Research Basics

Current students, faculty, and staff at Sul Ross State University have access to hundreds of thousands of resources to enhance their research. This guide was created to help.

The Research Process

Research is messy! Once you accept that fact, you will be able to relax and follow the basic research process, knowing that you may hit roadblocks and need to refine search terms or keywords. Or you may ask yourself completely new questions that you will want to answer!

Things you will do as part of the research process:

    • Select a topic
    • Analyze that topic
    • Perform background or reference research
    • Create a search strategy
    • Perform more research
    • Evaluate sources found

Gather, rinse, repeat!

Organizing Your Research

Remember that research is messy. You have the power to help control the mess by employing some kind of research management techniques. By managing your research, you will save time during the research process by not repeating your searches. If you keep good enough notes, adding quotes and citations will be a snap!

Some options to consider:

    • [mostly] free third party software such as Mendeley or Zotero
    • Office365 OneDrive
    • A research log that tracks pertinent details such as: databases searched, keywords used, results received, date accessed, notes

Settling on a Topic or Research Question

Choosing and developing a research question is often the hardest part of getting started with research. You have to juggle so many things:

    • Choosing something that you’re interested in
    • Choosing something that fits the parameters of your assignment
    • Choosing something that is neither too narrow or too vague

Usually, you’re heading toward the development of a thesis — a statement or claim that you will prove or disprove based on evidence and argument.

1. Start with a broad topic or general question

By moving from general to specific concepts within your research plan, you gain a more thorough understanding of your topic.

2. Then gather background data

Conduct background research to obtain quick overviews, discover important issues and develop ideas for the focus of your research question. Use reference works and pay attention to current events.

3. Then refine your broad topic or general question

Considering the background data you collect, ask yourself some or all of the following questions:

    • Can you limit the topic or background information by geography, date, gender, age or environment?
    • What important people are discussed in this area of information?
    • What specific aspects of this topic interest you?
    • How much material appears to be available on the specific aspects of this topic? And in what formats?

Collecting Background Info and Developing a Search Strategy

Just like choosing (and using) a research management technique will save you time and energy during the research process, taking time to collect background information an develop a search strategy will set you up on the path for success. Some ideas for developing a list of search terms are:

    • Begin your list of keywords with the 5 W’s: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY
    • Perform background research in reference sources such as encyclopedias (Wikipedia and Everipedia are common crowd-sourced encyclopedias), handbooks, government documents and reference databases

Once you have some keywords to start with, check out these tips for searching any database, even search engines like Google.

    • Try Boolean Search Operators

When you use a search bar, you’re asking a computer a question. You can make the most out of a computer’s processing by using rules to better define your search. Boolean operators — AND, OR and NOT — are some rules you can use.

    • ANDreturns the overlapping results between two search terms to narrow search results. For example, searching chair AND leather will return only results that include both terms.
    • OR returns results that include one or more search terms to broaden search results. For example, searching chair OR leather will return more results having to do with chairs and leather.
    • NOT eliminates terms from search results. For example, searching chair NOT leather will return results about chairs, but none that include leather.
    • Try Phrase Searches

Perform a phrase search by enclosing a string of words in quotation marks. By doing this, you retrieve more specific results. To see how this works, try searching “fine press books” with and without the quotation marks.

    • Try Truncation

A truncation mark is a symbol used to search the many forms of a word. Different databases use different truncation marks, but the asterisk (*) is commonly used. In databases that use the asterisk for truncation, searching librar* will return results including librarylibraries and librarians.

Database Decision-Making

With the countless number of sources — books, journal articles, reviews of those books and journal articles — that exist in the world today, there are also countless methods for accessing those sources. Even libraries offer options: subject-specific databasesgeneral databases, and discovery systems like Sul Ross Library’s All Library Search. Within these databases there are strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to consider which tool is right for your specific information need.

All Library Search | the Sul Ross Library Discovery System

Thinking about the word “discovery” will help you understand All Library Search. This search box on the Library’s homepage searches books, multimedia, articles and tons of other types of sources in one fell swoop. All Library Search is a good place to start research, especially when you are comfortable using the database tools to refine your results based on your needs.

If you need sources on a specific topic or subject…

  • All Library Search
  • use Boolean search strategies
  • Advanced Search options in different databases

If you need access to a specific item…

Say you know exactly what you’re looking for — a specific book or the full text of a cited journal article, for example. This should be pretty easy to track down. The easiest place to start is to enter (or copy/paste) the title of the source into the All Library Search box.

Because All Library Search defaults to items freely accessible at the Sul Ross Library (“SRSU Library has it!”), if nothing is returned, you may need to uncheck this limiter in order to expand the search results and attempt to track down the source using Interlibrary Loan or Document Delivery.

Using Source Type to Evaluate Information

Information comes in all shapes, sizes and qualities. One way to differentiate and evaluate information is to categorize it by its source type. (Sources are also sometimes called resources or artifacts.)

Sometimes you will be asked to find specific types of sources to act as evidence supporting an argument or thesis statement in a research paper, such as when your professor asks you to find “two books and one web source” as part of your bibliography for an assignment. Identifying the type of source you’re using helps to illuminate other details about that source, including:

  • The intended audience
  • The scope of the information

It’s first helpful to consider how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

More on Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources are those created first-hand, providing direct evidence and information about a person, event or subject. Primary sources may include:

    • letters
    • notes
    • raw data
    • social media interactions
    • scientific papers reporting on experimental research

Secondary sources build on primary sources to describe, analyze, comment about or evaluate information relating to a person, event or subject. Secondary sources may include:

    • newspaper or journal articles
    • books
    • reviews (book reviews, movie reviews)
    • literature reviews

Other Ways to Define Sources: Source Types

After you have a better understanding of primary and secondary sources, you can apply that knowledge to other source types. It is difficult to capture all of the terms used to categorize source types, especially when you take into consideration that different disciplines use and interpret terms in different ways.

As long as you understand and appreciate that there are many different types of sources — and that these sources are becoming further complicated by physical (analog) and digital formats — you will be okay.

Serials or Periodicals

The terms serials and periodicals are often used interchangeably — depending on who you’re talking to — to describe the types of sources that are published serially (in a series) or periodically (with some regularity, whether daily, weekly, monthly, etc.).

For example, journals, magazines and newspapers are published on an ongoing basis. These source types differ in that they can be primary or secondary sources and in that they can be popularpeer-reviewed or scholarly, depending on the publisher.

Books and eBooks

Non-fiction books and eBooks are often secondary sources — an analysis or evaluation of primary sources on a specific subject by an author.

-content vs. container

-accessing eBooks at Sul Ross


Visual and Audio Material

Visual and audio materials include maps, photos, prints, graphic arts and original art as well as videos, films and digital recordings. Often, visual and audio materials are primary sources created at a specific time. These sources can provide rich context to significant events and provide insight into the ways people lived and viewed the world.

Archival Material

Often, archival material sources are primary sources. These include documents such as manuscripts, letters, diaries, legal and documents as well as visual and audio material as addressed above. Archival documents can be found in print, but are increasingly found digitized online.

Note: The Sul Ross Library houses the Archives of the Big Bend. Learn more about specific collections on the Archives’ website.

Government Documents

Government documents and reports usually include data, policies, statistics relating to specific matters relating to the functioning of government.

Selecting sources to use in an assignment requires careful evaluation. Critical thinkers (you!) must analyze the data retrieved — whether you find it in the physical library, a library database or on the free internet.

See also: How to Evaluate a Wikipedia Article via UC Davis Libraries

Tips for Selecting and Evaluating Sources

  • Remember to be aware of your own viewpoints and how they affect your research
  • Look for bias on the part of authors or publishers
  • Look for alternative viewpoints on your topic: Remember when you gathered background data?
  • Be aware of publishing dates: Research in some subject areas goes “stale” faster than others (medical research vs. history research)
  • Analyze literature reviews and bibliographies of the sources you select in order to identify key authors and publications debating your topic

More tips to try out on sources: Skimming/Scanning

There is not enough time in the day to closely read and comprehend all of the sources you retrieve during the research process. You can skim the main ideas to get an overall impression of an article. Recall that many scholarly articles follow structural formats and include:

  • Abstracts
  • Introductions
  • Figures and illustrations
  • Discussion sections
  • Conclusions

By skimming an article and scanning for keywords related to your specific information need, you can make a judgment call about whether you should read the article more thoroughly. Articles, especially those in the science and medical fields, can be dense. Like learning any foreign language, it’s helpful to have subject dictionaries and other reference works nearby when attacking a particularly difficult article.

Adapted from the University of Guelph’s (very helpful) video, How to Read an Article.

How and Why to Cite Your Sources

Citing the ideas and work of others is an integral part of any quality research. Arguments are stronger when backed by evidence from scholarly and academic information sources.

You may be asked to provide a Works Cited page, a Bibliography, an Annotated Bibliography, a Reference List or any combination of proof that you consulted relevant, accurate information sources as part of an assignment.

There are a number of helpful resources available for the major formatting styles. Pay attention to detail, be consistent and you should be okay.

Elements of a Good Citation

A good citation is meant to provide enough information for anyone to track down the source material. Therefore, a good citation includes:

Who: the person or persons (or, in some cases, institution) responsible for authoring the source

What: the title of the work

When: the publication date — often the year, but this varies depending on the citation style

Where: the location of the work, such as within a publication or accessed online under a URL or DOI

When should you cite?

“Cite early and cite often!”

Familiarize yourself with the citation style of your discipline or specific assignment. Citations are almost always required for direct quotes as well as paraphrasing from sources.

Click here to visit the Guide to Citation featuring:

  • American Chemical Society (ACS)
  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) Coming soon! In the meantime, Ask a Librarian for help
  • The Council of Science Editors (CSE)
  • Journal of Wildlife Management Coming soon! In the meantime, Ask a Librarian for help
  • Modern Language Association (MLA) Coming soon! In the meantime, Ask a Librarian for help
  • Turabian Style Coming soon! In the meantime, Ask a Librarian for help

From Sul Ross State University Student Code of Conduct

The University expects all students to engage in all academic pursuits in a manner that is beyond reproach and to maintain complete honesty and integrity in the academic experiences both in and out of their classroom. The University may initiate disciplinary proceedings against a student accused of any form of academic dishonesty, including but not limited to, cheating on an examination or other academic work, plagiarism, collusion, and the abuse of resource materials.

“Plagiarism” means the appropriation and the unacknowledged incorporation of another’s work or idea in one’s own written work offered for credit.

Avoid plagiarism by citing your sources.