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Jack Gordon Institute: National Security Policy Fellows

A research guide to assist participants in the JGI National Security Policy Program

research process

I have to give a speech, do a project, present a paper, write a report or write a term paper, now what...?

Review your class assignment, looking for keywords or terms that can help you define your topic. Use these keywords to search the library catalogs and databases. Also note what types of sources your instructor requires, for example: book chapters, newspaper articles, magazine articles, or peer-reviewed journal articles.

If you have the freedom to choose your own topic, be sure to choose a topic that will sustain your interest. Additionally, the topic should be one you can research sufficiently in the time allowed, research using the tools and resources readily available to you, read about in a language you read well, and that your professor deems suitable for your assignment.

Start with a broad topic area (this might already be decided for you as a requirement of a course) and narrow this down to select a specific topic for your paper so that you don’t waste time wading through too much information.

Deciding on a topic you'd like to write about and defining the parameters of your research is one of the most challenging and important aspects of the research process. If you need more help with this step, consult your professor or look for ideas in the research guides which have been prepared by the subject librarians.

I have the topic, but I'm not sure how to approach researching it... Is the Internet the best choice for my research...?

You don't need to be an expert on a topic to do a report about it.

A good place to start (especially if you don't know much about your topic), is the Library Catalog to help you find books that give you general information. Encyclopedias are good for concise explanations and contextual data. A librarian can recommend the best encyclopedias or other reference materials you may want to use.

Build on your basic information and skills. Avail yourself to information in all formats: Books (on the shelves and online); Periodicals (journal, magazine, newspaper articles both on the shelves and through databases); Digital media (videos, CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc.); and even some Internet sites.

Your professor will tell you whether you are allowed to use Web sites as resources. Most people can surf the Internet and find topical information but cannot determine if what they've found is accurate, objective or up-to-date. 

For assistance on developing the most efficient research strategy and identification of local resources, contact Lori Driver or Carlos Fernandez

Databases are your primary search tool for finding articles on a topic.
To choose an appropriate database, ask yourself which disciplines are relevant to your topic. A paper about global warming, for example, may be relevant to a number of disciplines including environmental science, political science, and business. Once you decide which discipline(s) to focus on, select databases by subject from our A-Z  List.

To find recommended databases to use as starting points by popular disciplines, visit the Research: Start page and select the appropriate subject/discipline on the list on the left.

Use the tools built-in to the databases and other resources to help guide you, such as subject headings, tags, related searches, etc.

  • Continue to search and narrow down your topic to make it more manageable and specific
  • Try not to enter a long string of words or complete phrases in a single search box, some databases won't give you successful search results, try instead to break up you search into a few key words and terms
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat; you may need to repeat the process more than once in order to get to the exact type of results you are looking for
  • Try to use multiple databases, don't be satisfied with the results from just one database
  • Ask for help!  Consult with the librarians.  They can recommend other resources and help you fine-tune your search for information.

Most college-level assignments expect you to take a critical view of all your sources, not just those you may have found online.   

It is always important to consider whether the authors of what you are reading are properly qualified and present convincing arguments. Because your time for careful reading is limited, try to skim through your sources first to decide whether they are truly helpful. Once you have chosen your best sources, read the most relevant ones first, leaving the more tangential material aside to use as background information.

Learning to identify scholarly (often known as "peer-reviewed") and non-scholarly sources of information is an important skill to cultivate. Many databases provide help with making this distinction.

Additionally, Ulrich's Directory of Publications is a database that can be searched to check to check the publication type (scholarly, refereed, magazine, etc).

If you are using the internet for research, it is especially important to evaluate the accuracy and authority of the information you find there.

REMEMBER: If you are using the internet for research, it is especially important to evaluate the accuracy and authority of the information you find there. Search engines, like Google, find web sites of all levels of quality. Keep these things in mind when deciding if a web page is reliable and appropriate for your research:

  • authority/credibility
  • accuracy/verifiability
  • bias/objectivity
  • currency/timeliness
  • scope/depth
  • intended audience/purpose

Always check with your instructor to find out if you can use free (non-Library) web sites for your assignments. And if looking for journal articles, library databases are the most efficient tool for searching.

I have all of my sources, and I'm ready to write my paper. What else do I need to do?

Using proper citation style allows us to give credit to the creators of the material we are using.  It is how we use information responsibly and respectfully.  By using citations, our claims and theories become more authorized and credible because we are providing supporting evidence from other sources.  Citations also allow us to be honest about our contributions and avoid plagiarism.  

Have you cited all of your resources? As soon as you’re ready to start writing, you’re going to need to be prepared to track and cite your sources correctly. Giving others credit for their words and ideas is not only good academic practice, it sustains the culture of academic integrity at FIU.

Your professor may want you go use a certain citation style manual or guide. Be sure you know which citation format (MLA, APA, etc.) they require. These will tell you how to cite your sources. The library has paper copies of all style guides at the information/research and reserve desks, and help sites are available online. Contact Lori Driver or Carlos Fernandez if you need help tracking-down sources for complete citations.

Luckily, if you’re using a citation generator or manager tool like RefWorks, this stage will be simple: the software does the work for you!