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ENGL 015: Rhetoric and Composition (Shaw)


It's easy to think of research as a linear process. A project is assigned. Sources are found. And something is written. But, as the photo below illustrates, the process is far more complicated. Research is an ongoing process of refinement. As you find sources you are learning, constantly formulating new ideas. This can be used to move from broad topics (e.g., coral bleaching) to focused questions (e.g., How will the frequency and intensity of coral bleaching increase as sea surface temperature increase as a result of climate change?). 

New ideas lead to new searches and new sources. And new sources lead to new ideas. All of this takes some time and effort, so plan accordingly.

graphic of the research process

Image by Sarah Crissinger


Scholarship is a conversation between scholars and scientists. As an inexperienced researcher, you may find it difficult to understand what's being said, let alone makes meaningful contributions to it.

Thus, finding reliable background information is an excellent place to start your research. It can help you:

  • Learn what questions have already been asked. Getting up to speed on the conversation can be daunting, so finding productive ways to enter it is an important step.
  • Discover the language experts use to talk about the subject.   Research within specific disciplines is often discussed using a specialized/technical language. You need to be aware of that language to efficiently and effectively search library resources.
  • Uncover key concepts, people, and/or events. If the investigation of one idea proves unproductive, these elements may provide you with additional avenues of inquiry.

Entries in the encyclopedias, like those listed below, can provide excellent overviews for most concepts. You will usually find references or suggested books and articles for further reading at the end of the articles.

If you’re stuck, it never hurts to check Wikipedia for inspiration. You may discover a ton of useful information. But it should never be used as a final source. Any information you find should be corroborated in other sources.


Many instructors require students to use scholarly (academic), peer-reviewed journal articles for college research papers. However, students often don’t know where to find these articles and aren’t even sure what a scholarly article looks like.

This chart outlines the differences between scholarly journals, trade publications, and popular magazines.

Below is the most commonly used database, but make sure to check the Subject Guide for your major (or intended major) to find the recommended databases for your field.