Library Research Process

A lot of students are uneasy about the library research process, not knowing how or where to start. This guide breaks the process into five easy steps: defining your topic, identifying resources on your topic, obtaining them, and most importantly, evaluating the resources you've found, and documenting your research.

Defining your topic

Maybe you have been assigned a topic by your professor, or you are hunting for a subject on your own. Once you have decided what you want to research, consider the following questions:

If you are unsure of your assignment, be sure to talk with your professor.
If you are unsure of how to start, it's a good idea to talk with a reference librarian.

Identifying resources on your topic

After you have defined your topic and considered the questions above, it's time to start looking for information and resources. Answers to the questions above will also help you choose appropriate research tools. For example:

If you need help identifying or using appropriate resources, please talk with a reference librarian.
If you have questions or just don't understand how to get started, don't hesitate to ask a reference librarian -- it's our job to help you!

Obtaining resources you've identified

For this step, you need to find out whether your library owns a copy of the item you need, or can help you get access to it. At ISU, the process here is simple:

If you have difficulties searching or finding your items in the Library Catalog, please consult with a reference librarian.
If your topic is very specific or your assignment detailed, it's a good idea to start your research as soon as possible. You will want to allow yourself more time, just in case.

Evaluating resources

Now that you've found your materials and information, how do you know or how can you tell whether it's really relevant or suitable for your research project? Sometimes, we have the tendency to want to use the first thing we find simply because it's the easiest and quickest thing to do. Sometimes we also have the tendency to believe anything we see in print. If you want to become a good researcher, or write successful papers, or simply get good (or better) grades, you need to resist these tendencies! Give yourself ample time for your research project, including not only time to find the information and write your paper, but also (and most importantly) the time to read through it and think.

Critical thinking is a necessary skill to develop as you read through all the information you've found on your topic. At its most basic level, "critical thinking" means that as you read, you review your materials by asking yourself questions such as where the information came from, who is the author or publisher, how recent is the material, is it authoritative or valid, and so on. Most research publications go through an external editing or peer review process that helps verify the authority and accuracy of the information presented. Reputable newspapers and magazines also check their facts, but you will also want to consider such issues as objectivity, currency of your information, and how thoroughly your topic is covered. The majority of Web resources lack this kind of peer review or even simple fact checking, which means that you, the user, must thoroughly evaluate anything you encounter on the Web before deciding whether you should use it in your research.

To learn all the steps of evaluation, consult the guide How to Critically Analyze Information Sources, written by several reference librarians from Cornell University. (And just fyi, at a more advanced level, critical thinking involves the intellectual evaluation of such things as how and why you have arrived at a certain opinion or conclusion, which is certainly useful during the thinking and writing stage of your research process, and during class discussions. Take a look at Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts, written by Peter A. Facione, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University, for an understandable and even fun introduction to the topic.) Also, the following links can help you evaluate not only Web resources but, in many cases, more traditional publications as well.

Documenting your research

You want to be careful to fully document or cite all the resources you use in your research, especially if you are quoting or otherwise using other people's work, ideas, or phrasing. Despite popular belief, this includes anything and everything you find on the Web. (Not citing the sources of your research, even materials from the Web, can be considered plagiarism, a serious form of academic dishonesty that could cause you to be put on probation or be suspended from the university.) Depending on the format of your assignment, you will probably compile a reference list, footnotes, a bibliography, or a combination of these. (This is another reason you will want to carefully document your research in progress -- if you forget to write down or print out the full citation for your source, you will need to retrace your steps in order to complete your bibliography, and this may not always be easy to do!) Style manuals available on the Web and accessible through the Library Catalog can help you develop a consistent format for your citations. Increasingly, style manuals include instructions on how to cite electronic and WWW resources.

If you have questions about finding or using appropriate style manuals, please talk with a reference librarian.
If you are unfamiliar with the definition of academic dishonesty and plagiarism at ISU, see the Student Information Handbook and the Judicial Affairs Administration All-University Judiciary pages from the ISU Dean of Students Office. See also ISU librarian Joyce Lindstrom's page on Copyright & Plagiarism.

Iowa State University
Last updated: 12 May 1999
Created: 09 January 1998