THE RESEARCH PROCESS: Detailed Research Guide

Define the need for information
  • Define the task
  • Choose a topic
  • Formulate research questions
  • Start the search strategy
  • Develop a list of keywords and concepts
  • Identify possible sources
  • Decide how to select and evaluate sources

    Locate and access sources
  • Locate print and non-print sources in the library
  • Identify and use community agencies and local experts
    Interview guidelines 
  • Use telecommuni- cations to access experts and online documents and databases 
  • Narrow the topic 
  • Developing a working thesis or hypothesis 
  • Evaluate and comprehend the information
  • Determine main ideas and relevance to topic 
  • Differentiate between primary and secondary resources  Determine credibility, currency and reliability of information 
  • Differentiate among fact, opinion, point-of-view, and bias  Interpret visual, graphical, and numerical information 
  • Compare sources on the same topic 
    Evaluating Web Sites
  • Web page evaluation procedure 
  • Interpret and organize the information
  • Classify and sequence the information 
  • Organize the information 
         Sample Outlines 
  • Incorporate visual elements 
  • Draw conclusions from the information; revise thesis/hypothesis 
  • Develop a list of works used
  • Avoid plagiarism
  • Communicate the information
  • Choose a format 
  • Draft and revise the product 
  • Provide documentation 
  • Evaluate the product and process
  • Product checklist
  • Congratulations!
    You've succeeded in using Information Power!

    I. Define the need for information

    Define the task.
  • What are you being asked to do? What is the topic?
  • Do you understand the assignment?
  • What is the purpose of the project: facts, general background information, basic concepts, in-depth research?
  • Can you define the task problem or issue?
  • How is the project structured: in terms of time, format, benchmarks, group/individual, and so forth?
  • Is there a rubric?
  • When will you know you are done?
  • Choose a topic.
  • What do you know about the subject?
  • What do you want to know?
  • Do any topics appeal to you because of personal interest, curiosity, or links to other subjects?
  • What is the context of the topic: what is the larger picture, what are related ideas?

  • You may want to browse through several resources or get some general background information before committing to a topic.
    A great site for links to "Hot Topics" on the Web is maintained by the librarians at St. Ambrose University. You might want to check out the Cybrary Teen Page for ideas. Another site with topics is maintained by Write Source, the publisher of the writing handbook used in Redwood's English classes.
    Formulate research questions.
  • Brainstorm aspects of your topic.
  • Why is this issue important?
  • What is the underlying problem?
  • What is the history of the issue -- and the consequences?
  • What are different aspects of your question: people, location, statistics, literature, legal issues?

  • From these thoughts you can develop a plan of action to answer these questions.
    II. Start the search strategy
    Develop a list of keywords and concepts.
    Your topic may be identified by different terms in various resources, so it's a good idea to develop a list of as many possible keywords and phrases.
    Basic Earthquakes
    Broader Natural disasters; Earth; Geology; Physical geography
    Narrower San Andreas fault; Buildings--Earthquake effects
    Related Plate tectonics
    Not used Quakes (Earthquakes); Seismography

    Book catalogs, like the library's catalog tend to use broader terms, while magazine indexes and the Internet  can be searched using narrower terms. Look for additional keyword and subject headings in encyclopedias, subject heading lists (Sears List of Subject Headings and Library of Congress Subject Headings, both available from the library media teacher), and thesauri.

    Identify possible sources.
    Check for information widely.
    [  ] Libraries (School, Public and Academic
    [  ] Internet
    [  ] Community 
    [  ] Experts in the field
    Check a wide variety of formats.
    [  ] Print: books, periodicals, pamphlets
    [  ] Non-print: audiocassettes, videotapes, film, art works
    [  ] Digital: online databases, Web sites, email
    [  ] Human resources: library staff, experts

    Decide how to select and evaluate sources.
    The purpose and nature of your research determines what sources are relevant. Check the types of information you need. For help in evaluating resources see section IV. Assess and comprehend the information.
    Format Your Possible Sources
    Pictures, graphs, and maps for visual information
    Sound recordings for audio information
    Mass media, Web sites for multimedia information
    Most recent information
    Periodicals (both print and Internet sources) -- Use the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature to find articles about a subject.
    Web sites -- Check the date, often found at the bottom of the page, if available.
    Depth of information
    Overview in general encyclopedia, e.g., Encyclopaedia Britannica (REF 031 Britannica)
    More specific information in special encyclopedia(s), e.g., McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology (REF 503 McGraw)
    Other reference sources
    Individual books (monographs) for depth
    Perspective (see also IV.B)
    Primary sources for first-hand accounts, e.g., newspapers, diaries, chronicles, etc.
    Secondary sources for analysis

