1.3 Search vs Research

When you hear the word research, you might think of the quick web searches we all do every day looking for information: a good recipe for Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches, what are the top 100 movies of all time, what is Tourette’s syndrome, and so on.

In this course, we’re going to build on these types of easy searches to reach the type of college-level inquiry and thoughtful reflection that constitute scholarly research. You’ll find that academic research is rarely done with one basic search using just one tool. Even the quick information-seeking process will benefit from advance planning.

Starting Your Research

Research is an ongoing cycle of questions and answers, which can quickly become very complex. For this reason, your research will benefit from thoughtful planning on how to get started. Here are three important areas to think about when starting your research.

Define your scope

What do you need to know?The first thing you need to do is define the scope of your research. Take a few minutes to think about your topic and the kind of information you might need. You can define your research scope by thinking about:

  • Content: the kind of information you need
  • Amount: how much information you need
  • Format: the types of information sources you need
  • Subject area(s): the discipline(s) your topic fits into

Information that is appropriate for one research project may not be appropriate or relevant for another. For example, if you need to give a 5 minute class presentation on the pros or cons of an issue, you probably need a few sources that cover the key aspects of the issue and not every paper that’s ever been written on the topic. If you were writing a lengthy class paper, you would want more comprehensive coverage of your topic. Some examples of the types of information you might need for different research purposes are listed below:

  • Background information: this is the kind of information that gives you a basic understanding and vocabulary of a topic. It is broad, tends to be general, and is helpful when you don’t already know a lot about your topic.
  • Subject-focused scholarly information: scholarly books and journal articles are formal pieces written about very specific topics which have undergone a rigorous review process before publication. These are helpful for projects where it is important to build a scholarly foundation for your ideas or interpretation.
  • Current events: what is currently happening or has been in the news on a given topic; news sources can help illustrate your points with timely, real-world examples.
  • Statistical information: this includes data and reports produced by research groups, associations, governmental organizations, non-profits, and more; these are helpful for making comparisons between groups, showing changes over time, making predictions, and so on.

Identify types of sources

What kind of information do you need?Next, consider what types and formats of information you need for your project. For example, does the assignment require using books or scholarly articles? Are websites okay? What about blog posts, online videos, or presentation slides? Do you need current or historical information for your topic? Do you need scholarly or popular materials?

Some disciplines prefer to publish new research in peer-reviewed journal articles, while other disciplines may prefer scholarly books. Others rely on papers presented at conferences. To earn advanced academic degrees, many disciplines require students to thoroughly demonstrate their depth of knowledge by writing a thesis or dissertation. The common denominator here is that all these traditional formats undergo peer review, intensive review by subject experts before publication. It’s quite possible that you could find information on your topic in any of these formats, so you need to be familiar with them.

Why is it important to pay attention to information formats?

Many instructors will tell you exactly what types of information sources to use or not use for research assignments, or tell you to use only peer-reviewed sources. It is important to look at your assignment requirements and tailor the information you use to meet those requirements.

Certain formats tend to be used for specific purposes. For example:

  • Newspaper and magazine articles tend to be brief and to the point. They’re intended to keep us current with relevant events and popular topics of interest, and rarely go in depth or provide sources for further reading.
  • Scholarly journal articles tend to be several pages long and highly focused on very specific facets of a larger topic or research project.
  • Scholarly books tend to be much longer and, because of this, they can go into greater depth than articles. Books are great sources for providing a “big picture” perspective of a topic with background information and rich detail.

Different tools lead to different types of information, so you’ll want to choose a search tool that will help you find the type of material you’re looking for.

Identify your search tools

Which tools will you need?Now that you have some ideas about the extent and kind of information you want and the type of sources you need, it’s time to think about which search tools will help you find precisely what you need. We might be tempted to try to do all of this information-gathering with a single internet search. However, when you view the research process as inquiry and strategic exploration, you’ll realize that there might be more than one tool for finding useful sources to meet your information needs. That’s especially true when the aim is to find scholarly materials.

To find out which tools are the best for your needs, you will probably need to explore a few of them and compare results. Try experimenting with search terms to see what works best in the tools you’re using. This may lead you to new resources within the library you didn’t find with your original search. You may even find information about resources that we don’t have, so don’t forget you can use interlibrary loan to borrow a copy, rather than giving up or changing your topic. For scholarly research, one-stop-shopping doesn’t happen very often. Instead, you need to use the right tools for the right job, and be willing to experiment and explore.


LIB 160: Information Literacy Copyright © 2019 by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services. All Rights Reserved.

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