The Seven Steps of the Research Process

The following seven steps outline a simple and effective strategy for finding information for a research paper and documenting the sources you find. Depending on your topic and your familiarity with the library, you may need to rearrange or recycle these steps. Adapt this outline to your needs.


STEP 1: IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP YOUR TOPIC

STEP ONE: IDENTIFY A TOPIC.

State your topic idea as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, “What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?”

Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question. In this case they are alcoholic beverages, health, and college students.


STEP TWO: TEST YOUR TOPIC.

Test the main concepts or keywords in your topic by looking them up in the appropriate background sources or by using them as search terms in the Cornell Library Catalog and in periodical indexes.

  • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using the and operator: beer and health and college students, for example.
  • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic. For example, look for information on students, rather than college students. Link synonymous search terms with or: alcoholic beverages or beer or wine or liquor. Using truncation with search terms also broadens the search and increases the number of items you find.

SUMMARY: State your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about use of alcoholic beverages by college students, you might pose the question, “What effect does use of alcoholic beverages have on the health of college students?” Identify the main concepts or keywords in your question.


STEP 2: FIND BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Once you have identified the main topic and keywords for your research, find one or more sources of background information to read. These sources will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic. The most common background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries from the print and online reference collection. Class textbooks also provide background information.


USE ENCYCLOPEDIAS AND DICTIONARIES

Find encyclopedias and dictionaries for specific topics by using the Cornell Library Classic Catalog.


TIP: EXPLOIT BIBLIOGRAPHIES

  • Read the background information and note any useful sources (books, journals, magazines, etc.) listed in the bibliography at the end of the encyclopedia article or dictionary entry. The sources cited in the bibliography are good starting points for further research.
  • Look up these sources in our catalogs and periodical indexes. Check the subject headings listed in the subject field of the online record for these books and articles. Then do subject searches using those subject headings to locate additional titles.
  • Remember that many of the books and articles you find will themselves have bibliographies. Check these bibliographies for additional useful resources for your research.

By using this technique of routinely following up on sources cited in bibliographies, you can generate a surprisingly large number of books and articles on your topic in a relatively short time.


SUMMARY: Look up your keywords in the indexes to subject encyclopedias. Read articles in these encyclopedias to set the context for your research. Note any relevant items in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia articles. Additional background information may be found in your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings.


STEP 3: USE CATALOGS TO FIND BOOKS AND MEDIA

To find the locations and call numbers of over eight million books (as well as millions of video, audio, microform, map, serial, and rare titles) owned by the Cornell University Library, use the Cornell’s new catalog. The new catalog also searches the holdings of other libraries outside Cornell.


Library of Congress Call Numbers

We use Library of Congress call numbers to shelve our books and bound periodicals. For a brief introduction, ask at reference for our Library of Congress Classification handout or see this web site: Library of Congress Classification Outline.


SUMMARY: Use guided keyword searching to find materials by topic or subject. Print or write down the citation (author, title,etc.) and the location information (call number and library). Note the circulation status. When you pull the book from the shelf, scan the bibliography for additional sources. Watch for book-length bibliographies and annual reviews on your subject; they list citations to hundreds of books and articles in one subject area. Check the standard subject subheading “–BIBLIOGRAPHIES,” or titles beginning with Annual Review of… in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog.


STEP 4: USE INDEXES TO FIND PERIODICAL ARTICLES

SUMMARY: Use periodical indexes and abstracts to find citations to articles. The indexes and abstracts may be in print or computer-based formats or both. Choose the indexes and format best suited to your particular topic; ask at the reference desk if you need help figuring out which index and format will be best. You can find periodical articles by the article author, title, or keyword by using the periodical indexes in the Library home page. If the full text is not linked in the index you are using, write down the citation from the index and search for the title of the periodical in the Cornell Library Classic Catalog. The catalog lists the print, microform, and electronic versions of periodicals at Cornell.


STEP 5: FIND INTERNET RESOURCES

SUMMARY: Use search engines. Check to see if your class has a bibliography or research guide created by librarians.


STEP 6: EVALUATE WHAT YOU FIND

SUMMARY: See How to Critically Analyze Information Sources for suggestions on evaluating the authority and quality of the books and articles you located.
Watch on YouTube: Identifying scholarly journals; Identifying substantive news sources

If you have found too many or too few sources, you may need to narrow or broaden your topic. Check with a reference librarian or your instructor.


STEP 7: CITE WHAT YOU FIND USING A STANDARD FORMAT

Give credit where credit is due; cite your sources.

Citing or documenting the sources used in your research serves two purposes, it gives proper credit to the authors of the materials used, and it allows those who are reading your work to duplicate your research and locate the sources that you have listed as references. Knowingly representing the work of others as your own is plagiarism.


RESEARCH TIPS:

WORK FROM THE GENERAL TO THE SPECIFIC.
Find background information first, then use more specific and recent sources.

RECORD WHAT YOU FIND AND WHERE YOU FOUND IT.
Record the complete citation for each source you find; you may need it again later.

TRANSLATE YOUR TOPIC INTO THE SUBJECT LANGUAGE OF THE INDEXES AND CATALOGS YOU USE.
Check your topic words against a thesaurus or subject heading list.