    III. Locate and access sources
    Locate print and non-print resources in the library.
    It is important to locate information from a variety of sources and assess specific information within individual resources. The purpose and nature of your research frames the strategy to use and the kind of sources to consult. Check the kind of sources based on the aspects of your topic.
    Specific facts Your Possible Sources
    Annuals and yearbooks, e.g. Britannica Book of the Year (031) 
    Directories, e.g., telephone books 
    Encyclopedias (030-039) 
    Almanacs, e.g., Information Please Almanac, World Almanac (030s, 310s) 
    History (901-909, 930-999)
    Timelines (902)
    Primary sources (Look for the subdivision "Sources" under historical headings in the library catalog, e.g., France--History--Sources.
    Location (Geography) (910s)
    Atlases and maps
    People (Biography)
    Collective biographies, e.g., dictionaries, books about types of people (920)
    Individual biographies (921)
    Literature (800-899)
    Reviews and criticism
    Specialized references

    Access tools do not contain information, they point to sources that do.
  • Library catalogs point to individual sources such as books and videotapes.
  • Indexes point to articles or portions of other works, such as encyclopedias and periodicals.
  • Bibliographies in monographs (books) and specialized references list supporting works.

  • Identify and use community agencies and local experts.
    Many local entities have useful information about various topics.
    Check out interest groups. Your local library and the telephone book can provide lists.
    Community Resources Your Possible Sources
    Issues-based groups, e.g., conservation
    Politicians and government agencies
    Historical societies and museums
    You may also contact individual experts locally or via the Internet. Remember to be prepared when you interview them; get background information and write up specific questions to guide your discussion. Community people can also refer you to others in the field, thus broadening your research options.
    Interview Guidelines 
    Go Prepared
  • Research the topic before going to the interview. This is essential if you are to ask intelligent questions that are to the point.
  • Prepare your questions in written form. Sometimes the person you are interviewing just wants to talk about her or his subject. If so, save you questions until the end. You may find that the person has already answered many of them.

  • Conducting the Interview
  • Arrive on time! Introduce yourself and restate the purpose of your interview.
  • Be ready to take notes. Be especially accurate when copying names and figures.
  • It may be easier and more accurate to record the interview. Remember to get the person's permission before doing so. Test the equipment before the interview and make sure you can properly and efficiently use whatever device you have chosen. 
  • Be an intelligent and resourceful interviewer. Your listening skills are your greatest asset. As you listen and ask questions, be sensitive to the person's interests and strengths. Don't just cut off a discussion to get on to another question. You may be able to get a really in-depth answer that will make your report more interesting than if you only have brief, sketchy answers. Jot down other questions or ideas to follow up on as you conduct your interview.
  • If you are relying on notes rather than a recorded interview, it is important that you check your notes immediately after the interview and write the information while the experience is still fresh in your mind.
  • If you record the interview, you should listen to it soon after the interview and take notes on those parts that are the most valuable to your project.
  • Be sure to thank the person for his or her time and information. Follow up your interview with a written thank you note using the friendly letter form. --Ross School
  • Use telecommunications to access experts and online documents and databases.
    You can get information from around the world through the Internet. One site to visit is Yahoo's Ask An Expert. Other portal services also provide similar links. While much information on the Web is current, don't forget to check sources for currency. The best sites will include some indication of when it was last updated. Because the Internet is a network of networks, it has no central quality control and you will need to carefully evaluate any sources found. If you communicate directly with someone via the Internet, be sure to use proper netiquette and clear, succinct language.

    Narrow the topic.
    Once you have surveyed a range of sources that related to your general topic, it is time for you to narrow it. You will not have a satisfactory project if your subject matter is too broad. Take the topic "Earthquakes." Your first set of questions may have included: "What causes earthquakes?" More specific question could now include:
    Sample Questions Your Questions
    "Is it possible to predict earthquakes?"
    Is Larkspur earthquake safe?"
    "What disaster preparedness efforts are in place in Marin County in case of an earthquake?"
    Develop questions you want to answer. The questions you raise will not only help you narrow your focus, they will also help you develop a thesis.

