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Getting Started with Research

A step-by-step guide to most research assignments.

Introduction to Research Projects

A research project can be defined as any number of things:

  • Compiling a list of sources (a bibliography), 
  • Finding sources to quote in a discussion,
  • A 1-page summary of a topic,
  • A 5-page essay, or
  • An involved 10+ page paper.

Regardless of your specific assignment, here are some basic steps to follow.

Step 1: Understanding the Assignment

Before you dive in, take a moment and make sure you understand your assignment.

  • What is the topic?
  • How many pages should it be? How many minutes/slides should the presentation run?
  • Does it specify what kinds of sources you should be drawing from?
  • Is there a required Citation Style (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) that you need to follow?

Figuring this out now will save you a lot of time and effort later.

Step 2: Finding Sources

You can find many different types of sources in the library:
  • Books
  • Articles from scholarly journals
  • Articles from newspapers
  • Websites, including statistics and government reports
  • Videos
  • Audio files


Use the search box below to get started finding sources.

No full text? Click the Find It! button by the article to get it elsewhere, or to order it.

Step 2.5: Searching Tips


  • Library databases are collections of resources that are searchable; often including full-text articles, books, encyclopedias, and sometimes music and videos.
  • Searching in a library database is different than searching in Google. Best results are often achieved when using Keywords linked with Boolean Operators.
  • Applying Limiters such as full-text, publication date, resource type, language, geographic location, and subject help to refine search results.
  • Utilizing Phrases or Fields, in addition to an awareness of Stop Words, can focus your search and retrieve more useful results.

Boolean Operators

These words connect keywords or concepts logically to retrieve relevant articles, books, and other resources. There are three Boolean Operators:

  • AND
  • OR
  • NOT

Using AND:

  • Narrows search results
  • Connects two or more keywords/concepts
  • All keywords/concepts connected with "and" must be in an article or resource to appear in the search results list

Venn diagram showing two overlapping circles, the left circle is labeled "distracted driving" and the second circle is labeled "texting." There is a yellow arrow pointing to the space where the circles overlap.

Venn diagram of the AND connector

Example: The result list will include resources that include both keywords -- "distracted driving" and "texting" -- in the same article or resource, represented by in the purple shaded area in the middle where the two circles overlap.

 Using OR:

  • Broadens search results ("OR means more!")
  • Connects two or more synonyms or related keywords/concepts
  • Resources appearing in the results list will include any of the terms connected with the OR connector

Venn diagram showing two overlapping circles, the left circle is labeled "texting" and the second circle is labeled "cell phone."

Venn diagram of the OR connector

Example: The result list will include resources that include the keyword "texting" or the keyword "cell phone" or both keywords.

Using NOT:

  • Excludes keywords or concepts from the search
  • Narrows results by removing resources that contain the keyword or term connected with the NOT connector
  • Use sparingly

Venn diagram showing two overlapping circles, with the right one covering the one on the left. The left circle is green and labeled "cars" and the right circle is pink and labeled "motorcycles."

Venn diagram of the NOT connector

Example: The result list will include all resources that contain the term "cars" (green area) but will exclude any resource that includes the term "motorcycles" (pink area) even though the term car may be included in the resource.

Keywords vs. Subjects

A library database searches for keywords throughout the entire resource record including the full-text of the resource, subject headings, tags, bibliographic information, etc.


  • Natural language words or short phrases that describe a concept or idea
  • Can retrieve too few or irrelevant results due to full-text searching (What words would an author use to write about this topic?)
  • Provide flexibility in a search
  • Must consider synonyms or related terms to improve search results
  • TIP: Build a Keyword List
Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
distracted driving traffic accidents texting
distractions car accidents text messaging
  accidents cell phones
  fatalities cellphones

Example: The keyword list above was developed to find resources that discuss how texting while driving results in accidents. Notice that there are synonyms (texting and "text messaging"), related terms ("cell phones" and texting), and spelling variations ("cell phones" and cellphones).

Subject Headings:

  • Predetermined "controlled vocabulary" apply to resources to describe topical coverage of content
  • Can retrieve more precise search results because every article assigned that subject heading will be retrieved
  • Provide less flexibility in a search
  • Can be combined with a keyword search to focus search results
  • TIP: Consult database subject headings/subject terms assigned to relevant resources

Advanced Search screen in Academic Search Ultimate, with the Subject tab selected, the keywords "cell phone" entered into the subject search box, and the relevant subject results displayed underneath.

Example 1: In EBSCO's Academic Search Ultimate, clicking on the "Subject Terms" tab (under the search boxes) on the advanced search screen provides access to the entire subject heading list used in the database. It also allows a search for specific subject terms.

Advanced Search screen in Academic Search Ultimate where the keywords in the first search box are specifically "Subject terms" as dictated by the dropdown selection encircled in green.

Example 2: In many databases (in this case EBSCO's Academic Search Ultimate) a subject term can be incorporated into a keyword search by clicking the down arrow next to "All fields" and selecting "Subject terms" from the dropdown list.

Subject terms (usually added by author or publisher) that are related to the article are also listed (and clickable) in the article description.

