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WR 1010: Elements of Writing - Dr. Esther Boucher-Yip: The Research Process

Research is a Process

Image showing a flowchart of the research process.

Adapted from the University of Ottawa Library    

Research is a Process

Choose a topic:

  • The research process begins with choosing a topic that you want to learn more about for your project. Begin with a topic that interests you and that is relevant to the assignment​.

Find background information:

  • After selecting a topic, you will do some background research to learn more about this topic. This background research can be done on Google and/or in academic databases.
  • For example, you might use an online encyclopedia to find ideas to narrow down a research topic. Online encyclopedias can also help you learn relevant vocabulary related to your topic, which will help with your keyword searches.
  • Online encyclopedias are a good place to start but not a good place to finish. Use encyclopedias as a starting point to find ideas and inspiration for what you want to learn more about, but remember that academic works do not usually cite encyclopedias. Use the background information that you find to develop a research question. 

Develop a research question:

Start asking questions about your topic. Ask open-ended “how” and “why” questions. Consider the “so what” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others?​

Evaluate your questions: ​

  • Is your research question clear?​

    • Can your audience easily understand the purpose of the question?​

  • Is your research question focused?​

  • Can you answer the question in the space and time provided?​

  • Is your research question complex?​

    • Does it have a simple yes/no answer, or does it require research and analysis?​

Note. Adapted from How to Write a Research Question by George Mason University Writing Center, 2018 ( and Narrowing a Topic and Developing a Research Question by Indiana University Libraries, n.d. (​

Choose keywords

  • Identify your topic’s key concepts. Do some background research in online encyclopedias. These are not sources that you will cite in your paper but they can provide useful information to help you identify concepts and keywords related to your research topic.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for your keywords: Search for synonyms for your keywords and concepts to increase the number of relevant search results.
  • In database search results, look at the article titles and abstracts in your search results to find additional keywords to search for.
  • Read! The more you read about your topic, the more you'll pick up on the jargon used in that field, which will help you to refine your searches and find relevant sources faster.

Search for sources using multiple databases: 

  • Different databases will yield different search results.
  • Each database has its own algorithm for determining relevance, and some databases have unique search features that can help you narrow down your search results.
  • Try at least 3 different databases when doing research. 

Evaluate your search results:

  • What are the author’s credentials?
  • What is the reputation of the organization behind the source?
  • When was the source published?
  • How did the authors gather their data and derive their conclusions?
  • Are citations provided?
  • What do other sources say about this topic?

Broaden or narrow your research question if necessary:

  • Sometimes a search topic will yield too few or too many search results, and you may realize that your topic is not suitable to time and paper length restrictions on your project. This is okay! 
  • Think about ways to tweak your topic to make it more manageable to complete your paper in the allotted time. 
  • You may need to make your topic a little broader or a little narrower, or you may need to choose an adjacent topic. 
  • Look at your search results to find ideas for tweaking your topic. What topics can you find enough literature to write a paper? What topics will fit into the length constraints of your paper? 
  • Ask your professor or your librarian for help tweaking your topic.

Save and cite your sources: 

  • Keep track of the sources you find! Use a document or a citation manager to save the information about your sources so that you can find them again. 
  • Cite your sources properly in order to give credit to the authors and to help your reader find the sources you used.
  • Use the MLA resources on this guide to learn how to properly cite your sources. 
  • Consider using a citation manager like Zotero to streamline the process of generating citations. 

Picking Your Topic IS Research!

When you pick your topic, it's not set in stone. Picking and adjusting your topic is an integral part of the research process! Watch this video from the NC State Librarians to learn more. 

This video is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA US license.