    Developing a working thesis or hypothesis.
    The focus or thesis statement is the central question of your project. A hypothesis is an assumption used as a basis for testing the thesis, in other words, a possible answer to the question. Before you take notes, you need the sense of direction your working thesis can provide. The working thesis may change as you collect facts. Your thesis, in any case, should reflect the originality of your thinking about the topic.
    Sample Your Topic
    Subject: Earthquakes 
    Thesis: Is the average modern house in California able to withstand a 7.0 earthquake? 
    Hypothesis: Houses with particular structural characteristics are able to withstand a particular level of earthquake shaking. 

    IV. Evaluate and comprehend the information
    Determine main ideas and relevance to topic.
    Skim and scan for major ideas and keywords to identify relevant information. Look at:
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • Illustrations and charts

  • Once you determine the source's emphasis, reread it carefully for details, and take notes.

    Differentiate between primary and secondary resources.
    Primary sources are "eye-witness" accounts, the "raw data" of your research. Some examples include:
    Example Your Resources
    Diaries and journals
    Lab reports
    Field trips
    Personal experiences
    Eyewitness accounts (Journalists, participants, etc.)
    Personal Web sites

    Secondary sources are materials that report on primary sources. They are useful for supporting your hypothesis. Some examples include:
    Examples Your Resources
    Most books (fiction or non-fiction)
    Web sites
    Some formats may be either primary or secondary or a mixture, depending on how they are produced. Examples include: graphs, charts, maps, statistics, interviews, mass media, periodicals, the Internet.

    Determine credibility, currency and reliability of information.
    Here are some guiding questions to help you determine the authority of the source;

  • What is the source: government, an institution, a personal Web page?
  • What is its purpose: to educate, to persuade, to entertain?
  • How recent is the information? How often is it updated?
  • Differentiate among fact, opinion, point-of-view, and bias.
    Each author brings a unique perspective to her or his information. You may need to "read between the lines" or make inferences from the statements made in order to understand it accurately. Here are some guiding questions to help you determine the perspective:
  • What is the author trying to prove?
  • What are the author's arguments: is there good evidence, is it consistent, is there faulty reasoning?
  • Does the author look at both sides of an issue, or are they promoting only one point of view?
  • What words point to certain opinions: exaggerations, absolutes, emotional phrases?
  • Interpret visual, graphical, and numerical information.
    Different types of information are best represented in different ways. Each information format has its own "vocabulary" and means of deciphering. Here are some pointers:
  • Visual

  • Are there meaningful images and symbolism?
    What is the importance of the placement of images?
    Do the colors and shapes have special meaning?
    What effect does the medium itself have?
  • Graphs

  • What are the units used? What information is given in the legend(s)?
    What patterns and relationships are shown?
    Is the design possibly misleading?
  • Numbers

  • What is the underlying problem or point?
    What are the numerical elements?
    What algorithms, patterns and relationships are shown?
    What information is missing?
    Compare sources on the same topic.
    Remember: not all information is created equal. Determine the validity of the source:
  • Cross check information form other sources.
  • Look for differences in:

  • Facts and data
    Point of view
    Date of publication
    If the information in several sources is in agreement, then it is more likely to be correct. If the information is not in agreement, then the issue may be controversial or dependent on the context.

    Evaluating Web Sites
    (Most of the information in this and the following section comes from a the web evaluation pages developed by librarians at the Wolfram Memorial Library at Widener University in Chester, Pa.) [Also includes a Web evaluation tutorial Flash required]
    Traditional critieria
    Traditionally, whatever the source, the following have been used as criteria to evaluated information sources: Accuracy; Authority; Objectivity; Currency; and Coverage. All of these criteria apply to Web-based information sources as well.
    However, the Internet present several additional challenges.
    Challenge What It Means  Possible Solution
    Use of hypertext links Pages linked to may not reflect quality of linking page Evaluate each page independently
    Frames A Web page may consist of several different "framed" pages. Evaluate each frame independently
    Search engines can retrieve pages out of context Since one is generally searching on "keywords," the pages retrieved may have little or nothing to do with the actual topic you are researching. Always try to return to the "home page" to determine the source of information
    Market-oriented Web pages In other media there are usually clear visual or audio distinctions between advertising and information: On the Web these distinctions become blurred Try to determine if advetising and information are supplied by the same person or organization
    Blending of entertainment, information and advertising Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware!
    Different software may limit access to information Different browsers show pages differently, including the kind of information and its appearence. Be aware that you may not be able to access all information with every browser.
    Instability of Web pages Pages may disappear or be altered without notice Try to determine the stability of the source and document sources thoroughly
    Web pages susceptible to alteration Deliberate or accidental Attempt to verify information using other sources

    Web page evaluation procedure
    1. Identify type of page
    2. Use appropriate check list to evaluate the website:
    3. Based on checklist criteria, determine relative quality of page
        (One page Guide for Evaluating Informational Web Pages in pdf format)

    Here are examples of actual web pages which can be used for evaluation.

