Research Preparation
Things to do Before Starting Library Research Projects

Library Research is not easy! If you typically find research difficult and frustrating, you may be leaving out one or more of the essential preparation steps which skilled researchers do routinely before beginning research projects. In this Library Guide, we introduce you to these four important research preparation steps; you will learn how to:

1. Select a Research Topic

2. Define the Research Question

3. Determine Information Requirements

4. Select Appropriate Research Tools

student studying These steps may seem straightforward, yet librarians frequently encounter students who simply jump in and attempt to do library research before they have a clear idea of exactly what they are trying to research. These students soon get lost in the PROCESS of research; as a consequence, the outcome of their research is often poor.

We recommend that you take a little time in the beginning to complete these four recommended research preparation steps. If you do, we guarantee that you will save time, your information gathering process will be far less frustrating, and your research results will be significantly better.

STEP 1: Select a Research Topic

Your professor is often the best guide in helping you select an appropriate academic research topic, especially one which will satisfy the requirements of the course. Instructors often suggest topics in class or in the course syllabus. Remember that these ideas are typically broad suggestions. They may need to be narrowed in order to make them feasible term paper topics. If your professor has provided no topic guidance, you may wish to discuss possible topic choices with him or her during office hours. All professors are required to keep open office hours. Students are invited to drop by during these open hours to talk about classroom lectures, discussions, and assignments. If you decide to discuss your term paper topic selection with your professor, be sure to show up prepared with a number of possible topics, and for each have at least one clearly formulated research question. Your professor will not be pleased if you merely show up asking him/her to do this work for you!

If you haven't picked a topic, and don't have a clue where to begin, here are some tips and useful Internet links. The Library has several excellent resources to assist you in finding an appropriate academic research topic. These resources are used often by students who need to do a short paper, or prepare a persuasive or informative speech, or who just are at a loss for an idea. Here are some of our favorites:

10,000 Ideas for Term Papers, Projects, Reports and Speeches (ref LB 1047.3 .L35 1995, located at the Reference Desk)

Now in its 4th edition, this book has 10,000 choices for papers, etc. categorized by subject and designated with a degree of difficulty symbol and an indication concerning the availability of information needed to produce results successfully. Broad topic areas include disasters, film, interior design, oceans, women, etc.

The CQ Researcher

This resource provides weekly 20-page reports on a variety of hot topics, each of which includes full discussions of the issues, gives background information, presents a chronology of events leading to the present with a full description of the current situation, looks to the future, gives pro and con arguments on an aspect of the main issue, and presents sources and further bibliography. Recent topics have included scientific misconduct, Mexico's future, foster care, cloning, etc.

Issues and Controversies on File (ref E 838 I88, located on Index Table 3a)

This is a twice-a-month digest of controversial issues with news analysis and background information. Recent topics have included affirmative action, global warming, learning disabilities, child care, etc. Each topics is covered in about 10 pages.

Britannica Online

This is the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. When you were in high school, you probably relied on encyclopedias to help you find and select topics of interest for research papers. Now, with the online version, this task is quicker and simpler.

WISELY use an Internet Search Engine with an advanced search facility and follow these tips.

Learn how to use the advanced search facility of a major Internet search utility; for example, try Google - Advanced Search. Use this utility to:

  1. input a single or simple, broad search term
  2. limit your search to occurrences of your term in the title of the page
  3. limit the language to sites in English
  4. limit to only Internet domains in ".org" (for organization).

What you will get is a brief list of all English language, organizations having your topic in the title. If you browse these sites, you will find numerous issues and points-of-view which lend themselves to term paper topics. Often these sites will have extensive online bibliographies and internet links.

Organizations are good places to search for topics because these sites often support a specific point-of-view, and provide extensive educational material. These sites can be quite biased, so evaluate them carefully! But they are superb places to shop for ideas--especially ideas which wake up the mind, challenge the spirit and focus energy to prove or disprove what you read.

[EXAMPLE: if your search term was gorilla, and if you are using Google - Advanced Query, you would use the available pull down options to limit: 1) LANGUAGE: Return pages written in English; 2) OCCURRENCES: Return results where my terms occur in the title of the page; and 3) DOMAIN: Only return results from the site or domain org. Then click on the SEARCH button. In this fashion, you might find Gorilla Haven with its extensive educational material and lively presentation of issues effecting gorillas in captivity and in the wild.]

