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Five Steps of the Research Process

Often you will complete these steps in the order provided; however, there may be times when you will need to return to a previous step or complete multiple steps simultaneously.

Understand the Assignment


First things first! Before selecting a topic or starting your research, make sure you understand your assignment and its requirements. 

  • Have you been assigned a topic, or can you pick your own?
  • How many pages/words do you need to write?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources such as scholarly articles?
  • When is the assignment due?
  • Is currency of information important? (E.g., is the topic a current event or historical in nature?)

When in doubt, consult with your instructor.

Select a Topic

Sometimes your professors may provide you with a research topic, but at other times you may be given the flexibility to choose your own. If you need ideas, try:

  • Scan your textbook for broad topic ideas.
  • Look at headlines in major newspapers such as The New York Times or a magazine in Google Books.
  • Browse reference encyclopedias (this will also help when you start conducting background research).
  • Look at "hot topic" databases, such as CQ Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints. These databases feature reports and analysis on current events and controversial issues.
  • Surf the Course and Topic Guides created by the librarians here at Stafford Library for a variety of topics and sources to research those topics.
  • Discuss potential topics with your instructor, a writing center tutor, or a classmate.
  • Choose a topic that interests you and will hold your attention. If you do, the research will be more enjoyable!

Develop Research Questions

Once you have selected an initial topic, the next step is to develop a research question. Good research questions:

  • are open-ended (that is, there is no quick or yes/no answer). 
  • tackle an issue or controversy in the field, with the aim of exploring possible solutions. 
  • are something you can take a stance on. There are two or more sides to explore. 

Exploratory questions are factual questions that you may have to answer before you can come up with a research question.

Example Topic: the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Exploratory Questions

  • What animals/habitats outside of the United States boundaries are covered by the act?
  • What other countries have legislation to protect animals/habitats?
  • What animals are currently on the endangered species list?
  • How does an animal get added/removed from the list?
  • What penalties are imposed on those who violate the act?

Potential Research Question

How does the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protect ecosystems as well as animals?

Identify Keywords

Before you can begin searching for information in a print or online resource, you need to identify keywords related to your topic. Key terminology can be easily found by scanning your research question. If you are still struggling, then try using a thesaurus to identify synonyms or brainstorm keywords with a librarian, your instructor, or a friend.

Example Research Question

How does the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protect ecosystems as well as animals?


  • "Endangered Species Act"
  • ecosystems
  • animals
  • protect or protection

Find Background Information

Once you have identified some key terminology, the next step is to find background information on your topic. Background research serves many purposes:

  • If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it provides a good overview of the subject matter.
  • It helps you to identify important facts related to your topic terminology, dates, events, history, and names or organizations.
  • It can help you to refine your topic.
  • Background research might lead you to bibliographies that you can use to find additional sources of information on your topic.

Background information can be found in:

  • Textbooks
  • Dictionaries
  • General or subject-specific encyclopedias
  • Credo Reference Full text of electronic reference books: encyclopedias, handbooks, and dictionaries, both general and subject specific. Titles can be individually browsed or searched simultaneously.
  • Gale Virtual Reference Library Electronic reference books covering topics in business, history, law, literature, medicine, multicultural studies, philosophy, religion, social science, and technology.
  • Article databases
  • "Hot topic" databases, such as CQ Researcher and Opposing Viewpoints 
  • Wikipedia (Use only as a first step. Make sure you verify information you find on Wikipedia with authoritative sources.)

Refine Your Topic

If you are not finding enough information, your topic may be too narrow. Consider broadening it by:

  • Exploring related issues
  • Comparing or contrasting the topic with another topic
  • Expanding the:
    • time period covered
    • population considered
    • geographic area discussed
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so recent  it may not be covered in books and journal articles yet
  • Choosing an alternative topic that is not so popular it may be covered in popular magazines and tabloids only

If you are finding too much information, your topic may be too broad. Consider narrowing it by:

  • Time period  1960's, bronze age, etc.
  • Geographic location  Denver, New York, Australia, etc.
  • Population age, race, gender, nationality or other group
  • Smaller piece of the topic:

    • Genre jazz (music)
    • Event Battle of the Bulge (WWII)
    • Aspect government regulations (pollution)
    • Discipline or Subject music (in early childhood education)


Narrow Topic: How does television viewing by children under the age of five affect their post-secondary education level?

Broader Topic:  How does television viewing affect children and adolescents?


Broad Topic: Global warming

Narrower Topic: How will changing sea levels impact the economies of the coastal United States?