    Links to other Web evaluation Web sites -
    Another good site to check out is the Evaluating Sources of Information - page at San Diego State University. This page covers evaluation resources for all types of information.
    One more set of examples from the Securities and Exchange Commission which might be helpful: SEC uses fake site to warn investors | View the fake "McWhortle Enterprises" Web site.

    V. Interpret and organize the information
    Classify and sequence the information.
    As you take notes, your information will fall into natural groupings, e.g. people, places, events, misconceptions, history, etc. You can make a stack of note cards for each category--and switch them as more suitable classification systems become apparent. Notes can then be put in some meaningful sequence: pro-con, chronological, before-after, etc.

    Organize the information.
    The classification and sequencing of notes develops into the projects organization. The traditional organization method is an outline, which divided information into several main points, with supporting details (at least two for each main point.
    Graphic organizers help you to visualize the information and relate its component parts. This method is particularly useful for visual and computer-based projects. Some ways to organize your topic include: information web (describing qualities), cause and effect, compare and contrast, whole and parts (branching), and timeline.

    Sample Outlines (from Writers Inc: A Student Handbook for Writing & Learning)

    Topic Outline
        I. Paper recycling big business
            A. Industry involved
            B. Recyclable paper plentiful
            C. Countries buy waste paper
        II. Simple process
            A. Collect and sort paper
            B. Form a pulp
            C. Dry pulp to make paper
            D. New paper used in many ways
        III. Some new papers not recyclable
            A. Glossy, envelopes, glued papers
            B. Must be sorted out
            C. New process coming for glossy paper

    Sentence Outline
        I. Paper recycling is a booming business today.
            A. Industry believes recycling paper makes good sense.
            B. A large supply of recyclable paper is thrown away by Americans.
            C. Taiwan actually buys waste paper from the U.S.
        II. Paper recycling is a simple process.
            A. Paper is collected and sorted.
            B. Paper is mixed with water and chemicals to form pulp.
            C. Pulp is dried and new paper is formed.
            D. The new paper is used for a wide range of products.
        III. Some types of paper cannot be recycled presently.
            A. Equipment cannot handle glossy paper, envelopes, glued papers, etc.
            B. These types must be sorted out.
            C. A new technology is being perfected that will make glossy papers recyclable.

    Graphic organizers help you visualize the information, and relate its component parts. This method is particularly useful for visual and multi-media projects. Some ways to organize your topic include:

  • information web (describing qualities)
  • cause and effect
  • compare and contrast
  • whole and parts (branching)
  • timeline
  • Incorporate visual elements.
    Consider pictures or diagrams if they would help your audience understand your findings and conclusions.
    Use a graph if it would simplify numerical patterns that you discovered in your research.
    Visual elements need to be well organized, simple, and to the point. Be sure to cite the sources used to copy or produce the visual.

    Draw conclusions from the information; revise thesis/hypothesis.
    At this point, you can review your sources, and decide whether more information is needed. Some guiding question include:

  • Do you have enough information to support each major point?
  • Do you have enough information which both agrees and disagrees with your thesis?
  • Are your ideas demonstrated by statistical, graphical or tabular data?
  • Now that you have done your research, you are ready to make conclusions from your findings and state your final thesis or test your hypothesis. Perhaps your research points to a new direction; your preliminary thesis or hypothesis may need to change. The important thing is to reflect upon the new information and derive meaningful judgments based on the data.
    Sample Your Topic
    Subject: Earthquakes 
    Final thesis: California needs new laws to insure that residences can withstand earthquakes. 
    Final hypothesis: Houses which have been properly retrofitted are able to withstand the shaking of a 7.0 earthquake if they are built on solid ground. 

    Develop a list of works used.
    Your list of works used (sometimes referred to as a bibliography) is a list of all the sources you have referred to in your research. Include all print, non-print and electronic materials as well as interviews and mass media sources. Create your list while you research to make it easier to re-examine sources and expand into related areas of research. For library materials always note the call number of the book so that you can retrieve it easily even though that information will not be included in the list.
    An annotated list briefly summarizes the source and notes why it is relevant to your research.
    Guides to various formats for citing sources can be found on the Cybrary documentation guidelines. Modern Language Association (MLA) style is most often used for humanities and social sciences projects; American Psychological Association (APA) style is used for scientific and mathematical projects.

