed by professors and other scholars (called "peer review"); Can take a long time to review, though are usually more current than books; Helpful for finding research studies and for topics of academic interest.|
|Newspapers & Popular Magazines||Usually, a general database such as LexisNexis.||No peer review; Not based on extensive research studies; Very current; Helpful for learning about the latest general-interest news and events.|
Decide Where to Search
The following resource will help you determine the best starting points for your topic:
Databases are your primary search tool for finding articles on a topic. To choose an appropriate database, ask yourself which disciplines are relevant to your topic. A paper about global warming, for example, may be relevant to a number of disciplines including environmental science, political science, and business. Once you decide which discipline(s) to focus on, select databases by subject.
Choosing a database (video)
Here are some recommended databases to use as starting points by popular disciplines:
|Political Science||PAIS International|
|Social Work||Social Services Abstracts
Social Work Abstracts
Review the Help features available in each database for database-specific search functions.
Refer to database thesauri and subject guides to find the proper terms for your topic.
Truncation allows expansion of a search term to include all forms of a root word.
Example: feminis* retrieves feminist, feminists, feminism.
Be careful not to truncate the term to the degree it becomes meaningless, e.g., rat*. Some databases use one symbol when searching for multiple characters following the root, and a different symbol when searching for a single character. Consult the database Help.
Use limits to limit your results to certain date ranges, populations, languages, and document types.
Once you have tested your Boolean searches, you may construct complex searches by using parentheses for grouping:
Example: (substance abuse and counseling) and (race or ethnicity or cultural)
Access an article via . When full text is available, the "Full Text" link on the pop-up window launched by this icon will lead to the article. Watch this video for a demonstration of to learn about your options when full text is not available.
Scholarly vs. Non-Scholarly
This table describes the difference between scholarly and non-scholarly publications. You can view a PDF version of this table and save/print it for your records. Two videos explain the characteristics of various article types.
|Scholarly Journals||Trade Publications||Magazines|
|Written for||Professors & students||Workers in a specific industry||General public|
|Written by||Scholars||Professional writers and industry experts||Professional writers|
|Appearance||Usually plain with few color
limited to books and journals;
may have tables, graphs,
|Glossy with industry-specific advertisements||Glossy with advertisements|
|Articles||Have a list of references
(citations), e.g., Works Cited,
Written in technical and
Report current and innovative
research and scholarship
Are usually 10 pages or more
Reviewed by other scholars
prior to publication
|May have a brief list of
sources, e.g., interviews,
Written in technical language
specific to the industry
Report industry trends and
Are usually less than 10
pages in length
Reviewed by professional
editor employed by the
|Almost never have a list of
references or sources
Written in relatively simple
language appropriate for the
Report current topics and
Are usually less than 10
pages in length
Reviewed by professional
editor employed by the
|Examples||Journal of Adolescence
Journal of Popular Culture
C D Computing News
Ulrich's Directory of Publications
Use this database to check the type of a publication (scholarly, refereed, magazine)
Enter the title of the publication, and select the title from the results list.
Look at the "Document Type" field. Peer-reviewed journals will have "Yes" in the "Refereed" field.
The University of California Berkeley Library offers this guide to assessing the credibility of any type of information resource: Critical Evaluation of Resources
Properly attributing your sources is an important part of your academic responsibilities and is also required by the VCU Honor System. Be sure you know which citation format (MLA, APA, etc.) your instructor requires. The following resources will help you to cite your sources properly:
Writing with Integrity - Library workshop