STEP 2: Define the Research Question

Once you have selected a topic, you must clearly define the research question. It helps if you actually state your topic idea as a question. For example:

If you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question,

RESEARCH QUESTION: "What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?"

Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question. In this case they are:

  • alcoholic beverages
  • health
  • college students

Finally, examine your keywords and think of alternative ways that you might approach the same concepts. Make a list of synonyms, include alternative (narrower and broader) terms which may help focus or define the topic.

  • alcoholic beverages -- OTHER TERMS: alcohol, drugs, alcoholism, beer
  • health -- OTHER TERMS: physiological effects
  • college students -- OTHER TERMS: university students, undergraduate students, fraternity and sorority students

Use these keywords and alternative terms as you search for research material in the Library's electronic databases, or in Internet search engines which you choose in Step 4, below.

STEP 3: Determine the Information Requirements

Ask yourself questions about what TYPE of research information you will need to deal adequately with your research question. Be sure you have a good idea about the answers to each of these questions before you begin your research. If you are not sure about any of these matters, you should discuss them with your professor, or with a reference librarian.

What information do you need about your topic: full-length book treatment, overview background articles from discipline-specific encyclopedias, narrowly focused academic research articles, general overview articles from major academic journals, popular news-magazine articles, statistical data in support of your topic, etc.?

Do you need material in alternative formats, like videos, art prints, annual reports, etc.?

How much information do you need to gather? Approximately how many articles and other supporting research materials do you feel it will be necessary to gather before you begin to read and then write your paper? Did the professor give you any guidance concerning how much research was expected? Did he or she indicate the number of references needed? Did he or she indicate that only "academic journals, scholarly journals, or peer-reviewed journals" would be accepted?

Are you writing a paper which will be read by the professor, or are you preparing a speech where audience reaction is significant? If a paper, is there an expected length, or a minimum number of pages?

Will your paper involve creating graphs, charts, tables or glossaries? Will you need to provide illustrations, maps or other forms of graphical presentation?

How current must your information be, e.g. no more than three years old, no more than 5 years old, no more than 6-months old, etc.?

STEP 4: Select Appropriate Research Tools

The Library has many categories of research tools that will help you locate information on your topic. The major research tools which you will be using in our Library include:


our OPAC online catalog,
one or more of our online or print subscription databases,
our online or print government depository resources,
academic knowledge resources available to you over the Internet,
our collection of reference resources (mostly in print, but increasing available over the Internet).

Selecting appropriate research tools can be the most difficult of the four research preparation steps. There are appropriate and inappropriate research tools for every topic and every combination of topic and research situation. It is easy to pick the wrong research tool and end up wasting valuable time! Asking a reference librarian for assistance at this step can be very useful, and save you a great deal of time in the long run.

If you are in the Library, or if you are at home and can easily telephone the Library Reference Desk (323-343-4927), we recommend that you ask a reference librarian for assistance in helping you select the best research tools for your topic and research situation.

However, if you cannot obtain the assistance of one of our reference librarians, or if you would like to locate appropriate research tools for yourself, here are some basic guidelines:

Use our Find articles and more... page if you want to find articles in online databases that lend themselves to your topic and particular research situation. If you have no idea which database to choose, we recommend that you begin by selecting an appropriate broad subject from the By Subject frame. A new page will appear showing all article databases that deal with that broad subject area. Choose and appropriate database by clicking on database names then reading and evaluating each descriptions.
Use our Library Catalog - Journals Search, if you need to determine whether the Library has a specific journal, magazine, or newspaper issue which you need. Typically, you have first found a citation for this periodical issue using one of the Library's journal article indexes. Library Catalog Journal Search will tell you if we have the periodical title available in print or full-text onliine format.
Use our Library Catalog - Basic Search, if you need to determine whether the Library has books available on your topic.
Use our Recommended Academic Web Sites page and our Web Search Engines page, if you would like to find Internet sites related to your topic.
Use our Other Research Tools page if your research topic requires that you find information outside normal book and journal article sources.

Remember that asking a reference librarian for assistance
at this difficult stage is often your BEST choice!




This guide was prepared jointly by Ken Ryan and Barbara Case.