    Avoid plagiarism.
    A special note on plagiarism
    To "plagiarize" is defined in The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus (1996) as to "take and use (the thoughts, writings, inventions, etc. of another person) as one's own;" also "pass off the thoughts, etc. of (another person) as one's own." It gives as a synonym the term "pirate."
    Your ideas are very important. In a research project they should be based on the work you have done and the facts you have found. Any unique or controversial ideas quoted, paraphrased or borrowed from your sources deserves to be credited.
     Give credit for any such idea which not your own and each fact which is not general knowledge (i.e. information that is readily available from several general reference sources). You may be tempted to copy the exact wording of your sources. DON'T DO IT ... unless you plan to use a direct quotation of a brief passage. 
    And finally read Student Guidelines for Multimedia and Web Page Production if you are planning on those media for your presentation. 

    Copyright sites to be evaluated and annotated:

    VI. Communicate the information

    Choose a format.
    What is the most effective way to present your findings and conclusions? Often your teacher will give you a format but if not consider your audience, the objective of the project, the nature of the content, and the structure of the assignment.
    Typewritten or word processed reports should be submitted on plain 8½" x 11" paper with double-spaced text and 1" margins. Print or type on only one side of the sheet. Word processed reports should be done in 12 pt. Times font.

    Draft and revise the product.
    Write your ideas in paragraph form on every other line, start a new page for each new paragraph so you can easily change the text's order as needed. Make sure that you write in your own style and use your own ideas. After your first draft is written, you may want to meet with someone else or in a small group to critique the draft and offer suggestions for improvements.
    Self Reviewer Criterion
    Yes     No Yes     No Have you arrived at an original conclusion?
    Yes     No Yes     No Have you satisfied your thesis/hypothesis without merely repeating it?
    Yes     No Yes     No Have you satisfied your audience, or will they ask you, "So what?"
    Yes     No Yes     No Do your topic sentences relate to your thesis?
    Yes     No Yes     No Do some ideas need more support?
    Yes     No Yes     No Can some information be deleted as irrelevant?
    Yes     No Yes     No Have you properly introduced and integrated any quotations used?
    Yes     No Yes     No Do you visual elements tie into your text?

    Your product is now ready to proofread. Before submitting it, be certain your product contains no errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. Try to arrange for someone you trust to do a final proofreading job for you. Make any necessary correctons as neatly as possible. Provide adequate time for this step; don't risk the success of all your hard work by handing in a paper that contains mechanical errors.

    Provide documentation.
    Now that you have developed your product, you know how hard it is to present information clearly and accurately. It was equally hard for the authors of the sources you used. Because those authors were a big help to you, they should be thanked. The way to do that is with proper documentation. The step also helps your audience locate your sources, and makes the factual part of your product more reliable. Documentation guidelines.

    VII. Evaluate the product and process
    How well did the project fulfill the assignment and deal with the research topic?
    Were the research steps taken appropriate and effective?
    By assessing the learning experience, you can identify areas of progress and needs for further improvement.
    Your teacher may provide a rubric to guide your assessment.
    Some general issues include:
    Did the project meet the need for information and satisfy the task?
    Could the research process be expanded or modified?
    What new skills and knowledge were gained?
    What steps in the research process need further development and practice?
    Here is a product checklist of final points to consider:
    Self Reviewer Criterion
    Yes     No Yes     No The introduction includes a clear thesis statement or hypothesis.
    Yes     No Yes     No Evidence is shown clearly.
    Yes     No Yes     No At least two perspectives about the topic are included, as appropriate.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product shows your reaction to what you discovered.
    Yes     No Yes     No Conclusions are based on high-quality facts.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product demonstrates care and enthusiasm about the topic.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product is understandable.
    Yes     No Yes     No Proper credit is given to the sources.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product shows mastery of English.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product has a professional appearance.
    Yes     No Yes     No The product carries out the assignment.

    Congratulations! You've successfully used Information Power!

    Originally prepared as part of a BASRC grant by the Redwood High School Research Strategies Study Group. Modified by Tom Kaun for the Tamalpais Union High School District.

    Return to Tamalpais Research Handbook
    Tom Kaun -- Bessie Chin Library @ Redwood High School