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Basic Academic Research: Search Strategies

This LibGuide covers skills, strategies, and materials employed in basic academic research: the sorts of assignments often given to lower division (freshman and sophomore) students in the first two years of college.

Page Overview

This page offers an overview and broad-based information on search strategies and the research process.  This information should be considered as foundational material before engaging the more detailed information on the third page of this LibGuide.

Why Use a Research Strategy?

Because a research strategy  .  .  .

  • Provides a strategic plan for your research effort
  • Keeps you on-topic and focused on finding answers to your research question
  • Helps you build your knowledge with solid background information first before moving into the more detailed, issue-specific literature
  • Reminds you to cite your sources correctly
  • Helps you to critically evaluate your sources

Things to Keep in Mind Before You Begin

1. Before beginning any research process, first be absolutely sure you know the requirements of the assignment.  Things such as  

  • the date the completed project is due 
  • the due dates of any intermediate assignments, like turning in a working bibliography or notes
  • the length requirement (minimum word and page count), if any 
  • the minimum number and types of sources required (for example, books or articles from scholarly, peer-reviewed journals) 

These formal requirements are as much a part of the assignment as the paper itself.  They form the box into which you must fit your work.  Do not take them lightly.

2. Treat the assignment as a series of components or stages rather than one undivided whole.

  • devise a schedule for each task in the process: topic selection and refinement (background/overview information), source material from books (JaxCat), source material from journals (databases/Discovery), other sources (internet, interviews, non-print materials); the note-taking, drafting, and editing processes.
  • stick to your timetable.  Time can be on your side as a researcher, but only if you keep to your schedule and do not delay or put everything off until just before the assignment deadline. 

3.  Leave enough time between your final draft and the submission date of your work that you can do one final proofread after the paper is no longer "fresh" to you.  You may find passages that need additional work because you see that what is on the page and what you meant to write are quite different.  Even better, have a friend or classmate read your final draft before you submit it.  A fresh pair of eyes sometimes has clearer vision. 

4.  If at any point in the process you encounter difficulties, consult a librarian.  Hunters use guides; fishermen use guides.  Explorers use guides.  When you are doing research, you are an explorer in the realm of ideas; your librarian is your guide. 

Student Response to Receiving the Research Paper Assignment

There's no reason for a research assignment to be a cat-astrophe.  Research is a process, an orderly series of steps which largely remains the same from one research project to another.  Research skills are learnable, transferable, and marketable.  They are valued by many employers.  The information in this LibGuide can help you to to become a skilled researcher.  

Sub-dividing the Research Process

Note: The information on this page is preparatory and sets the table for doing research.  It offers broad-based information about research strategy rather than walking through the steps of the process.  Step-by-step information on the research process is provided by the videos on the third page of this LibGuide.

The research process may be roughly sub-divided into three phases.

  I. Topic selection and refinement

     Topic selection: choose (or have assigned to you) a topic (broad area of subject matter)

  • If you have free choice, choose a topic that interests you; you will be more motivated than if the topic is chosen for you.

      Investigate topic (do background research): use encyclopedias and other reference works to discover possible subjects to write about

  • Internet:, Wikipedia
  • Databases: Literary Reference Center Plus, Literature Resource Center (for literary topics); Global issues in Context, Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, Points of View Reference Center (for general topics)

     Select subject (narrowed/ focused down aspect of topic)

  • What am I researching? (What is my research question?)

     Formulate research question/search query: who, what, where, when, why, how,etc.

  • Begin with question rather than thesis statement so as not to "cherry-pick" evidence during information-gathering stage of research process
  • Answer to question becomes thesis statement 

 II. Search: Source selection and information gathering

  • What type of information do I need?  
  • Where is this information most likely to be concentrated?

    See box at right "Regarding Sources" for overview of source types and search options.  There is no one, single, correct answer to                          the above two questions.    The answers will vary depending on the assignment or task at hand.  The only constant is that information from            a variety of source portals will be required (blended searching).

       Perform information searches

  • For JaxCat searches, go to this link <> and follow the tips beneath the search box(es) for each tab.
  • For database searches, view the InfoRhode series of videos on the third page of this LibGuide

     For assistance in performing these searches or at any other stage of the research process, consult a librarian.

III. Writing: Putting it all together

      Gather your information

  • Review
  • Organize
  • Analyze
  • Synthesize
  • Contribute your own ideas and insights

      Write your paper 

  • Initial draft
  • Revision (at least one)
  • Final (submission) draft

      As you write, keep in mind the "Characteristics of a Well-written Paper" outlined on the first page of this LibGuide. Also, once you have entered the writing phase of the research process, maintain close communication with the professor who made the assignment to obtain further information on an as-needed basis.


When All is Said and Done

Regarding Sources

Research requires engagement with various types of sources.

  • Primary sources: the thing itself, such as letters, diaries, documents, a painting, a sculpture; in lower-division literary research, usually a play, poem, or short story.
  • Secondary sources: information about the primary source, such as books, essays, journal articles, although images and other media also might be included.  Companions, dictionaries, and encyclopedias are secondary sources.
  • Tertiary sources: things such as bibliographies, indexes, or electronic databases (minus the full text) which serve as guides to point researchers toward secondary sources.  A full text database would be a combination of a secondary and tertiary source; some books have a bibliography of additional sources in the back.

Accessing sources requires going through various "information portals," each designed to principally support a certain type of content.  Houston Cole Library provides four principal information portals:

  • JaxCat online catalog: books, although other items such as journals, newspapers, DVDs, and musical scores also may be searched for.
  • Electronic databases: journal articles, newspaper stories, interviews, reviews (and a few books; JaxCat still should be the "go-to" portal for books).  JaxCat indexes records for the complete item: the book, journal, newspaper, CD but has no records for parts of the complete item: the article in the journal, the editorial in the newspaper, the song off the CD.  Databases contain records for these things.
  • Discovery Search: mostly journal articles, but also (some) books and (some) random internet pages.  Discovery combines elements of the other three information portals and is especially useful for searches where one is researching a new or obscure topic about which little is likely to be written, or does not know where the desired information may be concentrated.  Discovery is the only portal which permits simul-searching across databases provided by multiple vendors.
  • Internet (Bing, Dogpile, DuckDuckGo, Google, etc.): primarily webpages, especially for businesses (.com), government divisions at all levels (.gov), or organizations (.org). as well as pages for primary source-type documents such as lesson plans and public-domain books.  While book content (Google Books) and journal articles (Google Scholar) are accessible, these are not the strengths of the internet and more successful searches for this type of content can be performed through JaxCat and the databases.