Example 3: Subject headings are often listed below the resource title, providing another strategy for discovering subject headings used in the database and for particular topics.


When a search term is more than one word, enclose the phrase in quotation marks to retrieve more precise and accurate results.  Using quotation marks around a term will search it as a "chunk," searching for those particular words together in that order within the text of a resource. 


  • "cell phone"
  • "distracted driving"
  • "car accident"

TIP: In some databases, neglecting to enclose phrases in quotation marks will insert the AND Boolean connector between each word resulting in unintended search results.


Truncation provides an option to search for a root of a keyword in order to retrieve resources that include variations of that word.  This feature can be used to broaden search results, although some results may not be relevant.  To truncate a keyword, type an asterisk (*) following the root of the word.

For example these truncated search terms will retrieve:


  • fatal
  • fatality
  • fatalities
  • fatally
  • fatalism


  • hospital
  • hospitals
  • hospitalize
  • hospitality


  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​child
  • children
  • childhood
  • childbirth


  • ​​​​​​​crime
  • criminal
  • crimp
  • crimson
  • crimeless


  • ​​​​​​​text
  • texts
  • textbook
  • textile
  • texturize

Limiters / Filters

Library databases provide a variety of tools to limit and refine search results.  Limiters (aka Filters) provide the ability to limit search results to resources having specified characteristics including:

  • Full text
  • Resource type
  • Publication date
  • Language
  • Geographic location
  • Subject

In most databases, the limiting tools are located in the left panel of the results page or underneath the search box at the top of the page. 

For example:


Screen capture of the "All Filters" panel in EBSCO's Academic Search Ultimate database, shows the current search terms and expanders/limiters, and a list of additional limiters that could be applied to the search.

Lindell Library Search

Screen capture of the "Filters" panel in the main Lindell Library search, checked boxes show the current expanders/limiters, which is followed by a list of additional limiters that could be applied to the search.


Each resources in a library database is stored in a record. In addition to the full-text of resources, searchable Fields are attached to the record; these typically include:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Journal title
  • Date of Publication
  • Abstract
  • Subject Headings
  • Publisher

Incorporating Fields into your search can assist in focusing and refining search results by limiting the results to those resources that include specific information in a particular field. In most databases, selecting the Advanced Search option will allow for easier searching of specific fields.

Illustrative image of an Advanced Search where different fields can be selected for search purposes.

Example: In the Advanced Search option of the Lindell Library's main search, clicking the down arrow under the "Search Index" label provides a list of fields that can be searched within the library. Select the field and enter your terms or information in the text box to the right of the field selection to use this feature.

Stop Words

These are short, commonly used words (articles, prepositions, and pronouns) that are automatically dropped from a search. 

Typical Stop-Words include:

  • a
  • an
  • and
  • the
  • also
  • but
  • for
  • in
  • is
  • of
  • so
  • which
  • when
  • was

In library databases, a stop word will not be searched even if it is included in a phrase enclosed in quotation marks. In some instances, a word will be substituted for the stop word to allow for the other words in the phrase to be searched in proximity to one another within the text of the resource.

For example:

If you searched company of America, your result list will include these variations:

  • company in America
  • company of America
  • company for America

Putting Together a Search

Creating a plan before searching for sources makes the process more efficient and successful. 

First: Write a Description

What is your research question or thesis statement? What do you want to accomplish in your research assignment?

Thesis: Distracted driving has contributed to an increase in traffic accidents. Texting while driving should be banned in all 50 states.

Second: Identify Keywords

Describe the concepts you need present in a resource for it to be helpful to you. Write down keywords describing each concept. Because the full-text of most resources is searched, consider listing out synonyms or related terms.

Concept 1: distracted driving
Concept 2: accidents
Concept 3: texting

Third: Link Synonyms with "OR"

This will ensure that all the terms describing a concept are included in your search.

Concept 2: accident* OR fatal*
Concept 3: text* OR cellphone OR "cell phone"

Fourth: Link Concepts with "AND"

This will ensure that all of your concepts are included in the same resource.

"distracted driving" AND accident* OR fatal* AND text* OR cellphone OR "cell phone"

Last: Mix and Match

Enclose terms of two or more words with quotation marks, utilize truncation, and try different combinations of concepts and synonyms to see what works best.

Search 1: "distracted driving" AND (accident* OR fatal*) AND (text* OR "cell phone")
Search 2: "distracted driving" AND (accident OR fatal*) AND (text* OR "cell phone" OR cellphone)

Final tip:

If at first you don't succeed, try and try again! Or, ask a librarian for help! You can find our contact information and FAQs here.

Step 3: Assembling a Bibliography

Toward the end of your project, you'll start assembling your sources into a bibliography, a list of all the sources you used in your project. This is usually written down according to the rules of a style guide, like MLA or Chicago.

Check the assignment, or ask your professor, to find out which style you should use.

No matter where your information is from, whether a scholarly database or even your personal interview with a source, it's important to document it thoroughly. Using a consistent style reassures your professor, and anyone else who reads your paper or sees your presentation, that your information and opinions are trustworthy.

Find more information about citations: 

Research Basics Tutorial

Image: JSTOR "Source Scout" logo