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Research Process: Step by Step: Home

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This guide will help you to develop your research skills and better understand the research process.

Research Process: Step-By-Step

Picking your Topic is Research









Source: You Tube video tutorial from North Carolina State University library. 
CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA US License.

1.1 Define the Task

Before selecting a topic or starting your research, make sure you understand your assignment. 


- Have you been assigned a topic or can you pick your own?

- How many pages/words do you need to write? How long is your presentation?

- Do you need to include specific types of sources (e.g. scholarly journal, book, etc.)?

- When is the assignment due? How much time do you have to research?

- Is currency of information important?

When in doubt, discuss with your teacher.

1.2 Choose a Topic

Choose a topic that interests you and will hold your attention. If you do, your research will be more enjoyable!

Can’t think of a topic to research?

- Scan your textbook

- Peruse current magazines and newspapers

- Browse encyclopedias

- Discuss topics with your teacher, library staff or a fellow student

1.3 Identify Keywords

The keywords you use can have a profound impact on the results of your research. Using the “right” words will speed up the research process, while the “wrong” words can bring to it to a halt.

Before you can begin searching for information, you need to identify keywords related to your topic. Keywords can be easily be found by scanning:


- The assessment outline provided by your teacher. Check what terms they use.

- Your own research questions

- Articles found from your background research

- Bibliographies found at the end of books and articles

If you are still struggling:

- Use a thesaurus to identify synonyms

- Find pictures related to your topic, then describe them

- Create a mindmap to explore your topic

- Brainstorm keywords with library staff, your teacher or a fellow student


1.4 Find Background Information

Once you have identified some keywords, the next step is to find background information on your topic.

Background research can:

- Provide a good overview of the topic if you are unfamiliar with it.

-Help identify important facts -- terminology, dates, events, history, organisations, etc.

- Help refine your topic.

- Lead to bibliographies which provide additional sources of information.

Background information can be found in:

- Textbooks

- Dictionaries

- ​General Encyclopedias

- Subject-specific encyclopedias

- Web searches (note: Wikipedia is a great website to find background information. However, it is not recommended to use as a source for your research)

Is Your Topic Too Broad?

If you are finding too much information, your research topic may be too BROAD.

Consider narrowing it to be more specific.

For example:

Broad Topic: Global warming
Narrower Topic: How will climate change impact sea levels and coastal Australia?

Is Your Topic Too Narrow?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too NARROWspecialised, or current. Use these strategies to broaden your topic.

  1. GENERALISE - Generalise your topic. If the topic is the health effects of fracking on the local community, broaden your topic to Australian communities.
  2. CURRENCY - If your topic is very current, there may not be books or articles available yet. Select an alternative topic that is less recent.
  3. DATABASE CHOICES - Use more than one library database in your subject area or consider those in related subject areas which may cover your topic from a different perspective.
  4. SYNONYMS - Use a thesaurus to find synonyms for your topic. When doing background reading, note the terminology that is being used.
  5. RELATED TOPICS - Explore related issues to your topic.
  6. EXPAND OR REMOVE - Remove some of your topic limiters such as: location, time period, population, person/group, aspect.

For example:

Narrow Topic:  Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age five?

Broader:  What are the negative effects of TV on children?





2.1 Form a search strategy

To retrieve the most relevant search results, you will need to construct search strings

A search string is a combination of:

  • Keywords.
  • Truncation symbols.
  • Boolean operators.

Your search string is what you enter into the search box of a library database or search engine. For best results, construct more than one.

It is worth spending the time constructing these as your searches will be more accurate and reduce the time spent on ineffective searching.

Truncation or wildcard symbols allow you to look for variations of words.

  • They often broaden your search results. 
  • Wildcards are useful when looking for words that have variants in their spelling, especially British versus American spellings. Use the wildcard to pick up all spelling forms.

Note: The truncation and wildcard symbol varies by database. Consult the database’s “help” or “search tips” pages for details.

Boolean operators are connector words, such as AND, OR, and NOT, that are used to combine or exclude words in a search for more focused results.

  • AND narrows your search as it combines your keywords and search results will contain records with both keywords
  • OR broadens your search as it looks for all keywords and search results will contain at least one of the keywords.  Useful for using synonyms.
  • NOT narrows your search as it excludes keywords.
Source: You Tube tutorial from Western University Libraries CC BY 3.0 licence

2.2 Search for resources

It's important to understand the types of information sources available. They include:

  • Encyclopedias & Dictionaries
  • Books & eBooks
  • Videos & Images
  • Articles from newspapers, magazines and journals
  • Grey Literature (such as government reports, conference proceedings, research reports etc)
  • Websites

Where can I find these resources?

  • Search the library catalogue to find library books, journals, dvds, and more.
  • Search library databases to find journal articles, reports, eBooks and more.
  • Search the web for information, images, videos and more.

