Research Process

Research is creating new knowledge.

                                                  Neil Armstrong    

Research is the systematic inquiry into a subject to discover or revise facts, theories, etc... to make an extensive investigation into.  ̶ Random House College Dictionary

Become a Detective

A great way to think of research is to think of it as "detective work."  It is an exciting journey of uncovering important leads and facts that help to solve the mystery.  When confonted with a murder, a detective follows steps in a process of elimination to figure out "Who done it."

Sherlock Holmes with spyglass in hand



First, detectives get a feel for the situation, gather background information so they know the outline of what happened.  Next, they think about the crime  ̶  the questions that need to be answered (Why were the victim's shoelaces undone?  What is the origin of that strange knife with which he was stabbed?)

Then, they look at documents and interview people to try to find answers to those questions.  In the process, they come up with new questions or decide to go after an entirely different lead.  All the while, the detective keeps track of where information came from for use when they go to court or realize they must retrace their steps.

Just like detective work, research is a hunt for the truth.  It is getting to know a subject by reading up on it, reflecting, extracting the most interesting parts, playing with the ideas, choosing areas that interest you, and following up on them. 

Researching is an iterative process:  it requires some repetition of steps.  Comedian Stephen Colbert would use the word  "frequentative"  ̶  it requires frequent and repeated action to get closest to the best sources of information.




This diagram illustrates the steps in the research process.  Starting in the lower right corner and moving clockwise through each step:

The Research Process - Read, Extract, Search, Plan

 Research in Steps

1.  Plan.  You need a topic and some good keywords.

2.  Search library databases.  Your topic determines which databases you should search.

3.  Read what you find.

4.  Extract new search terms and  gain a better understanding of your topic.

5.  Repeat until you've got what you need.  You should get closer with each iteration.


Choosing a Topic

It is difficult to do efficient research if the topic is not well defined. Advice from former students is to "pick a topic you are interested in because you will spend a lot of time learning about it."  Usually research is most successful when you choose a broad topic and use what you learn about it to narrow it to a more specific topic.

Santa Rosa Junior College Library has come up with a great list of topics for research papers.  Likewise, Santa Ana College has developed a controversial topics list which includes organizations presenting pro and con positions on each issue.  Santa Monica Community College also has a helpful list of topics for research papers with links to
each that take you to a list of synonyms and related terms that might help you formulate a working thesis.

Although this might be jumping ahead to Unit 4, Napa Valley College's McCarthy Library subscribes to Opposing Issues in Context database.  By clicking on the "Issues" button, you can browse all the different issues in the database.  This is also a helpful tool for deciding which topic to choose for a research paper.  This database will provide you with articles covering both sides of the issue. 

Oppositing Viewpoints in Context Database

Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated Sept. 1, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor