What is research and why do we do it?

Research always starts with asking a question; it comes from a desire to fill in the gaps and expand upon our collective knowledge.  

Research is an ongoing process that involves trial and error. The hard work of research allows us to answer questions and expand our understanding on particular topics.

Types of Sources

Consult this section if you want to know more about different types of information sources.

Primary: A primary source is a first-hand account of a situation or event or any original information source before it has been analyzed. Oftentimes, a primary source tells you what was being said about a topic at the time it took place. Below are some examples of primary sources:

  • Statistical data sets
  • Empirical research
  • Literary and art works (novels, plays, poems, paintings)
  • Speeches, diaries, memoirs
  • Historical newspapers
  • Eyewitness reports (interviews, photographs, social media)

Secondary: Secondary sources often provide interpretation or analysis of events after they have occurred. Below are some examples of secondary sources:

  • Biographies, nonfiction books
  • Editorials
  • Literary criticism and reviews
  • Periodicals (such as scholarly journals, magazines, or newspapers)

Tertiary: A tertiary source is a collection of information which is meant to inform you with background knowledge and lead you to primary and secondary sources. Below are some examples of tertiary sources:

  • Wikipedia
  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries
  • Indexes
  • Most traditional textbooks

TIP (Context is key!):

A source type may change depending on your research need. For example, a newspaper review of the opening of West Side Story in 1957 may seem like a secondary source, but from a historical research standpoint, this source is giving you a first-hand account of reactions surrounding the musical.

Academic sources:

Academic sources are typically found in scholarly publications and are written by experts in a field of study. They often feature in-depth research and should always feature a bibliography of other scholarly research. These sources are published in journals and academic books. 

Popular sources:

Popular sources are published in media sources such as magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. They often contain information on current events or are intended to entertain. Here are a few examples of popular sources:

  • Newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.)
  • Magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, People)
  • Social Media (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube)


One of the main distinctions between academic and popular sources is the process of publication. For example, a scholar may be asked to write an opinion piece in the New York Times, but this content would not be considered an academic source because it is published via a popular newspaper.

Academic sources have different publishing guidelines, such as peer-review and research review boards, and can take months or years of preparation before publication.

Choosing a research topic

Choosing a research topic can be a difficult task. Even within the guidelines of an assigned topic, there can be multiple pathways to focus on. Here are some things to consider when narrowing down your topic:

Keep in mind that choosing a research topic is research! 

  • What are the topical guidelines your instructor has put in place? Does your topic need to adhere to a certain time period, individual, theory, etc.? 
  • Is there a particular subject that sparks your interest? Choosing topics we are passionate about can make the research process more engaging!
  • What information resources have you been instructed to use? Peer-reviewed? Popular sources? Specific research methodologies? 
    • For current event topics; keep in mind that peer-reviewed sources are often unavailable for the first 6 months to a year after a particular event. 

Narrowing Your Topic

A useful step in the research process is narrowing down your larger topic into a smaller, more reasonable topic. This additional step will assure that you don’t become overwhelmed by a large number of search results and information. If you are having some trouble selecting a topic or narrowing down your topic, consider some of these strategies:

  • Look over your textbooks or your course notes for ideas. Was there something that wasn’t explained in detail or that you were curious about?
  • Browse the most current issues of magazines or newspapers for current events that may be interesting to you and fall within the topic of your course.
  • Browse an encyclopedia relevant to your course for inspiration. Wikipedia is also a good alternative. (see section below)
  • Talk to your instructor, a librarian, or classmate, for ideas.

Once you have a general sense of your research topic, you will want to develop a compelling research question.

Doing Background Research

Doing background research on your topic is a great first step to get familiar with the content you will be researching. 

It is perfectly fine to start your research with a preliminary Google search or a perusal of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a scholarly or academic source, but it can be a useful tool in the early parts of your research. Although anyone can edit Wikipedia, it has strict rules and guidelines for citations and is frequently checked for misinformation. Though it is not always appropriate to cite wikipedia in your final research project, it can provide basic information to guide you in the research process. For more information on how to use Wikipedia wisely, go here.

Additionally, library resources like Credo Reference or encyclopedias are another way to do background research. Credo Reference pulls from different encyclopedias to provide you with accurate background information on a variety of topics.