Can't I just use Google for all my sources?

You can certainly use Google for your own personal research, and even to help you in Step 1 of developing your topic; however, anyone can publish to the web, so you will need to be extra critical of the information you find.  As a general rule, credible websites include those ending with ".gov" (government agency), ".org" (professional and/or nonprofit organisation), and ".edu" (educational institution). Be very cautious about using websites ending in ".com" as this indicates the website is most likely a for-profit commercial site.  

Why use Library Databases?

Databases provide you with 24/7 access to magazines, journals, newspapers, and more. They provide credible information that is current, but also provides access to historical content. 

Depending on the database you are using, articles may be displayed in different formats:

  • Index: Includes only the article citation (i.e., author, title, date, etc.). Neither a summary, nor the full-text of the article are available.
  • Abstract: Includes the citation and a summary of the article's content. It does not include the full-text article.
  • Full-text: Includes the citation and full-text article. This may be in HTML, .pdf, or both formats.
Source: You Tube tutorial . General permission provided for all by Yavapai College Library.


Source: YouTube from NCSU Libraries under Standard YouTube License

When doing research, it is important to find information that is reliable, accurate, and appropriate for your assignment. Some assignments may require you to use or limit certain sources such as:

  • Web sources (see Step 3.1)
  • Primary or secondary sources (see Step 3.2)
  • Specific types of journals (see Step 3.3)

In all cases, you should evaluate the information before you use it in your assignments. 

Knowing how to evaluate information can help you with research assignments as well as bigger life decisions.  You can make informed decisions about further study, a new car purchase, financial aid, jobs, your health, and more.


3.1 Evaluate with the CRAAP Method

All sources, but most of all--web resources should be evaluated.  The CRAAP method is a great way to evaluate your sources.


When was the source written and published?

Has the information been updated recently?

Is currency pertinent to your research?


Does the source cover your research topic comprehensively or only cover one aspect?

To what extent does the source answer your research question?

Is the source considered popular or scholarly?

Is the terminology and language used easy to understand?

Does the source meet the requirements of your research assignment?


Who is the author (person, company, or organization)?

Does the source provide any information that leads you to believe the author is credible or an expert on the topic?

Can you describe the author's background (experience, education, knowledge)?

Does the author provide citations? Do you think they are reputable?


Can facts or statistics be verified through another source?

Based on your knowledge, does the information seem accurate? Does it match the information found in other sources?

Are there spelling or grammatical errors?


What is the purpose or motive for the source (educational, commercial, entertainment, promotional, etc.)?

Who is the intended audience?

Is the author pretending to be objective, but really trying to persuade, promote or sell something?

Does the source seem biased?

3.2 Evaluate the Source Type

When evaluating information, it is useful to identify if it's a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.

Source Type Examples
A first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. The original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.
  • First person account of an event
  • First publication of a scientific study
  • Speech or lecture
  • Original artwork
  • Handwritten manuscript
  • Letters between two people
  • A diary
  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights

One step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information conveyed in the primary source.


  • Newspaper reporting on a scientific study
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Biography

Further removed from a primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.


  • Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog


To find primary sources try adding one of the keywords below to your search strings:

  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • documents
  • interviews
  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches

3.3 Evaluating Magazines & Journals

It can be difficult to distinguish between the various types of Journals & Magazines when they are in electronic format. Luckily, many databases allow researchers to search or sort results by publication type.

On the search interface of the database, look for options to limit your results by scholarly journal, peer-reviewed journals, industry publications, or similar.

Use the information below to distinguish types of Magazines & Journals.


Academic Journals

Also known as scholarlyrefereed, or peer-reviewed journals.

Appearance: Generally have a sober, serious look. May contain graphs and charts, but few glossy pages or photographs. Use scholarly language with vocabulary specific to their profession or field.

Audience: Written for academics and professionals.

Author/Authority: Articles written by researchers or scholars in the field who report the results of original research.

Citations: Articles include footnotes and a list of citations at the end of the article.

Content: Includes scholarly research for a particular profession or industry. Articles usually contain an abstract, methodology, discussion, charts or tables, results, conclusions, and references.

Frequency: Usually published bimonthly or quarterly.

Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, Journal of Social Issues, etc.      


General Interest Magazines

Appearance: Generally attractive and illustrated with color photographs.

Audience: Written for the general public.

Author/Authority: Articles written by staff or freelance writer.

Content: Includes current events and special features.

Frequency: Usually published weekly or monthly.

Women's Health, Marie Claire, House & Garden, etc.

Trade Magazines 
Also known as industry magazines

Appearance: Generally attractive and are often illustrated with color photographs.

Audience: Written for industry professionals.

Author/Authority: Articles written by staff writers, though the magazine may sometimes accept articles from industry professionals.

