What is Research (Best Tutorial 2019)

What Is Research

What Is Research? (Tutorial 2019)

What is research? These days “research” has become a part of our everyday life. For example, when you ask someone in business about a new product or a new service, he/she may reply, “let me research that for you.”


This tutorial explains What is Research and Research Methodology with the best examples. And also explains how to write your Research Project or paper in 2019.


As a consumer, you do research on a daily basis, whether it is the price of a car, which tablet device to purchase, or opportunities in the job market.

In these cases, research refers to gathering available information so that you may make informed choices. The use of the internet has made this practice so common and routine that even children search for toys on the internet and compare various gadgets they can find before asking their parents to buy them.


On other occasions, you may be asked to do “formal” research that involves more systematic and conscious processes of gathering information, careful evaluation of evidence, and a methodical synthesis of the information gathered.


Examples include doing research for term papers in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, writing a thesis to satisfy a requirement of a bachelor’s or master’s degree, or writing scholarly papers for publication or conference presentations.


Or at work, you may be asked for a market analysis or a needs assessment. The main difference between the casual everyday research you do as a consumer and the more formal research is the extent of the information to be considered and the methods to be employed in analyzing the information.


For the everyday research, you may look up a few pieces of information you can easily find on the internet or from a few people around you; but more formal research will require you to examine issues thoroughly and draw careful conclusions.


Formal research requires systematic methods of investigation and a critical analysis of evidence to discern credible and not-so-credible knowledge.


We will use the term “research” with specific meanings in this blog and we want to clarify it here. When we refer to “research,” it will involve:

1) questions that are academic in nature and advance a scientific understanding of human society or human behavior;

2) systematic and evaluative screening and collection of information on a topic; and 3) tasks of systematic and careful data analysis and report-writing.


It is the type of research that students conduct for educational purposes and to gain and produce knowledge in academic settings.


In this blog, we will focus on the following type of research:

  • Asking questions that are academic in nature and advance a scientific understanding of society and human behaviors;
  • Requiring systematic and evaluative screening and collection of information and deeply understand What Research Methodology is;
  • Involving systematic and careful data analysis and report-writing.


Today, there is a growing expectation for student research. Students like you are often trained and required, as part of the university curricula, to conduct research and write papers or Thesis that meet the professional standards of the discipline.


A good reason for this trend is that research skills are increasingly expected in the workplace worldwide.


Doing empirical research enables you to acquire many valuable skills. It requires you to raise appropriate questions; assess existing information; set goals and make plans to meet the goals; collect, analyze, and interpret data; and use data in a meaningful and appropriate way.


The process requires systematic project management skills to allocate time, resources, and handle unexpected problems. Your research experiences will provide you with rich, in-depth learning, which many of your future employers will highly value.


With advances in technology, you have greater access to the tools of field research and to a broader population whom you can engage in your research.


The continuing efforts of colleges and universities to establish networks with professional and local communities are increasing opportunities for your learning experiences in the real world.


What Type of Research Project Do You Have?

What Research Methodology

We have designed this blog to guide a journey of empirical research, mostly involving observations and analysis of empirical data. Empirical research is an effective way of doing research and it is widely employed by social scientists, especially in North America.


Empirical research is often based on the principle of positivism, or the pinning down of the social world into tangible data and reasoning with them to explain social phenomena.


But other empirical research is rooted in different traditions; for example, anthropologists often analyze their empirical data through interpretation of qualitative (narrative) data, instead of quantitative data.


Your particular research will be guided by requirements of different research methods, depending on the nature of your assignment/project; some will involve empirical research of various types, and others may be mostly based on bibliographical research. Though not an exhaustive list, some possible types of assignment you may have are the following:


Empirical Research Project with Original Data Collection

Empirical Research Project

Your project may require a collection of original empirical data. Empirical research projects can vary in their scope and magnitude. They range in lengths, from thirty-page journal article style papers to blog lengths projects such as doctoral dissertations.


Regardless of the scope and lengths, empirical research projects follow a similar process. There is a truly wide range of different kinds of the empirical research project as we will discuss in the blog.


They may use numerical data or text data. They may use large or small-sized samples. They may focus on one group or setting, or on the general population.


Regardless of the styles, a successful empirical project will depend on clearly defined topics or problems, thorough and careful reviews of the literature, well-planned research methods to ensure validity and reliability of the data, proper applications of analytic techniques, and careful interpretation of the results of the analysis.


Empirical Research Project with Secondary Data

Secondary Data


Everything mentioned above is also applicable to empirical research projects using secondary data, except that this latter use data already collected by someone else. Thus, your task will include locating and extracting the most suitable data sets for your project, instead of designing original sampling and data collection strategies.


Using secondary data has its advantages and disadvantages. When you use secondary data collected by government agencies or large institutes, you are likely to work with data obtained from large representative samples; this will increase your ability to generalize the findings from your study to a larger population.


One of the main disadvantages of using secondary data is that the variables in the data set may not be the perfect measures for the themes and concepts you wish to investigate.


Whether you can use secondary data for your project depends on the requirement of the assignment given to you. You should consult your project supervisor or faculty mentor before you make your decision.


Synthesized Literature Reviews or Review Essays

Literature Reviews


Some of you may work on an assignment based on bibliographical research without a requirement for empirical data collection. If it is the case, your assignment may be literature reviews. Many undergraduate course assignments are different versions of literature reviews.


Synthesized literature reviews provide a comprehensive and organized overview of the studies focusing on a topic area in social sciences. For this type of assignment, you need to identify the relevant literature, review the studies carefully, and produce a synthesized assessment of the field of study.


Successful execution of this type of assignment depends on 1) the quality of information search which successfully identifies the right range of relevant literature and produces a near-exhaustive list of the literature on the topic.


2) your ability to evaluate the studies’ validity, relevance, and significance in the subfield and 3) your ability to create an organized report, or synthesis which delineates agreements and contradictions, well-explored themes and overlooked ones, over-studied population, and under-studied ones, and tested and untested theories.


A good literature review project can also suggest research directions and questions explore further, based on the “gaps and voids” identified in the existing literature.


Theoretical Essays

Theoretical Essays

Theoretical essays are somewhat different from literature reviews, as they aim to do more than synthesize what is known but to extend theoretical ideas further. Theoretical projects are primarily based on bibliographical research, just like literature review assignments, but they will focus on theories and theoretical concepts in the literature.


For successful theoretical projects, you will not only need to have a comprehensive understanding of related theoretical traditions, but also be able to reflect and evaluate clarity and usefulness of theoretical concepts, the internal logic of theoretical claims, and the applicability of theory in light of social reality.


Theoretical essays typically do not require empirical data but they use examples from empirical reality or cite results from empirical studies to support and illustrate particular theoretical points.


Not only may your projects be of different kinds of assignments, but also they may ask fundamentally different kinds of questions. Today, social science research is guided by a multitude of different perspectives and philosophical traditions and increasingly becomes perse and inter-disciplinary.


This means that the research methods and the process of deciphering meanings and uncovering theories have become more malleable and creative. There is still a common emphasis on systematic exploration and investigation into the inquiry.


Consider the two major paradigms or perspectives below, which have influenced social sciences, and find out which approximately approach your own project ideas.


What Are the Procedures for Scientific Research?

 Scientific Research


The premise of social sciences is that a systematic investigation ensures our chance of obtaining accurate knowledge about social reality. Formal research using scientific methods usually follows common step-by-step procedures.


These procedures ensure high-quality research and valid and reliable findings. The flow chart below illustrates the common procedures of social science research.


The systematic research process begins with a carefully selected topic followed by a thorough and critical review of existing knowledge on the topic, a process we call “literature reviews.”


At the end of the literature review, you will be able to find a “niche” or some themes and questions about your topic that you feel you need to investigate further. These will become a set of specific hypoThesis or research questions for your study.


Then, you may design your research, a process which includes careful planning of the sample size and sampling methods, decisions on data collection methods (e.g., questionnaire surveys, experiments, in-depth interviews, or participant observations), construction of measures for the concepts, and ethical concerns for safeguarding your participants. You will then put all of these plans together into a research proposal.


If your research involves human subjects or animals, it should be approved by the committee in charge of reviewing research ethics. Of course, your research proposal should also be approved by the professor, tutor, or supervisor with whom you are working. You will then collect data according to your research design.


Will There Be Bends and Detours in the Research Process?

Research Process


Just like a real-life journey with roadblocks and traffic jams, you will encounter difficulties, problems with no clear answers, and changes and dead ends in your thinking.


You may begin with an idea but as you read and investigate more, you may find yourself steering toward new directions. Consider that there are many different alternative routes to reach a destination; some of the detours may actually bring you back to where you started!


Don’t feel defeated if this happens; we assure you that these are frequently and naturally occurring aspects of social science research. Remember that, even if you are at the starting point again, you now have many more insights which you gained during your detour. This is why people consider research as an “iterative,” or repeating, process.


It is also reflexive, as you will constantly make adjustments to your research plans in light of new issues you learn in the process of research. 


How to Embark on Your Research Journey

Research Journey

When you engage in a research project, you set out to explore a curious social phenomenon, start getting information to answer the questions you have or verify a theory that you have learned. Here we compare research on a journey; it is a path to the unknown and an exciting process of discovery.


