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Research Steps: An Introduction

Scope: This guide provides a basic overview of the library research process.

Table of Contents


Getting started

Research is not a simple linear process; it is a complex and challenging set of tasks. There is no one "right" way to conduct research, but using the methods outlined in this guide can make your efforts more efficient and effective.

Choosing and Developing a Topic

Take the time to understand your assignment. This may be more complicated than it seems. Read the assignment carefully as soon as you receive it so that you can budget your time effectively, and ask your instructor about anything that is unclear.

Choosing an appropriate topic to research is critical to success. Choose one that fits the assignment and that interests you. Do not choose a topic so recent or narrow that little information is available, or so broad that the amount of information available is overwhelming. Consult with your instructor about your topic before you begin your research.

Develop and focus your topic. Once you have an idea of what interests you as a topic, you will need to develop it into a manageable research question. For example, if your topic is, broadly, health care, what specifically do you want to research about health care? You may wish to create a working thesis that you will revisit as the paper develops. To do this, you may need to first read some background information.


Finding background information

You may not initially know a lot about the issues and debates that surround a topic. Reading background information will help you determine what some of those issues are and figure out whether your topic may be too broad or too narrow within the field. Preliminary research will also help you become more familiar with the terminology used to discuss your topic, which will be of use in identifying keywords to use when searching for journal articles and other information.

Specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias can be useful resources for background information. The introductory chapter of a book is another. Find books by searching WorldCat UMD.

  • Finding Specialized Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
    On the libraries' home page, do a search in the box under the "Get Started" tab, adding dictionary or encyclopedia along with your keywords. Examples:
  • Tip: Use a truncation symbol (*) to find variant endings for a word (e.g., dictionar* will find dictionary or dictionaries).
  • Tip: You can also use a general dictionary to help you get started. Go to the Libraries' online Reference Shelf for a list of links.

  • Finding books, articles, and other resources

    Think about the nature and extent of the information you will need to successfully complete your assignment. The resources below will help you identify books, articles, and other resources for your research. If you aren't sure which sources to use or how to find them, ask a University of Maryland librarian for assistance. The Research Guides by Subject Disciplines can also help you home in on the specific resources that are most important within your field of inquiry.

    Use WorldCat UMD to find books. Use WorldCat UMD to find books and other items the Libraries owns, such as nonprint media, government documents, technical reports, and periodical titles, as well as materials owned by libraries around the world to get an idea of the information available.

    Use Research Port to find articles. Research Port is your gateway to periodical articles, many available online in full text. Students, faculty, and staff can search databases and e-journals from on and off campus. Ready to get started? Go directly to Research Port or use the following guides to learn more:

    Search smart. Whatever your information needs, use keywords and other smart search strategies to locate sources efficiently and effectively.

    Consider other sources. Each discipline has its own unique resources to consider. For example, a research paper on a topic in engineering may require a search of patents and trademarks. Students in humanities may wish to consult book reviews. Use the Libraries' collection of Research Guides by Subject Disciplines for more suggestions.

    What if the University of Maryland doesn't have it? First, be sure that you understand how Find It [guide] works to be sure the Libraries don't own a copy. If the item you are looking for is not available on campus or through another USMAI library, you can also use Interlibrary Loan or suggest a title for purchase.


    Evaluating resources

    Take the time to critically evaluate the relevance and quality of the sources you find, considering factors like authority and accuracy, purpose, and currency. The following guides can help.


    Citing sources

    Acknowledging or citing other people's words and ideas indicates that you have conducted thorough background research on your topic and are operating from an informed perspective, increasing your credibility. Other people's ideas can also be used to reinforce your arguments, or as points to argue against. Finally, ideas are intellectual property and there are serious repercussions for failing to follow citing conventions.

    Academic honesty is taken very seriously at the University of Maryland. The consequences of committing plagiarism may include failure of the course or even dismissal from the university.

    Use these suggestions to avoid plagiarism:

    • Take complete, accurate notes about where you find ideas, quotations, etc. Write down the full citation for each source (including the name of the database where you found it, for journal articles).
    • Use quotation marks when using an author's exact words and cite the source of the quotation. Even if you paraphrase an author, you still need to give proper acknowledgement.
    • For longer research papers, consider using a bibliographic citation manager, specialized software to help you keep track of your research sources.
    • Use proper citation styles in the text of your paper and bibliography.

    These resources can help: