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Step 1: Select your topic
Start by expressing your topic or research question in a sentence. These terms are the keywords you will be using in your search strategy.
- I want information on the role of women in the family in 16th century Italy.
- I need to know about the market for running shoes in Libya.
Remember that your professor or TA is the best resource for checking that your topic is appropriate.
Step 2: Identify sources and research tools
Subject research guides
Start with the research or subject guide for your course or discipline.
SFU's subject specialist librarians create these guides to recommend the best resources for the discipline, and the best search strategies, whether you are looking for books or searching specialised databases.
Finding definitions and background information
For specific subjects or courses
Check the Background information tab on your Research or subject guide first for recommended sources to give you quick basic facts and an overview of your topic.
For topics that are general, or across disciplines
Use interdisciplinary reference sources such as directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks to get started.
- For in-depth research → Use books, journal articles and government reports.
- For statistics → Use government websites, associations & organizations.
- For scholarly (academic) journal articles and for conference papers → Use article databases.
- For newspaper articles → Use databases listed in the News sources and Alternative news.
- For company information → Use company's website and article databases.
Remember that sometimes the information you want does not exist in exactly the form you would like. Instead, you will have to piece the information together by looking at and interpreting several sources.
Step 3: Search for and find your articles and books
Start with the Books & articles tab from your subject guide for recommendations from subject specialist librarians. Or:
- If you are looking for books, use the Library Catalogue. For search tips, see the Library Catalogue search guide.
- If you are looking for journal articles, you can start with Library Search, or use article databases. For an overview of searching for articles, see the guide How to find journal articles.
- If you already have citation information to several good articles on your topic:
- try pasting or typing this information into Library Search, the main search box on Library webpages, or:
- see From citation to article to learn how to find the article online, in print on the Library shelves, or to order a copy from another library.
Step 4: Evaluate
You must evaluate each source to see if it is appropriate for academic research. For example, does the article you found come from a popular magazine or website or from a scholarly (academic) journal? Is the source reliable, or possibly propaganda or fake news?
To learn how to distinguish between types of journals, check the guide What is a Scholarly Journal?
The research and writing cycle
The research process is a cycle. The first time you go through these steps, you'll probably be looking for a couple of general sources on your topic. Each time you repeat the process, you learn more, enabling you to:
- make your topic more focused, or
- work with a different research tool, or
- try a different search query, using synonyms and related terms.
Be patient! Research done properly takes a lot of time, but the reward for careful preparation is a paper which "writes itself."
Step 5: Write and cite
The Student Learning Commons provides in-person and online academic writing support on all three campuses. Attend a workshop, book a consultation, or try online resources like A quick guide to research papers.
How to cite
To properly cite your sources, see our Citation guides for information and examples on the different styles, such as APA, MLA, and Chicago.
Tracking a lot of citations? For longer projects, including theses and dissertations, you may want to use citation software.
For more help finding resources, Ask a Librarian for help online or in person -- or go directly to our AskAway chat service.
For help with writing, study skills, time management, and more, visit the Student Learning Commons.
Use the Assignment Calculator to plan out your writing assignment
The Assignment Calculator lays out the steps for researching and writing -- from understanding your assignment to submitting it.
Just plug in your assignment due date, and get a timeline with step-by-step instructions you can download to your calendar.