Like a journey, you will need some background information to decide on a destination (i.e., select a topic), prepare a roadmap and a plan (i.e., write a proposal of your research designs), and make observations during your journey (i.e., collect data).


You are likely to have some type of log or chronicle when you travel, such as photographing, blogging, or writing in a journal, and in the end, you will probably want to share with other people what you discover and experience.


Likewise, you may write research journals to keep records of your study, and are most likely to write a report at the end of your research to share your findings with other students, colleagues, or your faculty mentors. Just as you need to pack your suitcases for a journey, there are a few things you may want to have before embarking on a research journey.




Research starts with a desire to learn about something new or to better understand a complicated problem or social issue. Your research will typically start with a question or set of questions. 


Questions in social sciences frequently involve the causes and consequences of a social issue or a pattern of human behavior.


For example, what causes some students to drop out of high school? What programs are effective in helping children eat more fruits and vegetables?


Why does random violence occur? What factors allow some people to feel happier than others? How can we better counsel people with suicidal thoughts? How can we bring clean water into remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa?


Are there effects of the “digital” gap between children of higher-income families and lower-income families? What programs will help girls to stay in school in rural areas of Pakistan? Why are public opinions on the death penalty different in different countries?


Questions like these are rooted in your interests in patterns of human behavior, social phenomena, and the relationship between different aspects of society.


Other questions concern ways to improve people’s experiences or the effectiveness of social programs and institutions. Other times, you may be curious about new patterns of activities and trends in society.


All these issues are fine research topicsAn inquisitive mind and an interest in exploring the unknown are probably what will trigger your research. Your personal interests and passion for a question is a very important prerequisite for the research journey.


Keep in mind research requires constant questioning and probing along the way. Curiosity is something you will carry with you throughout your research journey.


Research Skills

Research Skills

We assume that you have already received some training in social science research skills and have learned the procedures for conducting research, including reviewing the literature, constructing research questions or hypoThesis, designing ethical and methodical research plans, collecting and analyzing data.


You may have taken research methods or data analysis courses but may have forgotten some of what you learned. You will need to dust off your knowledge and research skills and be ready to apply them to a real-life research setting.


In this blog, we want to refresh your memory on the research methods and help you further to navigate the process of research and resolve the practical problems you may encounter.


If you extend the metaphor of journey and think of the typical research methods and data analysis books as more comprehensive series on the different methods and destinations of world travels, this blog will serve as your on-the-spot guide blog.


Like a travel guide that follows the different steps of your journey – how to get from the airport to downtown, which hotels are in your price range, or what sights are must-sees.


This blog will provide you with help when you come to a difficult point of your research journey or when you are likely to get lost. We hope that you will find in this blog some specific information on practical problems, which you may not find in general methods and data analysis texts.


Since there are some basic terms we need to use throughout this research guide, we summarized below a few “must-know” terms in social science research.


Basic Terms in Social Science Research

Here are some basic research terms which will be used throughout the blog. These terms are explained in greater detail in the blogs in which they are discussed:



It refers to logical groupings of attributes. A quality or characteristic that varies across different cases. For example, suppose your research question is whether getting enough sleep affects academic performance/grades of teenagers. In this case, sleep hours per night, and academic performance are both variables.



A testable expectation, or a prediction, about a relationship between two variables. The prediction is usually based on a theory. For example, a hypothesis for the above research question could be: Insufficient sleep time negatively affects the academic performance of teenagers.


Independent variable:

The cause in a predicted relationship between two variables. The variable that is logically prior to, and is expected to lead to a variation in the other variable in an expected relationship between two variables. In the above example, the independent variable is “sleep hours per night.”


Dependent variable:

The outcome or effect in a predicted relationship between two variables. The variable that is expected to be affected by the other variable in a paired relationship. In the above example, the dependent variable is “academic performance.”



The process whereby vague or imprecise ideas or notions develop into the specific and precise concept. For example, your observations of treating people of other races differently or inappropriately gradually develop into the concept of “racial discrimination.”



The identification of observable and measurable indicators that can be used in empirical research to measure abstract concepts. For example, you may ask and use the information about students’ church attendance and their participation in church-related activities to measure the concept, “religiosity.”



The specific observations that reflect an abstract concept or questions to be asked in order to observe and record an abstract concept. For example, you may ask students’ grade point average, class attendance, and time spent on a study to measure their academic performance.



The extent to which a measure accurately measures what it is intended to measure, or the extent to which findings of research reflect the social reality it intends to describe. For example, students’ grade point average (GPA) is a more valid measurement of their academic achievement than students’ study hours.



Whether or not repeated use of a measure yields consistent outcomes. The degree to which you can trust that a measure will produce consistent answers or scores each time.


Levels of measurement:

Different types of mathematical qualities of measures. Depending on whether the measure has only qualitative values or highly quantitative values, nominal level, ordinal level, interval level, and ratio level are differentiated.


Unit of analysis:

The units that are the focus of your research. This could be inpiduals, schools, business organizations, paragraphs in text, stories, blog entries, cities, countries, and so on.


Data analysis:

Systematic summary and examination of collected data in order to draw valid and reliable conclusions from the empirical research.

Topic Selection


Where Can You Start to Find a Good Topic?

Good Topic


What is a good topic? The most obvious answer is that it is a topic you are interested in. What social issues or phenomena are you interested in? For what social problems you would like to find solutions?


What kinds of a news story in the media tend to grab your attention the most? As you read this, we invite you to stop for a moment and list any topics, social issues, or problems that you want to learn more about. Are you concerned about health issues? Have you always been interested in children’s behaviors?


Or, are you curious about issues in the workplace? Chances are you will have some themes or questions you want to know more about, but the ideas may be somewhat unclear.


A lack of clarity is normal at the beginning of your research. Your task is to crystallize and clarify your ideas and narrow them down to a manageable research topic. Any of these issues or problems you are interested in can be developed into your research topic.


If you have no idea what you are interested in at this time or have a few vague ideas but do not know exactly how to formulate them into more specific research questions, you can do some of the following. These are some initial resources for inspiration.


Talking to People

It is rare that you have absolutely no idea what your interests are. Often you have some ideas about a possible topic, but have difficulty elaborating what exactly you have in mind. If this is the case, talking to your project supervisor, teachers, classmates, or other professionals in the field may help you clarify your ideas.


You may think about developing an idea from your direct observations of a community for a day, or talking to someone in your community. Such a dialogue will provide you with additional insights and resources and raise specific questions about your ideas and press you to clarify your initial thoughts.


Searching the Internet

Searching the Internet

This is probably what most of you are doing already. Internet search engines have become handy and useful tools for screening the vast landscape of potential topics.


The advantage of an internet search is that it is very quick and that it delivers to you a large amount and a wide variety of information, from media coverage, scholarly sources, images, and statistical information on a topic.


You will probably be able to learn how much knowledge is already out there on the topic you searched, and begin to ask about what you want to know even more.


In fact, the internet search could be a Litmus test for your interest; ask yourself what becomes easiest and most fun for you to gather and remember information about. What links do you tend to “click on” to dig deeper?


Or, you may even look at your search histories to find out what topics you have been following, even without realizing yourself. These could be clues for your curiosity and passion. While you should carefully evaluate the information on the internet, you may find the internet helpful in inspiring informed curiosity on a topic.


Browsing Reference books, Statistics, and Other Library Resources

Reference books

While it is more traditional methods with admittedly fading popularity among today’s students, references inbound blog format can still be useful sources for inspiration. They lack the speed and the convenience of the internet search, but they allow you to make easy side-by-side comparisons for several topics in the same volume.


If you happen to be in a library, look up some subject area encyclopedias in the references section (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Social Work, Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology, Encyclopedia of School Psychology, and Encyclopedia of Social Problems). Encyclopedias provide you with quick overviews and initial resources for a wide range of topics.


If you are interested in social issues, the recent Annual Editions: Sociology is a good series of books to search for research topics on current social issues.


Topics discussed with a different perspective in this publication include culture, social control, racial relations, social inequality, social institutions, social change, and globalization. Such current and annual publications are also available in anthropology, psychology, criminal justice, and other social science disciplines.


Another type of reference blog that may inspire you is a statistical abstract. As you look through statistics on different issues, you may develop questions about why certain things occur more frequently in certain areas or among certain groups. Most of these statistics are now available online.


Statistics available online such as census data summaries, United Nations reports, and various research institutes’ online resources can also be good sources of inspiration. Many countries conduct routine omnibus surveys on demographic characteristics, behaviors, and social attitudes using large representative samples.


For example, British Social Attitudes Survey, European Social Survey, and General Social Survey in the U.S., all collect statistics on hundreds of different variables, including demographic characteristics, family patterns, opinions on controversial political issues and social inequality. There are interesting statistics which are likely to spark some curiosity in you.


Reading Some Scholarly Journal Articles

Scholarly Journal Articles

You may also want to search for scholarly journal articles on the topic area you are curious about. You will gain knowledge about the topic and see the sorts of research questions scholars ask.


Journal articles offer good models of appropriate research questions. Their literature review sections usually give you an overview of the current debates on the topic. Another source of inspiration within journal articles is the theories cited.


Theories are statements of the relationship between different concepts, and you can design a study to test whether the hypoThesis derived from theories are supported by data in reality.


