Things to Keep in Mind

Having a plan before starting any research project or assignment will bring you the most success once you begin your research. While it might be difficult to develop a full plan of action, knowing some (or all) of the following things will be useful:

  • A general understanding of your research topic. Doing background research would help with this.
  • The type of resources (newspaper articles, blogs, for example) required or needed to complete your research. You can find this information in your assignment or by asking your professor.
  • The types of resources that you are not allowed to use in your research. You can find this information in your assignment or by asking your professor.
    • While you may not be able to include these resources in your research, you can still use them to learn about your topic.
  • Are you required to use a specific citation style? While this won’t affect your research, knowing this will help you stay organized.

Developing a Research Question

Consult this section if you want to know about how to develop a research question.

Once you have narrowed the focus of your research and done some preliminary background research, the next step is to identify gaps in your knowledge. These gaps will be useful in developing your research question. To do this, ask these two questions about your research topic:

  1. What do you already know (if anything) about your topic?
  2. What do you not know, but are curious to learn about, as it relates to your topic?

Engaging in this short exercise can help you get into a research state of mind and may help you start thinking about the argument that you want to make. Look at the following example for some inspiration.

Example topic: Effects of social media on mental health

What I know:

  • Instagram images pressure people to look a certain way.

What I don’t know, but I’m curious about:

  • Which social media platforms are preferred by people of different age groups
  • What mental health issues are more associated with social media
  • Steps that social media platforms are taking to help their users

When choosing a research question to write about, it’s always useful to pick something that interests you or that you are curious about. That being said, it is also essential that your research question aligns with the parameters of your assignment, can be researched within a reasonable time frame, and takes into account the research resources available to you.

When you take these factors into account, you are in a better position to develop a research question that is appropriate for your assignment and has a well-defined scope. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a vague question that will leave you browsing through a lot of information, or a research question that is too specific that will make it difficult to locate information to support your argument.

Research question that is too broad: What is the effect of social media on a person’s mental health?

  • To make this a more useful research question, it would be useful to identify a particular mental health issue, focus on a single social media platform, or focus on a certain group of people.

Research question with a defined scope: What is the relationship between social media usage and depression in teens?

  • This research question is a decent starting point because it identifies a specific part of the population and a specific mental health issue.

Research question that is too narrow: What are the negative mental health effects of Instagram on teens living in Canada during the 2010s?

  • To make this a more effective research question, it would be useful to not restrict your research to a particular location or time frame, at least when you are starting your research project.

Once you have chosen a research question that interests you and has a defined scope, the next step would be to start your research. However, especially if you are working on an argumentative essay, you will also need to think about the “so what?” question. This question asks that you consider the significance of your research question, not just to yourself, but to your reader.

This way of thinking about research—one where you consider the significance of your research question—requires practice. But when you approach research this way, you are building a closer relationship with your reader by giving them something in return. Establishing the significance of your research question is not essential when conducting research, but its presence will help you identify additional sources of information that support your argument.

Research question: What is the relationship between social media usage and depression in teens?

Significance: Answering this question will help your readers understand how social media, or a particular platform, negatively impact the lives of teens.

Identifying the Main Concepts in a Research Question

Consult this section if you are ready to begin your research and you have developed a research question.

It is possible to conduct research without a research question, but without one, the research process won’t be as straightforward. This is why a research question is often at the center of your research process. Online search engines are designed to pull out the most important information from the information that you input into them. However, you are not able to control what the search engine considers most important.

Instead of typing your full research question into a search engine, consider identifying the main concepts, sometimes called keywords, in your research question to increase the chances of locating more appropriate sources of information.

Research Question: What is the relationship between social media usage and depression in teens?

What is the relationship between social media usage and depression in teens?

When identifying keywords, think about the ideas and topics that need to be part of your research in order for it to be relevant. In the example above, any information sources without the highlighted words would not be relevant for your assignment. As you begin to locate sources, keep in mind that your research question may change, and so will the keywords and main concepts that best describe it.

Creating a Search Statement

Keywords are the words that you put into a search box when you are doing research. Unlike searches in Google, library databases require you to think in more concrete terms about what you want to search for.

Using quotation marks around a word or a phrase (two or more keywords) when searching will keep those words in the order you entered them and indicate to the search engine that the word or phrases must appear in the search results. For example, searching for the keywords Mexico City without quotation marks will return information that may not have anything to do with Mexico City. Searching for “Mexico City”, however, groups the two keywords together and you will only get results about Mexico City.

Search operators (also known as Boolean operators) are terms that are used in between keywords and phrases when doing research to help create broader or more narrow searches. These terms tell a search engine what to do with your keywords.

Boolean operators need to be typed in all capital letters in order for them to work. Here’s a brief description of what they do and when to use them:

  • AND: use this operator between all the keywords and phrases you want to include in your search. Using AND creates a narrower search.
  • OR: using OR creates a broader search. If you have a term that can be described in many ways, OR gives you the option to search for multiple terms at once.
  • NOT: use this operator to exclude keywords from your search. This operator is not as commonly used, but can be helpful when you need to exclude irrelevant results. For example, the search statement Mexico NOT city would return information about Mexico but not about Mexico City.

These three operators are common across most research resources you’ll use (even Google), so don’t hesitate to use them in your searches. For more examples, look at the Search Tips page (work in progress).

It is possible to combine quotation marks and search operators into one complex, but useful, search statement. Using parentheses as separators, you are able to tell a search engine what parts of a search statement need to be included or prioritized. Without the nesting that parentheses allow for, most search engines read your search statement from left to right, applying search operators in ways that you didn’t intend.

The use of parentheses in this example would ensure that the operator OR is applied to the two alternative phrases.

“Fast food” AND (“Mexico City” OR “Ciudad de Mexico”) AND “women”

“Fast food” AND “Mexico City” OR “Ciudad de Mexico” AND “women”

In the first example, the search will return results that either contains the phrase “Mexico City” or “Ciudad de Mexico”, but in the second example, because there are no parentheses, the search engine will either look for results with the keywords “fast food” and “Mexico City” or it will find information with the keywords “Ciudad de Mexico” and “women”.