Skip to main content

How to Start the Research Process

A guide for starting the research paper and project process.

The More You Know...

Once you have a topic and a research question, the next step is to find background research

Background research can take several forms. You might search Google, or read a few articles, or page through a chapter in a book. In all of these instances, you will be briefly surveying the existing information to learn about your topic.

This helps to:

  • Identify key concepts, important terminology, notable people, and big events related to the topic

  • Formulate more specific research questions to help narrow your topic

  • Choose keywords to use for deeper searching

  • Highlight potential references and resources to use as you go through your research process

  • Make sure that there is enough information available on your topic

  • Decide if you truly want to pursue your research

Wikipedia

Wikipedia can be a good starting point...

However, many professors and scholars do not recommend Wikipedia as a source of research because pages can be subject to errors and inconsistencies. In addition, some Wikipedia articles have been subject to vandalism, biased writing, and unsubstantiated claims.

Even if you cannot use Wikipedia as a source, it still has an important place in the pre-research process. When searching for background information, Wikipedia can be a good place to start. Understanding the background, history, and related terminology of a topic can help you discover scholarly and substantiated information from other sources like quality websites, books, or periodicals.

Besides giving an overview of a topic, Wikipedia is also a place to find leads to published materials and websites. For example, scroll to the end of many articles to find a list of Notes or References of sources used to write the article. Some of the sources may be hyperlinked, while others may just have the citation information. The Further Reading and External Links sections in Wikipedia may also have helpful leads to more information.

Google & Google Scholar

Google

A simple Google search can yield an enormous number of results worthy of consideration for background information. Many will provide basic overviews of a topic or discuss popular opinion on a current issue. Look for these types of sources in your results list:

  • Organizations' (.org) websites will often give basic overviews of issues and causes they represent. Look for official organizations, and be careful of bias found on some sites.
  • Government agencies (.gov) websites can offer overviews of topics that they are involved in
  • Educational sites (.edu), such as those sponsored by a college's department, will provide well-researched and documented information about an issue and may act as a directory to other quality sources. 

Keep in mind that information online can be inaccurate

You can use the CRAP test to evaluate a source based on the following criteria: 

Currency
  • How recent is the information?
  • How recently has the website been updated?
  • Is it current enough for your topic?
Reliability
  • What kind of information is included in the resource?
  • Is the content of the resource primarily opinion? Is it balanced?
  • Does the creator provide references or sources of data or quotations?
Authority
  • Who is the creator or author?
  • What are the credentials?
  • Who is the publisher or sponsor?
  • Are they reputable?
  • What is the publisher’s interest (if any) in this information?
  • Are there advertisements on the website?
Purpose/Point of View
  • Is this a fact or an opinion?
  • the creator/author trying to sell you something?
  • Is it biased? 

Google Scholar

Google Scholar can also be beneficial in finding scholarly articles. While there are may full-text articles available freely in Google Scholar, you may get prompted to pay for the full text of articles. In many cases, these are articles that you can freely access through the Library. 

If you are on campus: Google Scholar will recognize you as a STLCOP user, clicking on the Check for STLCOP Full-Text link should take you to the full text.

Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias provide an overview of topics. 

We have access to many encyclopedias including...

Books

Books can provide more in-depth information on your topic.

The Library has books on a wide variety of topics, so make sure to check our collection. For help locating books see our How to Find a Book guide. 


If you can't find a book in our collection, try searching MOBIUS.

MOBIUS is a large consortium of libraries. Books requested through MOBIUS usually arrive at the Library in two to three business days and can be checked out for four weeks.

You can find the MOBIUS catalog on the library homepage under Expand Your Search. Or, if you are already searching for a book in the STLCOP catalog, you can also click on the Search MOBIUS button at the top or bottom of the page.