Furthermore, in the conclusions section, journal articles typically include suggestions or directions for future study. Such suggestions or directions may provide you with a research question that you will explore. University libraries typically have bound collections of journals and subscriptions of many journals published online.


Reading Current Events and Recent Policy Debates

 Policy Debates


Society itself is a rich repository of social science topics, whether they are heated policy debates on the economy, the healthcare system, adolescent depression, or a recurring social problem such as random violence, unemployment, drug trafficking, or alcoholism.


What is happening in your country or around the world today may serve as a good step toward finding a research topic.


If there is a topic in the news that you want to learn more about, read through recent media coverage, government reports, and scholarly literature on the issue. As you gain additional knowledge, your interest is likely to be further sparked, and your questions will become clearer and more specific.


In short, two things are most helpful in furthering your thoughts on a topic: gaining other people’s perspectives through discussions or interviews, and obtaining more in-depth knowledge and information on a topic.


These practices help to kindle new interests, clarify vague ideas, and narrow down a general theme into specific research topics. When you consult other people on your research topic, you need to remember that it is your interests in the topic that matter the most.


Seeking feedback from your supervisor, teachers, and fellow students is a great idea. Such a dialogue, however, also has its pitfalls, if you passively follow them without ideas of your own. As you listen to others’ suggestions and advice, you may be led to areas or topics with which you are unfamiliar or not prepared to research.


Therefore, you should take advice with some caution. The people you talk to may not know your interests, readiness to write on a suggested topic, career plans, or the feasibility of investigating a topic. Ultimately, you will have to decide whether the topic your professors or fellow students suggest is suitable.


How Can You Narrow Down Your Topic?


Whatever topic you select, it should be appropriately defined according to the requirements of the research project. You should define it specifically enough to conduct focused research but general enough to write as much as required.


The most common problem with student research topics is that they are either too broad or too narrowly defined. On the one hand, you may select a grand topic which may be more appropriate for a blog project. In fact, many students have a tendency to do so.


When you select a topic which is so broad that you can write almost anything about it, you will end up writing only general and superficial overviews. You can discuss many aspects of the selected topic, but none is likely to reach an in-depth understanding leading to more interesting discoveries.


For example, if you select “juvenile delinquency” as your research topic, you can immediately notice that it is too broad to be a topic for a research paper. There are a number of different focal points you can consider:


The possible causes of youth crime, the effects of delinquent behaviors on their life chances, handling of youth crime in the juvenile courts, class and race inequalities and the juvenile justice system, and so on. Notice that each of these issues could be a topic for a paper.


Without a clearly defined focus, you may touch upon the surface of a variety of issues without actually writing anything meaningful about them. Covering every aspect of a very broad issue like this would consume all your efforts and afford little time to complete the work. Eventually, you will have to scale down your research so that it can be done within a limited time frame.


What steps can you take to scale down the scope of your topic? If you are interested in juvenile delinquency, you may limit your research to its causes, its consequences, or an aspect of juvenile delinquency such as property damages, disorderly conducts, gang activities, or drug use.


You can also limit your research to a type of deviant behavior, or narrow the investigation to particular factors; for example, the effects of the family relations and adolescent drug use, or the relationship between delinquent behaviors and school performance.


Even more specifically, you may focus on how family support, communication, and conflict affect juveniles’ cocaine and tobacco use. You can also choose to focus on a specific group of people, a specific geographic area, or a specific time period, as a way to zoom in to a narrower topic area.


For example, you may focus your research on family and delinquent behaviors among minority youth, in rural areas, or during the 1990s.


Having a “just right” topic shapes the whole research journey. Johnson and his colleagues (1998) describe this succinctly:


The task of narrowing your topic offers you a tremendous opportunity to establish a measure of control over the writing project. It is up to you to hone your topic to just the right shape and size to suit both your own interests and the requirements of the assignment.


Do a good job of it, and you will go a long way toward guaranteeing yourself sufficient motivation and confidence for the tasks ahead of you. Do it wrong, and somewhere along the way you may find yourself directionless and out of energy.


On the other hand, your research topic should not be too narrow, either. Though less common, sometimes students define their research topic so narrowly that they have difficulty finding information sufficient enough to write a paper.


For example, writing 30 pages on “the relationship between gender and cocaine use among university students in Canada” for a class project could prove difficult.


The independent variable, gender has two variations, male and female. The dependent variable, cocaine use, is not a very popular substance among students. Therefore, it may not be easy for a student to find much information on this research topic to write a 30-page paper.


If a student came up with an idea like this, we would probably advise the student to include other factors such as race and ethnicity and family income, in addition to gender.


Including more variables will broaden the scope of the project. If the data are still insufficient for a 30-page paper, the student can also change the dependent variable into a broader concept, “substance use,” to include alcohol, marijuana, and LSD.


By broadening the topic from “the relationship between gender and cocaine use” into “the relationships between race/ethnicity, gender, family income, and substance use,” the student will be able to study more variables and write a more extensive paper on the topic.


But, how broad or focused your topic should be is a question that also depends on whether you are planning a qualitative or a quantitative study.


For instance, “how do university students use smartphones?” may be a somewhat broad topic for a statistical analysis and you may need to further define exactly what factors you want to investigate about smartphone related habits of university students.


However, if you plan to conduct an ethnographic study at a university by following closely a group of students in their behaviors using mobile phones in different aspects of their lives, this question may not be too broad.


The research process, in general, involves narrowing down to get to more specific issues or problems. This process of “zooming into” a focal area of study may occur earlier or later in the research process.


By and large, quantitative studies require clarification process early on, as you need to construct specific hypoThesis and determine measurements for the concepts even before you begin your data collection.


On the other hand, more inductive and qualitative studies do not require a very specific set of questions at the beginning. Rather, they start with somewhat broader questions to collect a wide range of data in the natural settings of social life; thematic focus tends to emerge during the analysis process, as you will try to make sense of the data collected without pre-set assumptions.


The bottom line is that how you define your topic depends on the objectives of your research, the requirements for your project, and how much you are going to write about for your research project.


A rule of thumb is that the topic should be narrow enough for you to investigate within the given time (e.g., a semester, or a year), and broad enough to write a paper that meets the requirement of your professors or supervisors. 


Ways to Narrow Down a Topic Idea

Topic Idea

You can also consider the following suggestions made by Neuman (2011) to develop and narrow down your research topic:

  • a. Replicate a previous research project exactly or with slight variations.
  • b. Explore unexpected findings discovered in previous research.
  • c. Follow the suggestions an author gives for future research at the end of an article.
  • d. Extend an existing explanation or theory to a new topic or setting.
  • e. Challenge findings or attempt to refute a relationship.
  • f. Specify the intervening process and consider linking relations.


What Topic Is Appropriate for Your Research?

Selecting a research topic that you can handle and will be excited about is probably the most important step in the research process. Therefore, you should spend sufficient time collecting background information, discussing your ideas with others, and writing down your thoughts.


If you do not think carefully, you may select a topic that you later discover is not really appropriate. While there are many good social science research topics, not all topics are necessarily right for you. What topics will you find appropriate? Consider the following factors.


A Topic Which You Are Excited About

selecting your research topic

In selecting your research topic, you should “Let your curiosity be your guide”. If you are interested in a topic and desire to understand it in its different aspects, it will be worth pursuing.


In selecting your topic, you may simply jot down all the issues or topics in which you are interested; then take another look at the list. Are there recurring themes? Does your list relate to a social problem you feel passionate about or something which has affected your life experience?


Is there something you learned recently in a class that sparked your curiosity? When you are excited about a topic, you are likely to be motivated, and your writing can be joyful.


Therefore, your research will become something you enjoy doing, not something you have to do. When you enjoy doing something, you will do a better job.


Sometimes, when students are working against a semester timeline, some students choose at the last minute a topic someone else suggests. Be careful.


A haphazard decision on a topic can turn your whole research journey into a burden; you have to complete your research and hand in your paper on time, but you may not engage at all what you are studying.


In such circumstances, you are less likely to do excellent research and write a quality paper. Instead of feeling energetic and rewarded, you may feel bored. This sounds like a cliché but it is a time-honored truth; a good topic is a topic you are strongly interested in.


A Topic for Which You Are Prepared

conduct a research project

In general, a topic you are interested in is likely to be one you already know something about; a thirst for new knowledge usually starts from some background knowledge. If you select a topic you are familiar with from coursework or have already read about, you will have a strong start.


For example, if you have taken psychology classes and want to conduct a research project on bullying and schoolyard violence, focus on the psychological aspects of juvenile violence.


Your interest and knowledge of psychology will motivate you to do a better job. Similarly, if you major in sociology, you may have advantages of researching socioeconomic issues or the institutional contexts of schoolyard violence.


If you have taken a class related to your topic, the course textbooks should have provided you with a comprehensive overview and a list of suggested readings.


Since textbooks give extensive reviews of the themes and relevant studies, they will take you to a good starting point. If you have worked on the topic before, it is always easier to build on your previous research than to start from scratch. Research that draws on what you already know is more likely to be high-quality research.


If you select a topic that you have never covered in class or have never read much about, then it is a topic you are not really prepared to research. In such a case, you will have to make up for your lack of knowledge by investing more time in the most basic information. You may find that you cannot afford to do your research given the resources and time you have.


