General Research Guides

The Seven Steps of the Research Process

The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper, writing the paper, and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with Bowman Library, you may need to rearrange or go through these steps more than once. Adapt this outline to your needs.

1. Identify Your Topic

State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about the use of alcoholic beverages by teenagers, you might pose the question, "What effect does the use of alcoholic beverages have on teenagers?" Identify the main concepts, or keywords, in your question, e.g., alcoholic beverages and teenagers. Think of synonyms for which you might also search, e.g., drinking and adolescents.

2. Find Background Information

Look up your keywords in print and online general reference books and subject-specific encyclopedias. Read these articles to set the context for your research. Note any key terms, names, dates, etc., and check the bibliographies at the end of the articles for useful sources (books, journals, magazines, etc.).

3. Use the Book & Media Catalog to Find Books

When looking for books on your topic, begin with a keyword search for both a narrow or a complex topic. Keyword searching looks for your search term(s) in the title, the contents, and the subject areas of the Book & Media Catalog. Keywords are terms we use in everyday language. Searching via keyword will usually include some results that aren’t relevant to your topic.

Subject searching uses the official subject headings of the Library of Congress, which are used to organize libraries so that materials on the same topic are grouped together. The language of subject headings is often not our everyday language, but subject headings can more dependably locate materials relevant to a topic. One useful way to locate subject headings is in the Book & Media Catalog record of an appropriate book located in your keyword search. Clicking on a linked subject heading will take you to a listing of all the books on that specific topic.

When you have located useful books, print or write down the book's call number. You might also want the title and author of the book. Note the circulation status, which indicates if a book is on the shelf or checked out. When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Also remember to scan the shelves next to your title, since other books related to your topic will be located in that same call number area.

If you are searching for a narrow topic (e.g., Chinese workers on the Intercontinental Railroad) and cannot find any books on your specific topic, try searching a broader topic (e.g., Intercontinental Railroad). You can then scan the index of each book for your specific topic. A book might not be all about your topic, but it may include enough information to satisfy your research needs.

4. Use the Research Databases to Find Periodical Articles

Periodical articles are excellent sources for detailed analysis or up-to-date information on a topic. These articles are from materials that are published "periodically," or sequentially, in daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual, or even irregular intervals. Periodicals include newspapers, magazines, journals, and yearbooks. Use Bowman Library’s Research Databases to find citations to articles, as well as the full text of many articles. Ask a Librarian if you need help figuring out which database will be best.

5. Find Web Resources

Use search engines such as Google and search directories such as Yahoo to locate materials on the web. Web search tools are used to perform keyword searches in large databases of information culled from the web. While no single engine covers the entire web, there are a variety of tools that will assist you in searching for information. Remember, the web can be very useful for researching certain topics, but it can be almost useless for others.

6. Evaluate What You Have Found

Evaluating all of the sources you find is a crucial step in the research process. You will need to determine whether or not a particular resource fits the requirements of your assignment. How current is the information? Is it scholarly? Is the information from a reputable source? Who is responsible for producing the work? Is that person a subject specialist? How objective is the information? How accurate? How authoritative? These kinds of questions help to establish a source's credibility, reliability, and usefulness.

Note: If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. Check with a Librarian for other suggestions on locating materials or refining your search strategy.

7. Cite Your Sources

Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes: it gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used; and it allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed.

Two of the most popular formats for citing sources are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). Be sure to check with your professor to find out which format you will be expected to use.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers - LB2369 .G53 2009 (Located in Library Permanent Reserves).

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association - BF76.7 10 (Located in Library Permanent Reserves).

The Chicago Manual of Style - Z253 .U69 2010 (Located in Library Permanent Reserves).

Research Tips

Work from the general to the specific. Find background information first; then use more specific and recent sources.

Record what you find and where you find it. Write out a complete citation for each source you find (author, title, date, etc; remember to note the name of the publisher and place of publication for books and the URL for web sites). You will need this information for your Works Cited page.

Use appropriate search strategies for the Research Databases and web.

Page Last Updated: October 01 2015

Bowman Library

1000 El Camino Real
Atherton, CA 94027
650.543.3825 (circ desk)
650.543.3826 (ref desk)

M-Th, 8 a.m. - 1 a.m.
F, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Sa, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Su, 1 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Special Hours

Research Tips

These Research Guides have been prepared by librarians to assist with your research. Read more:

Evaluating Web Resources

Critically Analyzing Information Sources

Searching Electronic Resources Effectively

For more information on citation style, see:

Citing Your Research