The Research Process

"The Research Process": Step 1, Define the topic; Step 2, Narrow the topic; Step 3, Gather background information; Step 4, Create a research question; Step 5, Develop a working thesis statement; Step 6, Find and evaluate sources; Step 7, Cite sources; Step 8, Write the paper

The research process is not a linear process in which you must complete step one before moving on to step two or three. You don’t need to put off writing your research essay until you’ve gathered all of your sources; in fact, you may want to start writing as soon as possible and adjust your search, thesis statement, and writing as you continue to work through the research process. For that reason, consider the following research process as a guideline to follow as your work through your research writing. You can (and should) revisit different steps as many times as needed to create a finished product.

  1. Decide on your topic through prewriting, or carefully consider the topic if you have had one assigned.
  2. Narrow your topic in order to narrow search parameters. Think of your search in terms of an analogy. When you go to a performance at a large auditorium, your ticket has three items on it: the section, the row, and the seat number. You go in that specific order to pinpoint where you’re supposed to sit. Similarly, when you decide on a topic, you often start large and must narrow the focus; you move from general subject, to a more limited topic, to a specific focus or issue.The reader does not want a cursory look at the topic.  She wants to walk away with some newfound knowledge and deeper understanding that supports an insight into an issue. For that, details are essential. For example, suppose you want to explore the topic of autism. You might move from general topic to specific focus in the following way:
    • General topic: special needs in a classroom
    • Limited topic: autistic students in a classroom setting
    • Specific focus: how technology can enhance learning for autistic students
  3. Do background research, or pre-research. Begin by figuring out what you know about the topic, and then fill in any gaps you may have on the basics by looking at more general sources. This is a place where general Google searches, Wikipedia, or other encyclopedia-style sources will be most useful. Once you know the basics of the topic, start investigating that basic information for potential sources of conflict. Does there seem to be disagreement about particular aspects of the topic? For instance, if you’re looking at a Civil War battle, are there any parts of the battle that historians seem to argue about? Perhaps some sources point to one commander’s actions as a reason for losing the battle, and some sources point instead to another commander’s actions as a reason his side won?
  4. Create a research question. Once you have narrowed your topic, it’s time to generate research questions about that topic. Create thought-provoking, open-ended questions, ones that encourage debate. Decide which question addresses the issue that concerns you—that will be your main research question. Secondary questions will address the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the issue. As an example:
    • Main research question: Does the media stereotype women in such a way that women do not believe they can be leaders?
    • Secondary questions: How can more women get involved in politics? Why aren’t more women involved in politics? What role do media play in discouraging women from being involved? How many women are involved in politics at a state or national level? How long do they typically stay in politics, and for what reasons do they leave?
  5. Review your research question.  Make sure that your question can actually be researched. For example, you may have heard a brief news story about a new drug that seems hopeful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, and you question whether this drug is better than existing ones. It’s an interesting question but, given that the drug is new, you may not be able to find enough studies done to support either side of the question.  Or, you may only be able to find information in professional journals, written for advanced medical professionals, presenting very technical information that’s beyond your understanding. To test that your question can actually be researched, try to answer it with either a “yes” or a “no.” If you can answer your research question with a simple “yes” or “no,” it may not yield enough information for a research essay.
  6. Next, “answer” the main research question to create a working thesis statement. The thesis statement is a single sentence that identifies the topic and your particular angle or assertion about that topic. A working thesis performs four main functions:
    • Narrows the subject and names the topic
    • Makes a significant assertion about that topic
    • Conveys the purpose of the essay
    • Provides a preview of how the essay will be arranged (usually).
  7. Draft your own support for your working thesis statement. Keep in mind that a research essay is not simply confined to source information.  Try to develop the basics of your essay, and identify potential topic sentences and units of support, even before you research, if you can.
  8. Determine what kinds of sources are best for your argument.
    •  Will you need primary or secondary sources? Where will you find the best information? Can you find information online in databases and journal articles?  Do you need newspapers?  Books?  Personal interviews?
  9. Find and evaluate sources/ create a bibliography as you gather and reference sources. Make sure you are using credible and relevant sources that address your working thesis or research question directly. Also consider source material that negates your own ideas and offers a counter-argument; you may eventually decide to place some counter-arguments in your draft, so you can show that you have considered all viewpoints. Access a variety of sources as appropriate (journal articles, books, people, statistical data, etc.). Record key citation information for each source, making sure to link the information with that source in your notes. It’s always a good idea to use reference management programs (e.g., EndNote, Zotero, etc.) so you can keep track of your research.
  10. Write and revise your essay. Lastly, you’ll incorporate the research into your own writing and properly cite your sources.