Each paragraph or each page requires research or reading. If you press on, you may find that more time is needed and your deadline is drawing near. In this case, you may eventually have to hand in a paper that does not satisfy you.


Taking up an unfamiliar research topic offers an opportunity to explore a new area, which is great. But be prepared to spend a lot of time on it. Keep in mind that you can go much further if you tackle a topic for which you have already been prepared.


A Topic Related to Your Experience or Employment

research and writing

When you select a topic related to past experience, your research and writing will be interesting not only to you but also to your readers because your past experiences make you better informed. For example, if you happen to have spent some time with troubled children, your past observations of these children may give you insights often unknown to outsiders.


If you have volunteer work to help homeless people, your firsthand experience or observations may help you ask more meaningful questions about homelessness. If you have worked as an intern in an elected official’s office, your experience will give you strong background knowledge of politics in your community.


If you have participated in activism or in a social movement, such as anti-racism activism, or advocacy movement for refugees, you may find your network and connections useful for your research.


You should take advantage of your personal experiences and insider knowledge with a caveat. Social research requires you to reject biases and to make objective conclusions based on evidence. You should be aware that using personal experiences as an inspiration for research may also let your personal biases influence your perspectives on a topic.


As you formulate a research project on a familiar topic, ask yourself if your understanding has been unnecessarily affected by your inpidual experiences.


Once you choose a topic, you should try to rely on published research findings to inform you about the topic rather than rely on “instincts” from firsthand experiences. Published research helps you overcome your personal biases and develop an understanding based on evidence and data.


There are advantages to pursuing a research topic related to your current employment if it provides an opportunity to collect primary data. Your work organization can be a site for your research, which can improve your understanding of your work and the functioning of your organization.


In such cases, you may need permission and cooperation from people in authority positions in your organization before starting your field research.


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Is your Research Project feasible

Research Project

Is your research project feasible? Can you answer the following questions with a “yes”? If not, you may have to modify your topic or even consider a different topic.

  • Do I have access to the study population?
  • Can I draw a robust sample of this population given my network and geographical mobility?
  • Can I complete my research within the given time frame?
  • Do I have the financial resources to carry out the field research necessary to answer my research questions?
  • Do I have sufficient research skills and knowledge to complete this project?


A Topic You Can Build Upon

If you have not done much research on a topic but have plans for future research related to it, it may be worthwhile doing it.


For example, you may want to continue your education with graduate programs and pursue postgraduate studies in this topic area. Then, your current research will lay the foundation for your future academic pursuits or develop into your future thesis or dissertation.


In this way, choosing a topic that you can build upon can work for you. Since your current research may also contribute to your future research, you may be more motivated in your current research.


A Topic with a Broader Audience


Your topic should have social, practical, and academic value. Some topics are interesting to only a small number of people and have limited values.


If you are an undergraduate student using this blog to guide your term paper or your undergraduate thesis, you probably have not thought about the use of your paper beyond the submission to satisfy the required assignment.


Still, it is advisable for you to select a topic which can be of intellectual value to scholars and students. What we mean by this is that you should work on a topic which has not been studied very often or on a newer aspect of a topic.


If you choose a topic which has great social value, or a topic which has great practical values to the society, you may stay more engaged with your topic.


Research on an understudied population, on a new phenomenon, and on an issue of great policy relevance is likely to generate interests among those who read your report. Projects using innovative methods or robust data set have a greater potential to be presented to and welcomed by a larger academic audience.


A Topic Similar to Your Professor or Supervisor’s Research

If your research topic is closely related to or similar to your professor’s or project supervisor’s research, he or she can give you substantial help. Generally speaking, professors have great interest and expertise in their research fields. Sometimes, you may be able to use data collected by your professor.


Because your professor has more experience doing research and better resources than you do, his or her data may have better quality than the data you can collect. Usually, your professor will be happy to use his or her expertise to help you with your research.


How Do You Know the Topic You Selected Is a “Good Topic”?

thesis topic

Once you have selected your topic, do not fall in love with it quite yet. Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your topic:

  • 1.  Am I really interested in the topic?
  • 2. Am I familiar with the topic? If not, am I prepared to do extra research on it?
  • 3. Is there adequate information available to me to research this topic?
  • 4. Will I have access to my study population? Can I get permission to conduct this research?
  • 5. Does this topic offer future opportunities for research?
  • 6. Do I have personal experience related to this research topic?
  • 7. Will my future employment benefit from this research?
  • 8. Are there professors or tutors in my department who have expertise in this area? Will they be able to help me?
  • 9. Is my research topic not too broad and not too narrow?
  • 10.  Will this research topic be valuable to society? And finally,
  • 11. Is it feasible to do research on this topic within my time frame and with available resources?


If most of your answers to these questions are positive, you probably have selected a good research topic and are ready to move on. Otherwise, you may need to revise or find a different topic.


Can You Change Your Topic?

 literature review

Although you have thought carefully about your topic, you may still want to change it after you have started writing your research proposal or reviewed more literature.


Your literature review or actual research may allow you to see some aspects of the issue that you did not see before. This is unavoidable even among experienced researchers. In fact, some students change their topics more than once.


If you feel that you cannot complete your research with the topic you selected, either because you have no access to the study population or your literature review makes you feel another topic is much more appropriate, you should change it as early as possible.


Before you change your topic, however, you need to make sure that the new topic is really a better choice than the old one.


If both are equally interesting to you, why change your topic? If you change your topic more than once, completing your research within the limited time frame may not be easy. When you feel that you want to change your topic, you should consult your project supervisor or your professor.


Internet Search

Internet Search

The internet is arguably the first place we go to find information these days. Most of us search the internet to read stories we are interested in, to follow current issues or debates, and to learn new things. In fact, which website links we tend to “click” on may be an indication of what we are interested in.


An Internet search can also inspire new topic ideas and questions. Therefore, we suggest you brainstorm using the internet with a few potential topic ideas.


Have a list of two or three topic ideas you may have. Using the internet search engine you use the most, type in a topic; this could be a simple word, a string of words, or a question. As you already know, trying a few different words gives you an idea about what terms might lead you to the best results.


Browse the websites and the information which turns up on the search. There could be various types of information, including statistics, popular media stories, bookseller websites, teaching materials posted on university web pages, government documents, and books by inpiduals and non-profit organizations.


Follow your interests and explore the various links as your intuitive interests guide you. Take notes as needed.


Do this for the list of two to three topic ideas you may have. After gaining more information on each of these from the internet, ask yourself which of the initial topics has made you feel most engaged, or which one you have had the most fun with. Do you think you can develop this as a research topic?


Try to construct some specific questions about this topic, which will be appropriate in your academic discipline.


Sociological Autobiography

In social sciences, students often find their own life to be rich sources for research ideas. Writing helps identify research themes in personal experiences.


In writing an autobiographical essay, you will try to exercise what American sociologist C. W. Mills called “the sociological imagination,” (1959) which is a practice of connecting “personal troubles” to “public issues” in society.




Think about a major event or aspect of your life that has shaped who you are: for example, immigration, economic hardship, victimization by violence, health issues, parental unemployment, friendship with a person from another culture, interracial dating, travel to a different country, religious life, work, or volunteer experiences.


First, write freely about what you remember from the experience. This writing is not for evaluation, so do not worry about writing a well-structured essay. You may just pour out whatever comes to mind. Do it over a few days.


When you feel ready, read your unstructured essay and try to relate your personal experiences to the issues in the larger society. Ask yourself:


Was my experience or thought something others also experienced at the time?

Was it a general pattern among certain segments of the population (e.g., young people, women, new immigrants, lower socioeconomic classes, or minorities)? Who were they?


Were my experiences affected by larger/broader societal events (e.g., economic changes, political changes, etc.)? Were they considered as social problems at the time?


Were my experiences a part of a generational experience?

Who else might have had similar experiences? Would someone else have had similar experiences but found their life affected differently? Why were we affected differently?


Is there a theoretical concept that captures what I experienced?

theoretical concept


The idea here is to extract from your personal life stories some commonly shared experiences which can be the subject of a social science inquiry. Try to identify concepts/theories in your discipline that explain how these experiences unfolded. Alternatively, you can look for connections between your life experiences and social issues.


Write notes on all of these connections. Are there questions that can be answered with empirical research? Based on what you have written, formulate a few questions you can investigate through research.


Community Observations

Community Observations

Have you ever wondered how communities change after a flood, hurricane, massive fire, or another natural disaster? Has your community/town faced recent controversies over an ordinance, a health hazard, or a budget issue?


Free-writing can be combined with community observation to identify research topics. With some “legwork” you can conduct this exercise in your city/town/community, workplace, university, or the place you volunteer or worship.


You should do a quick informal investigation of the demographics of the community using the internet (e.g., your country’s census data, Google search), or read about the history of these places. If this is an organization, look up its website and its history and missions typically under the “About Us” menu.


A perusal of community sources – websites, local archives, books, newspaper stories, or town newsletters – may reveal recent debates or particular issues/social problems that have attracted media attention. Are there issues related to interpersonal relationships, education, politics, culture, the natural environment, social inequalities or persity in your community?