Citations: Occasionally list references at the end of the article or provide footnotes within the text.

Content: Includes current events and special features within a particular profession or industry.

Frequency: Usually published biweekly or monthly.

Australian Ageing Agenda, Building Connection, Australian Teacher Magazine, etc.





4.1 Create Source & Note Cards


One of the difficult aspects of research assignments is keeping track of all your sources. A good method of organising your sources is to use index cards to create Source & Note cards.

Source cards

  • Each source should have it's own index card.
  • Include on each card the citation (i.e., author, title, publisher, date, page numbers, etc.) in your teacher's preferred referencing style (Harvard, APA, etc). 
  • Number the source cards

Note cards 

  • Use only one side to record a single idea, fact or quote from one source. It will be easier to rearrange them later when it comes time to organise your paper.
  • Include the reference source card number
  • Include the page number where you found the information.
  • Include a critical comment on how the idea/fact/quote relates to your research.
  • Use one of these notetaking formats to capture information:
    • Quote
      In research papers, you should quote from a source when you:
      • want the reputation of the author to lend authority and credibility to your point.

      • find memorable or historically significant language.

      • don't want the author's meaning to be lost or changed if you paraphrased or summarised.

      • find the author's language so clear and concise you wouldn't be able to effectively make the same point in your own words.

    • Paraphrase
      A paraphrase is the rewording of something written or spoken by someone else.

      You should paraphrase when you:

      • can express in fewer words the main points of a source.

      • want the ideas presented in the source, but not the specific language used to express it.

To paraphrase, follow these steps:

  1. Read the original text until you grasp its meaning; then set it aside.

  2. From memory, write down the main points or concepts. 

  3. Change the structure of the text by varying the opening, changing the order of sentences, lengthening or shortening sentences, etc.

  4. Replace keywords within the sentences with synonyms or phrases with similar meanings.

  5. Note the source and page number of the paraphrase.

  • Summarise​
    A summary is a brief statement of the main points of a source.To summarise, follow the steps below:
  1. Select a passage of text, article, chapter or entire book that supports your research.

  2. Read the selection until you feel you have a good understanding of its main points.

  3. Write a sentence or two in your own words that captures the main points.

  4. Revise your summary so it reads clearly.

  5. Note the source (and page number, if applicable) of the summary in a launch statement or in parentheses.

4.2 Outline the Paper & Begin Writing

Outlines provide a means of organising your information in an hierarchical or logical order.

Think of it as the blueprint for writing your essay or report. It helps organise your ideas or arguments ready for writing.

Use your note cards from the previous step to help when creating your outline. You will quickly see if you have any gaps of information, and will need to look for more sources.  

Example of an Outline

The Conquest of Mt. Everest

  1. Introduction
  2. Background Information
    1. Location of Mt. Everest
    2. Geography of the Surrounding Area
    3. Facts about Mt. Everest
      1. Height of the mountain
      2. How the mountain was named
        1. Peak XV
        2. Joloungma (Tibetan name)
        3. Sagarmatha (Nepalese name)
      3. The number of people who have climbed Everest to date
  3. Major Explorers Covered in this Paper
    1. Sir Edmund Hillary
      1. First to reach the summit (1953)
      2. Led a team of experienced mountain climbers who worked together
    2. Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas
      1. Norgay was an experienced climber and guide who accompanied Hillary
      2. Sherpas still used to guide expeditions
    3. Rob Hall
      1. Leader of the failed 1996 expedition
      2. Led group of (mainly) tourists with little mountain climbing experience
  4. The Impact Expeditions have had on Mt. Everest and Local Community
    1. Ecological Effects
      1. Loss of trees due to high demand for wood for cooking and heating for tourists.
      2. Piles of trash left by climbing expeditions
    2. Economic Effects
      1. Expedition fees provide income for the country
      2. Expeditions provide work for the Sherpas, contributing to the local economy.
    3. Cultural Effects
      1. Introduction of motor vehicles
      2. Introduction of electricity
  5. Conclusion

Source: Teachervision, (n.d.) Sample research paper outline. Retrieved from


To create an outline:

  • Place your thesis statement at the beginning.
  • List the major points that support your thesis.
  • List supporting ideas or arguments for each major point.
  • If applicable, continue to sub-divide each supporting idea until your outline is fully developed. 


Source: UTS Library shared on YouTube under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license

SWTAFE Guides to Referencing

Coming soon: Online Referencing Tool

Using Information Legally and Ethically

The legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of information goes beyond avoiding plagiarism and properly referencing or citing sources.

You should be knowledgeable about issues related to:

Image SourceCCO1.0  licence

Student Services Librarian

Recommended Books


This guide is adapted with permission from Central Regional TAFE's Research Skills Library Guide. 

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