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Working on a research paper or project? Start here for an overview of the research process and tips for finding sources.
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. For example:
- 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.
Tips for selecting the right-sized topic
Be sure that your question isn't so broad that you'll need to write a book to answer it, or that it is so focused that you won't be able to find anything to support it! Quickly reviewing a topic in an encyclopedia (even Wikipedia) can help you determine this.
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. These are created by SFU's subject specialist librarians to recommend the best resources for the discipline, including strategies for finding books and how to search 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 cross 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.
- 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, 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:
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
Need more help finding resources? Ask a Librarian for help online or in person.
Research takes time as well as creativity. The Assignment Calculator lays out the steps for researching and writing, and is also a quick and effective time management tool.
The Student Learning Commons can help with writing, study skills, time management, and more.