How are they manifested? What evidence did you find? Is there an issue unique to your community or is it part of a broader pattern in the society? This informal research may raise a set of questions about a community or organization and inspire you to look deeper into any number of social processes. Write a list of questions that come to mind.


Sometimes just sitting down in a public place (e.g., a park, busy thoroughfare, town hall, or a town court) for an hour or two may allow you to discover something interesting about your community.


Who occupies this public space (e.g., what social groups)? What are they doing? How do they interact with one another? Why do they act in particular ways? Do your observations inspire you of any questions you would like to investigate?


Pilot Interviews

Pilot Interviews

You may be interested in a particular group of people, but are unsure if you can do research on them or what research questions to ask.


For example, you may wonder, “I don’t know exactly what, but I would like to study something about how police officers feel about controlling protests when they agree with the protesters” or “I want to know something about couples living together for a long time with no intention to get married.”


If you have such an interest, but do not know enough to come up with specific questions to study, a pilot interview may give you more specific ideas on their perspectives.


Working mothers, minorities in your society, high school students, recent university graduates just starting to work, unemployed persons, members of a religious group, tourists, or bar-goers are all a potential population of focus for your study. Interviewing a person from the population can give you many insights into their experiences and perspectives.


Your interview can be an informal and unstructured conversation. In many cases, people are willing to talk to someone who is interested in them. As you listen to their stories, opinions, and even complaints, take good notes (make sure you get your interviewee’s approval on note-taking).


After your interview, review the notes and ask yourself what would be interesting to investigate. At this point, look beyond the personal story and search for issues that may be common to people in this group. Are there any concepts or issues repeatedly appearing in your interview notes?


Can you think of possible causes for these issues or their possible consequences? Do you think you can use concepts or issues as your independent or dependent variables?


Jot down any thoughts and questions that come to mind. One or two days later, read your comments and see if you can formulate them into more specific research questions.


Making a List of Questions or Topics

List of Questions

Sometimes you simply cannot think of a word or a phrase that could be a topic, or you may be interested in various unrelated questions. Your thoughts may be vague or unclear.


In these circumstances, writing is an effective tool to clarify ideas. You may simply jot down a list of research questions whenever they strike you and add to the list as new questions or new topics arise.


Do not worry about whether the questions make sense or if they sound silly, but keep compiling the list. You can do this at least for a few days; list any questions you want to ask.


After a few days, review the questions or topics more carefully and identify those that are related. Can you merge similar questions? Are there recurring questions you have asked in different ways?


Are you finding yourself asking questions about a group of people? Could this theme or group be your research topic? Delete any questions or topics you do not want to study.


Then, gradually, trim down your list to one or two questions or topics that you really want to ask or study. At this point, compare the remaining topics to decide which one is better for your research project. 


Key Words Search Using the Internet

Key Words


We assume that you have some ideas about what your topic may be by doing one of the exercises on the previous pages.


Next, existing literature is an excellent source to modify, refine, and even search for research topics. In this exercise, use your topic ideas or any terms you have in mind to identify specific and doable research questions.


Step 1: Write on a piece of paper the few topic ideas you have in mind. The ideas can be a word, a phrase, or a complete sentence. You can make your list as long as you like.


Step 2: Review your list and merge and combine related questions into one broader question, and delete any questions that are less interesting than the others. Reduce your list to two or three questions.


Step 3: What keywords could capture the questions you have? From your list in Step 2, decide on three to four terms to use as keywords for internet search.


Step 4: Using your library search engine or Google scholar, try a keyword search on one of the terms you have in Step 3. Read through the titles and abstracts of the books and articles you find and write down topics or terms that come up frequently in the list of articles.


Is there a different term for what you had initially written down? Can you identify narrower aspects of these topics, which grab your attention?


Is there a particular setting or population you are more interested? Is there a setting or population not studied in these articles? What theories do those articles use? Take notes on your thoughts on the above questions.


Step 5: Based on what you wrote in Step 4, develop more specific questions you would like to investigate in your study (i.e., research questions). In developing your own questions, use the suggestions by Neuman summarized as:

  • a. Replicate a previous research project exactly or with slight variations.
  • b. Explore unexpected findings discovered in previous research.
  • c. Follow the suggestions an author gives for future research at the end of an article.
  • d. Extend an existing explanation or theory to a new topic or setting.
  • e. Challenge findings or attempt to refute a relationship.
  • f. Specify the intervening process and consider linking relations.


At this point:

  • You have selected a topic in which you are really interested.
  • You have a tentative list of research questions which are more specific questions about this topic you wish to investigate.
  • You have consulted your project supervisor or faculty mentor and obtained the approval to pursue this project.
  • You have confirmed that you would have access to the population for this study.
  • You have obtained some knowledge about doing research on the topic after your preliminary literature search.


Searching for Information

 Searching for Information

Now that you have your topic, it is time to search for more scholarly information on this topic. By definition, research is about finding and analyzing information to answer your research questions. But it is not just finding any information but valid and reliable information on a topic.


While technology today enables you to gather an overwhelming amount of information without leaving your computer, that proliferation of information makes determining which information is accurate a problem of its own.


Being able to screen different types of sources and evaluate the scientific value of the information those sources reveal is a skill you will develop. This blog will review various methods of bibliographical research and discuss how you may conduct a systematic search for information. We will address the following questions.

  • What is valid and reliable information?
  • What do I need to prepare before searching for information?
  • Should I search in a library or on the internet?
  • How do I go about doing library research?
  • What are sources available?
  • How do I keep organized records of the information I find?
  • What do I do with the information I find?


This section addresses these frequently asked questions and provides you with essential and up-to-date information on the search process.


What Is Valid and Reliable Information?

Reliable Information

If you have taken a research methods course in a social science discipline you must have learned about the validity and reliability of data. Validity in social science research is about whether the measure accurately reflects the intended concept. To say it in another way then, valid information is information that addresses your question.


Trustworthy sources are likely to provide you with valid information. But keep in mind that, even if the sources you found are credible, information unrelated to your topic is not valid information.


For instance, if your research purpose is to investigate the relationship between family policy and the occupational achievement of women with children, information on the growing number of childless couples and their marital satisfaction may not be valid information to address this topic. A good information search is one in which you are able to capture valid literature on your research topic.


Reliability is producing consistent, or even the same, results repeatedly over time. For instance, when the same findings are repeated in many different studies, you know that you can trust the data.


This largely depends on whether the data are collected using systematic and scientific procedures that are replicable. For example, let’s consider Wikipedia. It is a source students often look at to learn basic information about a topic.


As you probably already know, Wikipedia entries can be freely written and edited by anyone. The contents, therefore, can be a mixture of reliable and unreliable information; some claims and “facts” may be based on a careful review of many references and supported by bibliographical evidence, while others may be haphazardly collected or even simply personal viewpoints.


The information an entry provides can change at any time, as anyone may edit it at will. Would this be a reliable source? You guessed it! It may contain some reliable information but as a whole, it is not a reliable source.


You may be able to assess the reliability of the information only if you can check the statements in a Wikipedia entry against the information in the references cited and verify evidence yourself. When this is not possible, you know it is not a reliable source.


Validity and reliability are important criteria for the information you need to collect in order to ground your own study in this process.

Validity and reliability of information will depend on whether the sources use evidence, whether the evidence is systematically collected and analyzed, and whether they are written and published by independent, non-partisan authors and organizations whose guiding principle is science and not economic interests or political agenda.


Social science research projects like the work you are doing now require references based on scientific evidence to ensure validity and reliability. In the following sections, we will discuss steps and tools to obtain valid and reliable sources of information for your project.


What Do You Need to Prepare Before Searching for Information?

 Searching for Information

Before beginning your search, have a few things ready.


List Your Research Questions

 List Your Research Questions

Your topic idea should be appropriately defined at this point. In general, if your topic idea is just one word or phrase, it is probably too broad. For example, “religious pluralism,” “climate change,” and “adolescent depression” are all too broad.


If you search for information on these topics, you are likely to find thousands of articles on different sub-topics related to these themes. As a rule of thumb, your topic phrase should contain at least two concepts that are related to each other.


It may include a term describing your target population, too. For instance, “use of social media” may be too broad. Instead, “use of social media in political mobilization” may be appropriately specific.


Also, if until now you have only had a broad topic idea, you should think about more specific research questions you want to ask about this topic.


Can social media be an effective method in political campaigns? Does the government’s active use of social media increase public support on government policies? In what ways do social media help social movements? And so on.


List Possible Keywords for Your Search

List Possible Keywords

Your goal is to use the terms that will identify articles most relevant to your topic idea and find sources that are directly related to your questions.


To do this, you will probably have to cast your net several times. You may start with the concepts in your topic phrase (such as “social media” and “adolescent friendships”), but if the search results turn up too many sources or too few, try different terms.


Since you do not know what terms are most commonly used in the published work, it is a good idea to prepare a list of several synonyms, or alternative terms, so that you can search using these different keywords.


For example, if your topic is the influence of friends on delinquent behaviors, your list of search terms may include “friends,” “social relationship,” or “peers,” and “delinquent behaviors,” “juvenile deviance,” “youth crime,” or “risk-taking.” Obviously, these terms have slightly different connotations but they are close enough to try.


