THE RESEARCH PROCESS
The rest of this tutorial will break down the research process into eight stages:
Choose a subject or area of interest.
Conduct a preliminary
exploration of your subject.
shape your subject into a specific topic.
Decide what type and amount of information is needed, how current it
should be, and what types of sources will provide that information.
Choose appropriate access
tools, develop a search strategy for each tool, and conduct a systematic,
planned search using each tool.
Evaluate the citations your
search found and select only the most relevant to your topic.
Read, take notes, and
evaluate the sources selected as relevant in Stage 6.
8. Revise, refine, and repeat stages 1-7 as needed.
Letís take a look at each of these stages in detail.†
1: Choose a subject or area of interest.
Even though you have started by thinking only of a general subject area, your goal is to narrow and focus your subject until you come up with a research topic, which is often stated in the form of a question. What is the difference between a subject and a topic? A subject is a broad area of interest from which a more specific topic can be chosen. A research topic, therefore, is a relatively narrow area of interest that can be thoroughly researched and discussed within the page-length guidelines given by your instructor. Examples of subjects and topics are given below:
Notice that each of the five research topic examples are open-ended questions, i.e. they are phrased in such a way that the researcher is deliberating different perspectives. This open-minded approach to all viewpoints is essential. If you begin your research with your conclusions and point of view already determined, you are not undertaking a true research project. You would very likely fall victim to research bias, a flawed approach in which you only consider information and evidence that supports your preconceived opinion and ignore information and evidence that does not. It is only after reading broadly, carefully gathering and evaluating several viewpoints and types of evidence that you can feel justified about reaching your own conclusions and expressing them in a concise thesis statement.
At this point you are merely choosing a broad subject area from which you will soon (during Stages 2 and 3 below) shape a precise research topic. If you are unable to come up with a broad subject area, here are some suggestions that may spark ideas:
2: Conduct a preliminary exploration of your subject.
These questions can usually be answered by skimming through relevant articles in general and subject encyclopedias, research guides, annual review sources, and bibliographic guides. Preliminary reading in these types of sources will familiarize you with your subject area and help you gain a sense of its scope and complexity.
Once you have gained some background knowledge during this overview stage, you should be able to make significant progress toward formulating a central research question (Stage 3). Stage 2, therefore, is a critically important part of the research process because it is here that you are deciding exactly what aspect(s) of your subject you want to focus on.
benefit of conducting a preliminary topic overview is that this early effort
almost always provides you with a preliminary bibliography, i.e. a list of
books, articles, reports, etc., that you may be able to cite in your paper.
If, however, you initially choose a topic that is too narrow, too broad, or too esoteric, keep in mind that the process of zeroing in on an appropriate topic can sometimes continue well into the later stages of the research process. In other words, as you gather more information on your topic in Stages 5 through 7, you are free to modify your research topic if you discover through your reading that you have defined your topic too narrowly or too broadly.
As stated earlier, research topics are often stated in the form of a question. For example, "How does illegal immigration affect the United Statesí economy?" When phrasing your research topic, keep in mind it will usually include at least two aspects or main ideas, often referred to as concepts.
For example, you may have chosen law as your general subject, in particular criminal justice. After some preliminary research and background reading, you might discover that one major area of debate is the death penalty and whether or not it provides a deterrent to violent crime. Your first concept, or main idea, is death penalty. The second concept is violent crime rates. The two (or often three) concepts of a research topic can often be phrased in relation to each other as follows:
Therefore, after conducting your preliminary topic exploration in the subject area of criminal justice and finding a particular focus that interests you, a plausible research topic might be:
If you reword this topic in the form of a question, it becomes: "How does the death penalty affect violent crime rates in the United States?"
When wording your research question, it is best to begin with the words How or Why. Research questions beginning with these words automatically suggest a somewhat broad investigation and substantive discussion, thus helping you avoid phrasing your topic too narrowly. On the other hand, avoid starting your research question with the words Who, Where, or When. These words tend to force your research into a limited aspect of your subject and you'll be unable to come up with enough material for your project. Research questions beginning with What can be acceptable or unacceptable, depending on how much scope and breadth the rest of the question implies.
Note the difference between these two research questions, each beginning with "What Ö.":
percentage of violent crimes are punished by the death penalty each year in
the United States?"
is the effect of the death penalty on violent crime rates in the United
Note that this is essentially the same relatively broad question as our earlier phrasing of this topic, except that we started with the word "How". Either phrasing -- beginning the question with "How" or "What" -- is appropriately focused.