Things to think about as you approach a research project

I’ve been playing around with making a worksheet to use when I’m working with students who are just starting a research project. “Research” in this context refers to library research to find relevant articles, books, documents, etc, about a topic.

So here’s my first draft:

  1. What discipline or disciplines am I working in?

    Different disciplines have different ways of organizing and accessing their literature, knowing the discipline(s) that you’re working in will help you start in the right place. If you are working on a topic that spans disciplines, be sure to search in indexes and databases for both areas. You might also want to try a database that spans multiple disciplines.
    Tools: (Carleton link) Databases by Discipline

  2. What sources do I already have?

    Often students come to me with a topic that they found from an article or book that caught their attention. These are great tools for finding more sources as well as helping you frame the topic that you have. Take a look at the language used in any of your sources and see if you and use any terms for a search. Do your sources have a bibliography, or does it mention specific articles or books? Take a look at these as possible additional sources.

  3. What type of literature or information do I need?

    Like the question of which discipline you’re working on, this question can help guide you to the right places to search for what you need. Also think about who might collect or publish that information. If you need books, use the library catalog (at Carleton, the Bridge) or worldcat.org to find them. If you need data or statistics, is there an agency or organization that collects that?

  4. How and where will I search for the information I need?

    This will largely be dictated by your answers to those questions above. Will an open web search work? Will you use a disciplinary or interdisciplinary database? This is one of those areas where a librarian can be a huge help.

  5. How will I access the information that I find?

    Some databases will connect you directly to the full text of an article, some just to the bibliographic details. Carleton databases generally have a “Find It!” button which will point you to an article if the library subscribes to the journal. Will you have time to order books or articles that we don’t have through InterLibrary Loan (books generally take longer than articles to arrive)? Is the data you’re looking for freely available, or will you need to order it some way?

  6. What keywords or terms will I use to describe my topic?

    As you think about your topic, what terms best describe it? Authors often use different terms depending on the audience, so think about the audience that the information you need in intended for as you brainstorm your terms. Read through any sources you already have and pick out the terms that those authors have used. Look up those sources you have in a catalog or database and see what subject headings or descriptors are used to describe those sources.

  7. After running a few searches: What results am I getting?

    Are your searches generally turning up relevant results? Take a look at the best results and see if you can build off the terms and subject headings used for those. Does the search tool you’re using have a related items feature? They don’t always work, but they’re worth checking out.
    If you’re not getting good results, think about why the results aren’t good? Are the results too focused or narrow? Or are you getting too many results that don’t match your topic at all?
    Tip: Remember to mark or make notes of the results that are good, and the search terms that work, and the ones that don’t. No use reinventing the wheel, or trying to find that perfect article again if you go back to searching later.

  8. What refinements should I make to my search in light of those results?

    Based on the results you’re getting, you may want to add more terms to narrow the result set. Or if you’re not getting enough results, you could add more synonyms, or try searching for a broader topic. You may also try a different search tool.

  9. How will I use the results that I’ve found?

    What topics do you need to cover in your research? Do your results cover what you need?  Are you getting an appropriate range of information?

  10. What am I missing?

    This is both a question of what sources you may still need for your project, but also the question of whether you might be missing other relevant sources due to the terminology or the search tools you’re using. Do a few more searches. Maybe try a cited reference search.  Are your results recent enough?  Or only from the past couple of years?  Is that a problem?

Remember that research is not a linear process. This list is in something of an order, but it’s not meant to be taken literally as a strict procedure. It’s really a matter of trying some thing, evaluating and learning from the results, refining your strategy, trying something else, and exploring lots of possibilities. It should be a fun thing – finding new information and thinking about what that might mean for your topic and project.

Remember also that the librarians are here to help.

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One response to “Things to think about as you approach a research project

  1. Pingback: links for 2008-05-02 « El Weblog de Referencia en RCM

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