Select Available Search Tools

Search Tools

There are many available search tools today, thanks to the internet and computer technology. Because university libraries are now typically connected to indexes, databases, online catalogs of texts and multi-media materials, and other search tools, your university’s library is likely to give you one-stop access to several search options.


There are also highly popular internet-based search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, and many others which are popular in particular countries or particular segments of internet users. You should compare the pros and cons of each method before you decide to use these methods.


Once you have clarified topic phrases and a list of search terms and have identified what search options may be best for you, you are ready to begin your search for information. But where should you start?


Should You Search in Libraries or on the Internet?

Libraries Internet

Once upon a time, research required personal visits to the library. If we were writing this blog about ten years ago, the answer to the question “what is the best place to start the search?”


would have been simple and clear: a good university library. While we think that the answer is the same today, it is also true that the internet and your library are more interconnected than ever.


Online search technologies have improved and are more specialized. Library “visits” today often means logging on to your online library account and accessing different search tools from your home.


You can view e-books and articles that are available as online texts. Many of you will also be able to use library resources from your home computers or tablets.


Just as our libraries have been transformed into online services, many popular internet search engines also have become more effective in recent years. It is difficult to dispute the popularity of Google these days. And there are many other popular search engines that are easily accessible from your home computer or mobile devices.


Internet search engines can be effective in finding useful information if you know how to discern reliable from unreliable information sources. But this is a skill-set which you need to develop.


Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of search tools devoted to mainly academic purposes and those popular internet search engines that deliver a wider field of information is therefore important. A well-tested internet search engine like Google can be effective in finding information, websites, and documents relevant to your keywords.


The strength of internet search engines is their flexibility; you can type in the search box, a word, a phrase, or a whole sentence to find information. This is sometimes not the case with some library search tools; you can easily end up with no search results if you misspell a word or enter a long phrase.


On the other hand, evaluating search results can be a challenge when popular internet search engines list many different kinds of online documents and websites. 


For instance, if you type “environmental justice” in a Google search box, it lists everything from a Wikipedia entry, a political web blog, government, and advocacy group websites to a college brochure on its environmental justice degree program.


The list includes resources that are not very useful for your research. Without mechanisms for evaluation, the validity of some of these information sources is also questionable.


More specialized tools such as Google Scholar and Google books will allow you to zoom into the kinds of academic literature you will need to write a research paper.


When we searched “environmental justice” on Google Scholar, we obtained mostly books and peer-reviewed journal articles in our results. But keep in mind that even these targeted internet search engines have their limits. Journals often restrict the access to the text of the articles to paid subscribers.


You may be prompted to pay for access to the full-text document when you get to it using popular internet search engines. But there is a good chance that your library will have free access to much of the material you locate, including a number of e-books, when you conduct a search through its databases.


Your university library typically subscribes to thousands of different journals. What you can find through Google Scholar or other specialized internet search engines for scholarly works is likely to be found in a search through your university library’s indexes and databases. In fact, many university libraries now provide the Google Scholar search engine as an option within their library system.


The bonus for using the university library is that you will have free and often instant access to the full texts of journal articles. We highly recommend you use your library resources as your main method for information searches.


Library search tools present a different kind of challenge. Because they are less flexible in finding matching terms, you need to use the right search terms. We will discuss this issue further in the next section.


Some journal databases now have “smart text search” options (for example, Academic Search Complete, ERIC or MEDLINE via EBSCOhost) to allow more flexible searches, but our librarian colleagues generally think that “smart text” option is still not as precise as a keyword search.


To summarize, popular internet search engines are useful for searching for topic ideas and skimming through basic information about your topic ideas. You may first try more flexible internet search engines o “test” your keywords to find out what terms are commonly used in the field. Make notes on those words, and use them when you search article databases through your library.


Internet search engines may also help to look up some quick facts and statistical information. But since the bread and butter of academic research are scholarly books and articles, your university library will be the best place for your information search and retrieval.


With the widespread use of online library access, fewer students make physical visits to libraries these days, but a personal visit to the library for your research is often worthwhile. Even in the age of the internet, there are resources, especially books and reference materials, available only in print.


In addition, talking to the library staff in person can be invaluable for your research. It seems that the expertise of librarians is not being utilized as often as it should be because many students rely on self-guided online searches.


Librarians in your university will be more than happy to offer you personalized help with your research. If you have difficulties locating books or journals, the reference librarians will also assist you in finding them.


What Are Different Sources Available?

Library databases

Library databases have many kinds of documents, including journal articles, books, blog chapters, conference presentations, government documents, magazines, newspapers, and trade publications.


All can be valuable sources of information for your study, but there is a difference in the level of scrutiny with which each of these types of the source is evaluated before being published. Therefore, carefully consider the validity of information before deciding to build your argument on it.


To become a discerning researcher who can evaluate the quality of sources, you should understand the characteristics and publication processes of different sources. We would like to begin by explaining two terms you might have heard frequently: scholarly sources and peer-review.


Scholarly Sources

Scholarly sources are written by experts (usually with the highest academic credentials) in a field. You can expect that arguments in scholarly papers are based on evidence that has been collected using systematic methods. The goal of scholarly documents is to provide information and knowledge that are up-to-date and fit the scientific criteria for validity.


Class instructors and librarians emphasize that you use scholarly sources for these reasons. In addition, scholarly sources tend to rely on the research of others to formulate questions and support arguments; thus, scholarly sources in the field are spaces for scholarly dialogues in which new ideas build on existing ideas and then become the foundation for even newer ideas.


Non-scholarly documents, on the other hand, may be written by experts on a topic or by people with little or no expertise. The audience for non-scholarly documents can be the general public, particular professional communities, or people who share similar interests. The purpose of non-scholarly documents may be other than advancing scientific knowledge.


Non-scholarly sources also transmit information, but some information may be haphazardly collected or unsubstantiated. Non-scholarly sources include trade publications, newsletters, popular magazines, newspapers, non-scholarly books, and various web documents.




You may have heard the term, “peer-review.” Peer-review is the process of rigorous and critical evaluation of a scholarly document by fellow experts (“peers”) in the subfield.


Typically, when a research paper is submitted to an academic journal, the editors invite a group of scholars in similar subject areas to anonymously review the papers.


The peer reviewers scrutinize the paper according to the scientific criteria and professional standards of their field. Based on the outcomes of the peer-reviews, research papers may or may not be published. Not all scholarly sources are peer-reviewed, as we will explain below.


Peer-reviewed Journal Articles

Some journals agree to publish only a very small number of papers after putting them through several levels of the critical review process; others accept a large portion of papers submitted to them after a less rigorous process.


Obviously, the articles published in the highly selective journals are likely to be of higher quality since their scientific values are well-validated.


In addition to providing the most substantive and valid information on a topic, peer-reviewed articles provide up-to-date knowledge. Peer-reviewed articles take a relatively shorter time to write and publish, and the literature and data analyzed are likely to be more recent than those in books.


Compared to books, journal articles also focus on a more specific and narrowly defined set of research questions. These are good reasons why peer-reviewed journal articles should be the main source of information for your research project.




Books can be scholarly or non-scholarly. For example, a systematic comparative study of economic development strategies in developing countries in Asia, and a study of a catastrophic disaster and its impacts on communities using systematic collection and analysis of data would be scholarly books.


On the other hand, a memoir of a survivor of domestic violence and an edited collection of newspaper feature articles on women’s education around the world would be non-scholarly books. When you use books as sources of information on which you want to base your research, you should rely on scholarly books.


Scholarly books are usually based on systematic and scientific studies and are reliable sources of information for your research. But, books are usually long and comprehensive and cover material in more depth than your research may require.


While the rich details discussed in books will help you gain insights into various aspects of the issue, you may face an overload of information, which may confuse and sidetrack you.


In addition, books tend to be not as up-to-date as journal articles are because the writing and publishing of a blog typically take several years.


Thesis and Dissertations

Theses and Dissertations


Thesis and dissertations are based on in-depth studies that student scholars, such as Master’s and Ph.D. students, conduct to fulfill their degree requirements. These are usually reviewed by a committee of faculty supervisors and experts to ensure that they meet scholarly standards.


Thesis and dissertations often cover new and unique topics about which little research has been published. They also have comprehensive literature reviews for a thorough overview of the topic, which you may find useful.


But you should keep in mind that dissertations can also be overwhelming to undergraduate students because they are blog-length projects and discussions often involve highly specialized details.


Typically the degree-granting institution has a bound copy of the doctoral dissertation. While most institutions do not circulate copies of dissertations, some may, if multiple copies of a dissertation were deposited to the library.


You may ask your school library if you can use the inter-library loan service to borrow a bound copy of a dissertation from the degree-granting institution.


In the United States, you may be able to access the online text of dissertations if your school library subscribes to ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis Full Text library.


In the United Kingdom, you can search for dissertation titles using the British Library’s EThOS (Electronic Thesis Online Service) database. Dissertation titles can also be searched in journal article databases or WorldCat.


Working Papers, Statistical Reports, and Government Reports

Working Papers

These are the types of studies usually done by experts, both academics and experts in applied fields, but published in venues other than scholarly journals.


They are often published by research institutes, government agencies (such as the Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations and its agencies), or independent research groups and advocacy organizations.


These organizations publish working papers, reports, statistical yearbooks, and other periodicals either in print or as online publications.


