ABCs of Research

One of the most common phrases I get as a consultant is “I need help with my research.”

Researching is not nearly as hard as many people think that it is. Time consuming? Maybe, but that depends on what you are looking into. But even with a college level paper, researching does not need to be hard. The problem is, too many people are just not taught how to effectively research using not only the internet but all the other resources available to them.

So here, for your reading pleasure, I have compiled a list of techniques that can help you to cut down on some serious time when researching via the web as well as adding in some useful tips to get your offline research going also (because we all know that Zombie Golf is WAY more important, am I right?!).

Know what you want.

Whenever beginning your research, have a clear picture in your mind of what you want to find. Of course, if you are still undecided with regards to your topic, your stance or any other major aspect of your project you can still get a lot from your research but it will make your life infinitely easier to know what you are looking for. This is because word combinations in online searches are a key factor in what results you will end up with, and being able to narrow it down as much as possible will cut out a lot of unnecessary junk. Having a clear thesis written out in front of you can also help to keep you on track. It may sound ridiculously obvious or stupid; however having your thesis (even printed boldly on a sticky note placed on the side of your screen) can help to keep you on track with what exactly it is you want to be proving when you can be led astray so quickly through the research.

Simplicity is Key.

Searching, even via Google should not get overly complicated. People can get frustrated with Googling very easily because of the junk it tends to bring up that has nothing to do with what you want or need, and often will end up overcomplicating the searches to where they end up five miles away from where they started. The result: their paper has nothing to do with what they originally wanted to deal with.
Simple word combinations, even using the + or – sign in the search bar (instead of the “ands” and “nots”) as demonstrated in Snow’s post on the Boolean Search Method help to keep things straightforward.

Google may be the WORST thing you can do for your paper!

Sad as it sounds, it’s true. Sometimes even with awesome word combinations it can take forever to find something relating to what you need. Instead, try things like the COS Academic Electronic Database1 for reliable links to thousands of sources, be they news articles, scholarly journals or whathaveyou. Often, I will encourage students to skip the googling altogether and to start with the AED to save them some time. Using the AED, you can customize your search to include only full articles and not excerpts, and you will never get the junk results or advertisements that you would get when Googling.

Books, the ORIGINAL search engine.

For some, it may seem like I am playing a game of “State The Obvious” here, however countless students cannot and/or do not utilize other methods of research beyond their computers. Then again, I grew up being a lover of books (I was constantly getting into trouble for reading well past my bedtime!) and it may be clichéd, but there is sometimes nothing more peaceful than curling up (especially in bad weather) and poring through a small pile of books while enjoying the quiet.
Before computers even came about, libraries contained an endless world of knowledge and answers, all stacked together in neat little piles on shelves. There are endless possibilities with the questions that you may need to answer when writing a paper, and 99.9% of the time you will be able to find something in bound form that will at least cover, if not answer completely what you are asking.
Of course, then there are always challenges in finding the right book, and even those of us who are great at finding things online can struggle with the computers that ought to tell us what these books are and where. I usually end up skipping these computers entirely, and will often head straight down to the reference desk to ask the librarians where I can find the information that I need. It has been my experience that in doing this, you can often find that the librarians themselves are often a wealth of knowledge and they can not only tell you where to find books about what you are looking for, they can engage in discussions about what they know about the topics as well (which is normally a lot, surprisingly!).2

If, on the off chance that your library does not carry documents on the topic, they should be able to know where you can find these documents, and can often even order them in for you (in the case that they may be held by another college or university library).

Talk to a real, live person.

Again, I am feeling like I am playing “state the obvious” here but it became quite apparent after just a few sessions consulting with students as to just how many had not ever thought about talking to an authority on the subject, even if their prompt had encouraged it. However, oftentimes getting on the phone or speaking face to face with someone who knows a little something about your topic can prove very fruitful for your paper.
I have found in my own experience that it can sometimes be frustrating – trying to set up appointments can be tough (I’ve ended up in many of my own games of phone tag!) but more often than not, it is well worth it and I’ve never encountered a professor that has not been pleased that someone has taken the initiative to get a live source for their thesis. I personally hate this method sometimes: I often feel incredibly awkward talking to people that I’ve never met before however nine times out of ten I have gotten information that is not on the internet and will often be something that will make my thesis a lot stronger than it otherwise would have been.

Editor’s note: We’re always glad to help with research at the Writing Center,
and our consultants have a lot of experience with research at the college level.
But we’re nowhere near the best resource for research help on campus–we’re not
even the best in the building! If your questions are specifically about
research, about finding and evaluating sources, or about tracking down the kind
of information you need, our wonderful Librarians are fantastic people to talk

They’ve got some great information on the library website, including a
list of frequently asked questions and a place to “Ask a
online. When you’re in the Library itself, there’s always a
Librarian around to help–just ask at the Reference Desk.

When all else fails…

Come and find me!
I am not even close to kidding! I love the students that come in because they need help with their research (yes, I am aware that I am a giant nerd3 because I find researching to be a fun part of the assignment).

Ultimately, sometimes all a person needs is a little help, and that is what we consultants are here for! We can’t do your work for you, but we can certainly guide you to the tools that you need to make your assignment work and we can even help you in getting started with your research.

Happy Hunting!

1The Academic Electronic Database is very easy to find, should you not be able to access it through the above links. Simply visit, head to the very bottom of the page and click on the link that says Library (the first link under the Quick Links header). On the library page, the second heading down says Academic Electronic Database. This is not the link, however immediately underneath it is the link to the database. It is labeled Research Academic Journals, Magazines, Newspapers, Online Reference Books…. This will take you to the AED.

2*Beky may have found this surprising, but that’s probably because she
didn’t realize how awesome our librarians are. Her original word here was
“attendants,” which is how I think a lot of people think about the people who
work in the library–but this is selling them short. Our Librarians are actually
faculty members–same as your instructors–who have Masters’ Degrees in Library
Science. They’re experts in research, and they’re always willing to help.

3It’s true. She is. -Ed.

Last Updated: 3/16/2015 4:20 PM