Research needs and requirements vary with each assignment, project or paper. Although there is no single "right" way to conduct research, certain methods and skills can make your research efforts more efficient and effective.
If you have questions or can't find what you need, ask a librarian.
On this page
Suggestions for finding a topic
- Discuss your ideas with your course instructor.
- Discuss your ideas with a reference librarian.
- Look over the index and the article titles in a specialized encyclopedia that covers a relevant subject area or discipline.
Identifying a topic
State your topic idea as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about Title IX (Title Nine) and women athletes in college athletic programs, you might pose the question, "How did Title IX impact women athletes in college athletic programs?"
Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question. These are potential search terms. In this case they are "title ix," "women," "athletes," and "college athletic programs".
Testing the topic
Before you commit to a specific topic for your research, do a scan to make sure that your topic isn't completely covered in another paper; at the same time ensure that there is enough information available to complete the project. This can be particularly important if you are planning on using data in your research. If in doubt, ask your professor.
If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic. For example: "women and athletes and college and athletics".
Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic by using a more general term or terms in your search.
Finding background information
Once you have identified the main topic and keywords for your research, find one or more sources of background information to read. These sources will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic. They will give you an idea of how much and what kind of information is available on a given topic.
Encyclopedias and dictionaries: You can find subject-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries by using the Library Catalog or by asking a reference librarian. For authoritative information on your topic, you can also consult our list of Dictionaries and Encyclopedias online or our guide to online encyclopedias for the arts and humanities, the social sciences, and science and engineering.
Exploit bibliographies: Often there are scholarly articles that give an overview of research in specific fields (a review of the literature). The sources cited in the bibliography are good starting points for further research.
Look up these sources in the Library Catalog. Check the subject headings listed in the subject field of the online record for these books and journals. Then do subject searches using those subject headings to locate additional titles.
How do I find it?
Searching the Library Catalog
What if Cornell doesn't have it?
If Cornell does not own the item you need, you can:
- Request it from another library to be delivered to you via Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan.
- Request that the Library purchase a copy.
What is "Get it!"?
The Get it! Cornell link connects to the full-text of articles in places like Google Scholar or databases that only have article abstracts. (If you are off campus be sure to be logged in Kerberos with your NetID and password, or use PassKey.)
Sometimes a direct link to full-text is not available on the Get it! Cornell page. In those cases, click the links to search the Library Catalog by ISSN or ISBN (preferred) or by title and determine whether we own or have access to the item, either online through another source or in print (hardcopy).
If the Library does not own or have access to the item you need, use the link on the Get it! Cornell page to request it through Interlibrary Loan or Document Delivery.
When using a book, article, report, or Web site for your research, it is important to gauge how reliable the source is.
- Author or creator: What are the author's credentials (educational background, past writing, experience) in this area? Have you seen the author's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? Respected authors are cited frequently by other scholars. For this reason, always note names that appear in many different sources.
- Year of publication: Is the source current or out of date for your topic? Topic areas of continuing and rapid development, such as the sciences, demand more current information. Topics in the humanities often require material that was written many years ago.
- Edition: Is this a first edition? Later editions indicate a source has been revised and updated. Multiple printings or editions may indicate that the work has become a standard source in the area and is reliable.
- Publisher: Is it a university press or a large reputable publisher?
Intentions: Read the preface (book) or abstract (article) to determine the author's intentions. Scan the table of contents and the index to get a broad overview of the material covered. Note whether bibliographies are included.
Intended audience: What type of audience is the author addressing? Is this source too elementary, too technical, too advanced, or just right for your needs?
- Is the information fact, opinion, or propaganda? It is not always easy to separate fact from opinion.
- Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched, or is it questionable and unsupported by evidence?
- Is the author's point of view objective and impartial? Is the language free of emotion-rousing words or bias?
- Does the work update other sources, substantiate other materials you have read, or add new information? You should explore enough sources to obtain a variety of viewpoints.
- Is the material primary or secondary in nature? Primary sources are the raw material of the research process; secondary sources are based on primary sources.
Writing style: Is the publication organized logically? Are the main points clearly presented? Do you find the text easy to read? Is the author repetitive?