Just like journal articles, these publications are usually based on scientific studies done by experts. The slight difference is that they may not have undergone the anonymous peer-review processes described above.


While many of these papers are likely to have been reviewed and commented on by other experts before publication, the process may not be at the same level of critical questioning as anonymous peer-reviews. Also, some of them may reflect the particular perspectives of the agency or the institute.


These types of the report often focus on statistical and empirical reports and may lack much in-depth theoretical discussion. In general, working papers, project reports, and government documents are valid sources for statistical patterns, policy directions, and other empirical patterns about your topic.


You will need to figure out how to integrate their empirical knowledge to the theoretical discussions in your literature reviews.


How Do You Go about Doing Library Research?

Library Research

Searching for books and articles using your library account will require different processes. For books, you will search your university library’s internal collections using its internal search system.


Though libraries are increasing their e-book collections and other digital format resources, the vast majority of books are still in print form physically housed in your library.


You will need to locate and check out these books in person. For this, you are likely to use your university library’s internal catalog to obtain the call numbers and locations for these books within the library.


To search for journal articles, you will use journal article databases available through your university library website. The vast majority of academic journals today allow online access to the full-text of articles for paying subscribers.


If your university library has a subscription to the online format of the journal, you will have instant free access to the online text of the articles found in your search.


But bear in mind that your university library may purchase some journals in print format only, in which case, you need to go to the library and find the bound copies of the journals.


If you find articles in journals to which your library does not subscribe, you can request your library to borrow them from another library through a service called, “inter-library loans.”


Ask your librarian about the library’s inter-library loan policy and how you may request material from other libraries. Once the article is in your library, you will receive notification. Your library may give you a hard copy of the article or deliver it via school email in an electronic form.


These days, your library’s internal search tool is often connected to a broader network of regional libraries or to a worldwide network such as WorldCat (The World's Largest Library Catalog) so that you can search for books and articles in different libraries in the worldwide network.


In the United Kingdom, Copac National, Academic, and Specialist Library Catalogue (http://copac.ac.uk/) allows you to search for materials in over 90 major national, university, and specialist institution libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland.


If your university library is a part of the international network, WorldCat, you will see the link for WorldCat with the list of catalogs and indexes on your library’s website. Click on the link to reach the WorldCat website. If you are logged onto your library account, you are likely to be already inside the WorldCat’s login page.


To conduct a search using WorldCat, click the “searching” tab in the middle of the screen. Enter your keywords, the title, or the author in the search box.


For example, when we were working on this blog in 2014, we tried a simple keyword search on genetically modified food as a test. We entered the term “genetically modified food” (with the quotation marks to treat the three words as one phrase) in the WorldCat search box and obtained a list of 1,535 sources.


The list is also categorized into several tabs, “books,” “internet,” “visual,” and so on. The “books” tab, for example, displays only books, but it also tells you whether your own school library has the blog or not (but this feature may not be available in all libraries).


To locate books available in your university library, use your library catalog to look up the call number. Or, click on the “Libraries Worldwide” link to list libraries that have the blog you want. If another library has this item, ask your librarian to get it through inter-library loan.


Your library may also give you access to a large national library so that you can search from the vast collection of your nation’s largest libraries. For example, in the United Kingdom, you can use the British Library’s Explore the British Library (Explore the British Library) search engine to look up scholarly journal articles and books.


You can also use the Zetoc service provided by Mimas at the University of Manchester (Zetoc: Homepage) to access the British Library’s electronic table of contents.


Students in UK universities can log in to Zetoc using their university library account. Enter your university’s name on the Zetoc Search-Access menu; it will take you to your own university’s login page. After entering your university login information, you will have access to over 29,000 journals through the British Library’s electronic catalog.


In the United States, you can go to the Library of Congress (LOC) website and search for sources without having an account. But if you want to borrow an item from LOC, you will need to use your library’s inter-library loan services.


Inter-library loan services are usually free of charge to students and take days to a few weeks to transport the item to your library. Library of Congress not only has a large number of books but also an extensive collection of digital format contents such as photos, media, newspapers, and other documents.


You probably are already familiar with article indices commonly used in your subject area. There are many journal article databases specializing in particular fields or disciplines.


Box below shows examples of journal index services in selected social science fields. Your university library website may have a web page with links to these databases and many more.


There are overlaps among these databases. You will find many sources on health research listed in both PsycInfo and MEDLINE, for example. Academic Search Complete will include many publications found in other indices.


If you know which databases work best for your topic areas, you may use just two or three of these services. Your university library may not subscribe to some of the more expensive databases;


Ask your school librarian whether there is an open and free alternative for the database you need to use. For instance, PubMed, offered free of charge by U.S. National Library of Medicine, can be a good alternative if your library does not subscribe to MEDLINE.


Popular Article Databases for Social Science Research

 Social Science Research

Keyword Search

Databases use search tools which look different, but they basically function in the same way. You will be provided with box areas (sometimes just one box) in which you will enter your search terms: keywords, author names, or parts of the title. If there is an option for advanced search or guided search, we recommend that you use that option instead of the basic search.


An advanced search allows you to use multiple terms at the same time and to designate the type of search (e.g., title, author, keyword in the text and so on). Use the pull-down menu to specify whether you want to search by article title, author names, or keywords.


If you are just beginning your information search with keywords, you will be better off using the “all text” or “anywhere” menu; this identifies the search term in the title, abstracts, and even in the text of the article.


If you have the full citation information of specific articles you know you want to access, use either the title search or author search options to find the exact articles you have in mind.


In addition, with advanced search options, you can limit your search to a certain time period, a particular language, or peer-reviewed articles. These options are helpful in excluding outdated or non-scholarly sources from your search.


Reproduced with permission of EBSCOHost

When you enter your keywords into the search boxes, you can do it in a few different ways. Your results will vary depending on what you do. For example, suppose you are interested in searching for information on adolescent social media use.


Key terms are likely to be “social media” and “adolescents.” Using Academic Search Complete database, try a few keywords and see how your search results differ. For example:


Enter the entire phrase, “social media and adolescents,” in the first box and ask the search engine to find “all of my search terms.” The database, in this case, treats “social” and “media” as separate terms and will find sources that have either the pair of words, “social” and “adolescents,” or the pair, “media” and “adolescents.”


Using this search method, we came up with 63,170 items. Notice in this screenshot that the first two items happened to be on mass media and adolescents and not about social media.


Because the search captured sources with the terms “media” and “adolescents,” we ended up with references irrelevant to our topic, “social media.” This search strategy casts the net very widely and may even include sources unrelated to the intended topic.


Zooming into a Refined Focus

Zooming into a Refined Focus

For instance, you may narrow your search further by adding the third keyword. If you did a search with two keywords and your results had over a thousand articles, you probably need to zoom into a narrower scope. As shown above, you can narrow your search by linking key terms with an “AND.”


If a search using two keywords still has too many sources, adding a third word will narrow the search even further. A term representing your population, a country you focus on, or a particular aspect of your topic can be used as the third term.


In the example of social media we used above, add “relationships” as the third term, if your focus is on how social media affects personal relationships among adolescents. Librarians generally advise against using more than three terms, as a fourth keyword will most likely result in an insufficient number of articles.


Some databases have a “search within” option in your initial search results screen. When your first search turns up too many items, you can choose to search within your list by entering an additional word into the “search within” box. For example, our search for “occupational therapy” using the Sociological Abstracts database resulted in 338 sources.


When we entered “children” in the search within option we obtained 38 references focusing on occupational therapy on children or in pediatric contexts.


As discussed earlier in this blog, you can “limit” options to restrict your search to particular document types (e.g., books, newspaper articles, peer-reviewed journal articles), languages (e.g., English, German, Spanish, etc.), or specified time periods (e.g., since 1990, 1990–2014, and so on).


These limit options will exclude unnecessary sources and reduce the number of articles to a more manageable size. 


Expanding Your Search

Expanding Your Search

But what if your search results in less than ten articles and some of them appear irrelevant to your topic? What if you get zero results? One reason you may have too few results is that you entered a term not normally used by scholars in the field.


For example, a student of ours searched for articles on “the influence of friends on drug use among middle school students” using three keywords “friends,” “drug use,” and “middle school.” Her search found 22 articles.


When she changed “friends” to “peers,” she obtained a list of 262 articles. This shows that, even though “friends” and “peers” have similar meanings, researchers favor the latter term. You should substitute similar keywords until you find the terms most commonly used in the literature.


A similar strategy is to use two or three alternative terms in each search box and add OR. For example, if you enter “peers” OR “friends,” the search will capture sources that have either of the two words.


But remember that those words must be synonyms or similar words. Use this strategy with caution because if you link terms with different meanings with an OR, you may expand the search beyond your intention.


The thesaurus function in journal databases is a helpful tool to identify alternative words. If you wish to find other terms for “friendship,” for instance, click on the thesaurus feature of your journal search screen and enter “friendship.” The thesaurus will then display related words, such as “interpersonal relations” and “peer relations.”


By checking off these terms, you can directly import the terms onto your search screen. The benefit of using a thesaurus function is that you will be able to find alternative terms that are not only synonyms but also frequently used in scholarly articles.


In addition, you can expand your bibliography by gleaning information, such as a subject word list or a list of other articles that cite this article, from within an article you find.


