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The research process: getting started with library resources: Getting started

Gathering ideas

Helpful starting points for gathering background information on a topic:

These types of sources are good starting points.  Next, you'll need to use journals, books, magazines, and newspapers to find in-depth, reliable sources that support your topic.

Some assignments may require you to use scholarly sources.

Narrow your topic

It helps to propose a question when you're starting your research.  Then, you can apply limiters that help make your topic more specific.

Examples of limiters:

  • Time period
  • Location
  • Population

Also, you can use drop-down menus to specify that your search terms will appear in the title of the article, in the abstract, or maybe as keywords anywhere in the document. 

Applying limiters helps to make your search more effective.

Example question:  What are some examples of successful projects introducing alternatively fuelled mass transportation vehicles in the past five years in North America?

Time period: the past five years
Location: North America
Population: public transportation agencies & services

Learn about the Research Process

The resources and tools we use for doing research have changed significantly during the past 5-10 years, but the general principles of the research process are consistent.

1.  Identify and develop your topic

2.  Find background information

3.  Use catalogs to find books and media

4.  Use indexes (databases) to find periodical articles (journals, magazines, newspapers, conference papers)

5.  Find internet resources

6.  Evaluate what you find

7.  Cite what you find using a standard format

(Adapted from Olin Library Reference
Research & Learning Services
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY, USA [] Accessed March 8, 2011.)

Tips for selecting a topic

Choosing an interesting research topic is your first challenge. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a topic that you are interested in! The research process is more relevant if you care about your topic.
  • Narrow your topic to something manageable.
    • If your topic is too broad, you will find too much information and not be able to focus.
    • Background reading can help you choose and limit the scope of your topic. 
  • Review the guidelines on topic selection outlined in your assignment.  Ask your professor or TA for suggestions.
  • Refer to lecture notes and required texts to refresh your knowledge of the course and assignment.
  • Talk about research ideas with a friend.  S/he may be able to help focus your topic by discussing issues that didn't occur to you at first.
  • Think of the who, what, when, where and why questions:
    • WHY did you choose the topic?  What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
    • WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic?  Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
    • WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
    • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?
    • WHEN is/was your topic important?  Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

Source: MIT Libraries, Selecting a Research Topic. Retrieved from, 1/25/2012.

Intellectual property

Many students who are working on a design project or other serious research may eventually file for a patent.  All students, faculty, and staff should be aware of intellectual property issues and how it may affect their research.

Intellectual Property (IP) is described as "creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce." (from

Lots of researchers keep a laboratory notebook which logs important notes, discoveries, and thoughts about the work and research process.  This notebook will be especially useful in the future in the event there are any questions about the origins of a patent.

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