The Theory Behind the Research
The Research Process can be defined in a few simple questions:
- What do I need?
- How much do I need?
- How will I use it?
- When do I need it?
- Where can I get help? Ask a Librarian!
Most people can answer what they need in broad general terms, but often these topics need to be narrowed in order to make them manageable in the research process. The first step in narrowing or refining the topic, is to ask yourself why do you need the information?
- Is it simple curiosity?
- Have you been given an assignment by a teacher?
- Is it job-related? Or job search related?
Understanding why you need information helps you determine how much you need. Simple curiosity may be satisfied by a book or article. An assignment from a teacher may define for you how much you need (i.e. the number of pages and number or types of resources). Job-related research may mean locating a collection of statistics, data, or facts.
To narrow your topic, try making it a simple sentence specific enough for a stranger to understand what you need. For example, instead of asking, "I want to know about religion in the United States," ask "What is the difference between the teachings of the Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist churches?" The second question gives you a place to start. You can find the teachings of each denomination and then compare them. The first question leads to another question, "What do you want to know about the religions in the United States?"
After refining your topic, ask yourself, "How much do I already know?" If you need to enhance (or perhaps test) your present knowledge, you may want to try reading an article in a general encyclopedia or handbook such as the Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. These sources provide a broad overview and identify significant people, places, events, and dates. They may also help you focus your approach (in other words, further refine or narrow your topic).
Armed with a well-developed topic, an understanding of the quantity of information, and how it will be used, you are ready to begin finding the sources of information. Again, stop and ask yourself questions about what type of information will serve you best. Ask yourself,
- Do I need facts, data, or statistics?
- Does it matter if the information is someone's opinion rather than a factual accounting?
- How scholarly does the information need to be?
- How recent does the information need to be? Should you include older information? Will it matter?
Information comes in many formats. Most of us are familiar with books, magazine and newspaper articles, or the Internet. Books, periodicals, and the Internet have different characteristics making them a better source of some types of information than for others. So how do you choose?
- Books tend to be more comprehensive, but the information is usually older. They are good for an historical perspective or an overview. Books are also an excellent resource for compilations or collections of facts, statistics, and data. Find Books
- There are two types of periodicals, popular and scholarly.
- Popular magazines are similar to newspapers. They are frequently longer reports of events or circumstances in everyday language. Articles are written by someone who is reporting about something and are not often signed.
- Scholarly journals report a research activity and its results. They are signed by the person or persons who did the research and writing. Scholarly articles are often "refereed" or read by other experts in the field for accuracy and methodology used in generating the information and are considered a more authoritative source. Find Articles
- The Internet is a hybrid of books, magazines, and newspapers as well as a source of entertainment. Find Internet Sources
- The United States government is the largest publisher of information in the world. They publish all types of information from the census to Smithsonian magazine. Find Government Information
- Newspaper articles report recent events. They are great for opinions and can be useful in historical research if you are interested in what was said about an event at the time it took place. Find News Sources
As you search for information and select various pieces and types as they meet your needs, be sure you record the source. If you are making photocopies or scanning electronic copies, an easy way to record the source is to copy the title page or table of contents along with the article or pages from the book. Check it to verify that you have everything needed for a bibliography so that you won't have to find it again. If you are using the information in your own writings you will need to cite the work and having the pages with the necessary information will save you time. You should evaluate the information you find even if you are only satisfying personal curiosity.
At any point along the way, be prepared to have the information you find send you in a new and interesting direction. Even though you carefully narrowed and refined your topic at the beginning of this process, information seeking has a way of taking on a life of its own. Whatever you look for, enjoy the steps along the way and don't be afraid to ask a librarian for help.
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