For example, we looked for information on asylum seekers in Europe, and, using the keywords “asylum seekers” and “Europe,” we found an article on Algerian immigrants in the UK.


We clicked on the title of this item to open the page with more detailed information about this article, there are a few alternative terms in the subject word list you may want to follow up, depending on the exact focus of your topic.


If the topic you have in mind is related to policies, click on the term “immigration policy” from this list and launch a new search on this term. But to be careful when you launch a new search like this, the criteria for your previous search will be removed.


If your interest focuses on the experiences of asylum seekers, instead of policies, then expand your search using the term “refugee” in this subject word list. Since the subject terms are web links, you can launch a new search round by simply clicking on a subject word.


When you find an article closely related to the research questions you had in mind, finding its sources is as easy as clicking on those citation links.


In short, the search process is reflexive and circular, and you should be prepared to explore various sub-fields until you are able to zoom onto the most relevant literature on your topic.


Cast Your Net Several Times

Earlier in this blog, we recommended that you try multiple searches using a few different similar terms. A successful information search will provide a nearly complete list of all studies directly relevant to your topic.


In essence, you want to capture studies investigating similar research questions like yours, focusing on the same set of variables, or using the same theory. Casting your net several times will maximize your chance of identifying all important studies.


Use a few different keywords, but avoid the common mistake of changing all of the initial keywords when a search does not result in an adequate list of sources. Instead, we suggest you change keywords in a systematic manner.


If your initial search was done using two main concepts, you should keep one term constant and substitute the other term.


For example, in a search for the literature on the influence of peers on adolescent delinquent behaviors, use several synonyms for “peers” (e.g., friends, cohorts, social network), while pairing them up with the same term “delinquent behaviors.”


Compare the lists you obtain while substituting this term and mark the studies that fit the above criteria in each search. Once you have tried all synonyms for “peers,” choose the term with which you had the most success.


If “peers” was the term widely used in the scholarly literature, then keep it, and conduct a set of searches that pair it with synonyms for “delinquent behaviors,” such as “deviance” and “crime.”


If you keep a log of the term changes, you can avoid missing terms or repeat the same pair. This process takes time but will ensure a successful identification of all important studies in the field.


How Do You Keep Organized Records of the Information Found?

Organized Records

A working bibliography is not a fixed list, but a flexible list you revise as you add new sources and drop less relevant ones. You should note a few things as you refine your search.


Keep the full citation information, abstracts, and a short note of your own (“annotation”) about each source. Your annotation can include a short-hand summary of the research questions, methods, and findings, how the source is useful for your research, and how the source is related to other sources.


To keep track of your search results, plan a systematic way to manage or organize your search results.


Notebooks and Index Cards

If the traditional note-taking on paper is your style, keep a notebook to record your working bibliography.


Sort the references into smaller groups (e.g., empirical studies vs. theoretical studies, by different methods used, opposing views, or by theoretical perspectives), and mark them using tabs or sticky notes.


Do you prefer index cards over notebooks? Write the information and a brief annotation on the index card for each source and organize them into different piles.


Computer File Notes

Note-taking using a word processing program is probably a preferred method today than using paper. Journal article databases usually allow you to email or download the selected source list, including abstracts, directly to your computer.


All you have to do is to transport the list into a file, organize it, and add your annotations. You can arrange the list by authors’ last names, in chronological order, or by groups representing different sub-themes or positions on the issue.


How Do You Use the Information You Found?

The key to a good information search is selecting relevant and credible sources of information. What do we mean by “credible” sources? Credible sources provide valid and reliable knowledge based on scientific evidence.


You may accidentally come across documents on the internet, which are well-written and compelling, but they may be written to represent only a particular side of a debate and not based on scientific studies.


Selecting appropriate and valid information sources for your research depends on whether the sources are scholarly, and whether they are peer-reviewed. In addition, it is best if you use the most updated sources you can find.


If a study provides you exactly what you wanted to know but was written in the 1980s, it is unlikely to be accurate accounts of today’s society.


Considering these criteria, recent peer-reviewed academic journal papers are probably the best sources for the kind of scientific knowledge you want to use to inform your own research. Academic books, research reports and working papers by university-affiliated research organizations can also be credible sources of information.


These sources almost always include detailed descriptions of the evidence they use and their methods of data collection, making it possible to evaluate the scientific value of the claims they make.


These are important details you need to pay attention to when you judge the validity and reliability of the information you find. Unreliable sources most often lack methodological detail and make it difficult to evaluate the credibility of the arguments they make. You should avoid relying on those sources.


Conducting information searches aids you in refining and clarifying research questions and topic ideas. As you are exposed to a variety of discussions, documents, and materials on your topic, you will gain more insights into specific aspects of your topic and be able to narrow your research focus further.


As you search, you may discover that the initial questions you had in mind have already been answered by other studies; in their place, you may begin to form a new set of questions inspired by what you find in the literature.


Or, you may develop a new direction in your thinking as various strands of discussion reveal new ways to think about your initial topic ideas. It is a reflective and interactive process that you will continue throughout your literature review.


Research is not isolated work. You probably have not thought about this often, but by doing this research project, you are actually participating in a giant dialogue involving scholars and students who have studied and are investigating the same topic. Thus, the beginning of social science research is usually searching for what is already known about your topic.


If you do research properly, you will have made a new “discovery,” i.e., uncovered new knowledge about an issue. When you write a paper and share your findings, you will help readers build on your work and develop more questions for further study. 

Exercises below are designed to assist you with bibliographical research


Exercise Figuring out Search Terms

Before starting a search for information, you should think about which terms may best capture the relevant literature. Make a list of similar keywords so that you can try different search terms. For example:


Now, let’s try this with your own topic. Enter your topic phrase in the first box and highlight the concept terms in the topic phrase. For each of your concepts/terms, list possible synonyms, or alternative terms in the smaller boxes below. Look up alternative words using the thesaurus option in your journal database, as described in this blog; add them in the synonym list.


Exercise Use of Boolean Terms

Boolean terms AND and OR will expand or narrow your search. In this exercise, let’s map out how you may use your search terms using Boolean phrases. list the highlighted key concepts/terms in your topic phrase. These will be your search terms.

  • Concept #1:
  • Concept #2:
  • Concept #3:


1 Using AND

Using AND to connect different concepts will narrow your search to documents containing all of the terms. In this blog, we recommended using two terms – you can use a third term but only when you want to narrow your search even further. Use three key terms from your topic phrase to make a list of possible pairs you can use in your search.

  • Concept #1 AND Concept #2
  • Concept #1 AND Concept #3
  • Concept #2 AND Concept #3


Enter each pair into your database (e.g., ProQuest Central, ERIC, Sociological Abstracts), and perform a keyword search. If your search results have roughly 1,000 citations or more, add the third term to narrow your search further.


Save your search results onto a computer file or onto a citation management system and skim through the titles and a few abstracts to select relevant literature. We recommend you do this for all three pairings above.


2 Using OR

Use OR to connect similar terms in order to capture documents containing any of them. This will allow you to locate sources on the same concept but using alternative terms.


When your search results are too few (less than 10 sources), add an alternative term with an OR for one concept and search again (see below). Save your research results onto a computer file or onto a citation management system, and select relevant literature from the saved list.

  • Concept #1 OR Alternative Term for Concept #1
  • AND
  • Concept #2


Exercise Creating a Working Bibliography

At the end of Exercise, you may have a list of a few hundred sources. At this time, we recommend that you skim through the titles and the abstracts of the sources you have saved, and select the sources you feel the most directly related to your topic.


Discard the ones that are not directly relevant to your questions. You will review the selected studies closely for your literature reviews.


1. After skimming through the titles and the abstracts of the references you have saved in Exercise, select the studies that are most relevant to your research. In general, references that fit the following criteria are relevant and you should include them in your working bibliography:

  • Does this study ask research questions that are the same or similar to your own research questions?
  • Does this study include the same set of concepts/variables as yours?
  • Does this study apply the same theory to the one you may use?
  • Does this study the same target population as yours?
  • Do other studies you are interested to incite this study?


2. Choose the references that fit the above criteria to compile a working bibliography. Your working bibliography may include 15–50 sources, depending on the topic, but there is no set rule about how many should be in your bibliography.


We recommend that you show this list to your project supervisor and receive feedback on whether you have included appropriate literature for the scope of your research and whether your working bibliography should have a manageable number of sources.


3. In general, if after selecting the most directly relevant references, your working bibliography includes more than 50 sources, you may still have some less relevant studies in your list.


Or, it could be an indication that you should focus on an even narrower aspect of the issue or a particular segment of your population. Discuss with your project supervisor, or your professor, to final your topic.


4. A library information search is an on-going process that lasts through the completion of your literature review. Once you identify relevant literature and compile a manageable working bibliography, you will be continuously adding to and subtracting from the list as you read and evaluate each reference more closely.


At this point:

  • You have a working bibliography, or the initial list of 15–50 sources you plan to read carefully for the purpose of the literature review.
  • Your working bibliography includes full citation information in the citation style you will use in this project.
  • You have obtained full texts of the articles and books in your working bibliography. If your university libraries do not have some of them, you should have requested the interâ library loan service or other arrangements with your library so that you can access them.
  • Begin reading the sources you have obtained from the library.