Evaluative reviews (books):
- Locate critical reviews of books in a reviewing source. See Book Reviews: A Finding Guide for more information. Is the book considered a valuable contribution to the field? Does the reviewer mention other books that might be better? If so, locate these sources.
- Do the various reviewers agree on the value or attributes of the book, or has it aroused controversy among the critics?
Evaluating Web resources
Occasionally, Web sites pretending to be objective have a hidden agenda and may be trying to persuade, promote, or sell something.
- What is the purpose or motive for the site? (e.g., educational, commercial, entertainment, promotional)
- Is the site trying to sell you something?
- How easy is it to differentiate advertisement from content?
- Based on your knowledge, is the information factual, opinion, propaganda, et cetera?
- Who is the intended audience, and how is this reflected in the organization and presentation of the site?
- Is the author identifiable? Look for links that say "Who We Are," "About This Site" or something similar.
- Is there contact information for the author? (e.g., e-mail address, mailing address, phone number)
- What is the author's background? (e.g., experience, credentials, occupation, whether he or she has written other publications on the topic)
- Does the author cite his or her sources?
- Is this site linked to often by other sites?
- Do links on this site lead to other reputable sites?
- Are there spelling errors or incorrect use of grammar?
- What domain does the site belong to? (e.g., .edu, .gov, .com, .net, .org)?
The dependability of a Web site is important if it is going to be cited as a source in other works or recommended for use by others.
- Do most of the links on the page work?
- From your evaluation of currency and authority, do you think the site will be there next time you visit it?
- When was site last updated or revised?
- How often is the site updated?
- Do the links on the site work?
- What information is included or omitted?
- Is the page completed or under construction?
- See also: University of California Berkeley's guide.
Distinguishing scholarly from non-scholarly periodicals (articles and papers):
Journals and magazines are important sources for up-to-date information in all disciplines. In this guide we have divided periodical literature into four categories:
- Substantive news or general interest
- Scholarly journals generally have a sober, serious look. They often contain many graphs and charts but few glossy pages or exciting pictures.
- Scholarly journals always cite their sources in the form of footnotes or bibliographies.
- Articles are written by a scholar or someone who has done research in the field.
- The language of scholarly journals is that of the discipline covered. It assumes some scholarly background on the part of the reader.
- The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation to make the information available to the rest of the scholarly world.
- Examples of scholarly journals: American Economic Review, Archives of Sexual Behavior, JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Modern Fiction Studies
Substantive news or general interest
- These periodicals may be quite attractive in appearance. Some are in newspaper format. Articles are often heavily illustrated and generally contain photographs.
- News and general interest periodicals sometimes cite sources, a scholar, or a freelance writer.
- The language of these publications is geared to any educated audience. There is no special training assumed, only interest and a certain level of intelligence.
- They are generally published by commercial enterprises or individuals, although some come from professional organizations.
- The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide general information to a broad audience of concerned citizens.
- Examples of substantive news or general-interest periodicals: The Economist, National Geographic, The New York Times, Scientific American
- Popular periodicals come in many formats, although they are often somewhat slick and attractive in appearance and have many graphics.
- These publications rarely, if ever, cite sources. Information published in such journals is often second- or third-hand, and the original source is sometimes obscured.
- Articles are usually very short, written in simple language, and designed to meet a minimal education level. There is generally little depth to the content of these articles.
- Articles are written by staff members or freelance writers.
- The main purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain the reader, sell products (their own or their advertisers'), and/or promote a viewpoint.
- Examples of popular periodicals: Ebony, Parents, People, Reader's Digest, Sports Illustrated, Time, Vogue
- Sensational periodicals come in a variety of styles but often use a newspaper format.
- The language is elementary and occasionally inflammatory or sensational. They assume a certain gullibility in their audience.
- The main purpose of sensational magazines seems to be to arouse curiosity and cater to popular superstitions. They often do so with flashy headlines designed to astonish (e.g., "Half-man Half-woman Makes Self Pregnant").
- Examples of sensational periodicals: The Globe, The National Enquirer, The Star, Weekly World News
When writing a research paper, it is important to cite the sources you used in a way such that a reader could find them.
These are the most common formats for citing sources. If you are unsure what style to use, ask your professor.