About the Research Process

About This Guide

This guide will introduce you to conducting basic literature reviews in today’s academic library environment. If you are looking for why I sometimes recommend Wikipedia, please see the “Finding Background Information” section below.

Choosing a Topic and Getting Organized

What are you interested in studying? Consider the scope of your topic. Some topics may be too broad for short research papers, while others may be too narrow. Once you’ve decided on a manageable topic, try to come up with key concepts. For example, if you’re interested in the impact of alcoholism on families, your key concepts will be alcohol, family, or related terms such as substance abuse or codependency. Write them down; these concepts will assist you when you go to the BU Libraries Search or other databases to gather more information.

As you find literature, try using RefWorks to organize and track citations. RefWorks allows you to add citations from any source, save full text attachments, and automatically create a bibliography for your paper in various citation styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).

Evaluating Sources

Evaluating the information you locate is crucial when doing research. Below is a list of some questions you might consider as you look at the possible sources for your paper. Most questions apply to both print and electronic resources.

  • Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials? What is the author’s educational background? Has the author written other works on this topic?
  • How current is the information? Has the information been superseded by new information?
  • Does the work have a particular bias and does the author make the bias clear?
  • Is the publisher known for scholarly research or is the journal/magazine known to be academic? Scholarly journals contain articles that have been reviewed by either a panel of experts or by a knowledgeable editor. In most cases, the articles contained in these journals include citations, either as footnotes or as a bibliography. Other periodicals that are not quite academic, such as “The Wall Street Journal” or “Scientific American,” have good reputations and can often lead to academic sources.  Such periodicals can help identify current research, but should not be the sole source of research for your paper.
  • Is the information provided backed up by facts or is it opinion? Is the information based on reasonable evidence? Can you verify the information you’ve located by finding it in other sources?
  • What is the intended audience? Undergraduate students? Specialists in a field?
  • Is the information provided in a grammatically correct way? Is everything spelled correctly? Is the information provided in a logical, well-ordered manner?
  • Is the web information stable, that is, can you retrieve the information from the site in subsequent attempts? When the site is updated, are the changes noted by the author or host?

Here are a few sites you can use to get more information on evaluating Web resources:

Finding Background Information

Finding background information will assist you in developing your topic further. Using your key concepts, look up information on your topic in dictionaries or encyclopedias. You may need to narrow the scope of your research. There are several ways to do this. Narrowing your area of research to a specific time period or geographical area is one way. You can also narrow your topic to a specific group or situation, for example, research teenage alcoholism rather than alcoholism.

Subject encyclopedias are more specific than general encyclopedias and will provide more precise background information. A great way to locate a subject encyclopedia (online or in print) is through one of our research guides on various topics. You can also find them by performing a simple keyword search in our library search. For example, to find an encyclopedia of psychology, you would type “psychology AND encyclopedia” in the search box.

Your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings can be used as background sources as well.

The open World Wide Web (e.g., Wikipedia) is another good resource for gathering background information but one must be cautious when using the Web for research. Many Wikipedia articles are very good general overviews, cite academic sources, and are updated often. However, in most cases it is not appropriate to cite a background source like Wikipedia in a college-level paper. Almost anyone can publish material on the Web, so not all sources found there are reliable. Watch out for biased viewpoints, incomplete or simply incorrect material. Whereas most print sources, like books and articles, are reviewed or edited to insure that the information is accurate, there is usually little or no review of Web information.

This is not to say that all sites lack review or that information found on the Web is unreliable. The essays in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, have been reviewed by a prestigious editorial staff and might therefore be acceptable to a professor as a source for your research. Read on.

Finding Scholarly Literature

Once you have background information on your topic, the next step is to search for academic books and articles. The most common way to search is by keyword. Keyword searching works well when you do not already know a specific author or title. As you’re looking through records, check the small star next to titles to collect them to an e-shelf (see the top of the page to find the e-shelf link). This will allow you to easily collect items you may want to use.

Find More Relevant Results

We have dedicated a page to search tips for our BU Libraries Search.  Below are some basic tips:

  • Try an advanced search by title or author if you already have references for relevant works from any sources you’ve consulted.
  • Subject searches are an advanced way to search, but also can lead to more relevant results. Many “controlled” subject terms are common ones that make sense.
  • Whenever you are looking at search results, pay attention to the number of results. Change your search terms if retrieving too many hits. In general, the lower the number of hits, the more relevant your results will become.
  • Look through the facets along the left column, as clicking one will help focus your results.
  • In our libraries, related books can be found by browsing the books nearby on the shelf.
  • Scour the bibliographies in the highly relevant items you’ve retrieved to find other useful texts.
  • Our other subscription databases are an excellent way to locate relevant material. Some databases cover a small amount of literature in a specific subject area, but searching in them retrieves more relevant results because of that focus. Please ask us for assistance if you are having difficulty deciding which database to use.

Finding Material not Available at BU

It should be noted that the BU Libraries do not own all of the books or articles you may find listed somewhere. We may have more than you think, however. For instance, to see if an article really is available to Boston University, librarians often start with a journal title search. Keep in mind that one needs to search for the journal name here, not the article title. There are other, similar tricks that are sometimes necessary to expose our full range of resources.

If we do not own a book you want, the fastest way to get it is to search BU WorldCat Local.  If you see that it’s available within the Boston Library Consortium (BLC) libraries, you can click on a green request button to have it delivered to BU. It usually takes only 2 to 3 days to retrieve a book through this system.

Another option is to request the book or article you need through Interlibrary Loan. This service is invaluable but you should recognize that it can take two weeks or longer to get materials through Interlibrary Loan. We do not order items we already own and it is not a service intended for last minute research projects. Interlibrary Loan requests can be filled out online.

Citing your Sources and Plagiarism

Professors will usually require that you use a particular writing and citation style when submitting papers. There are several style manuals available at the reference desk at Mugar and in other libraries. These include:

  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

Please see our “Citing Your Sources” research guide for resources and links to some online help. Also, you can ask for assistance at a reference desk if you have any questions about using these guides.

Plagiarism is a serious concern and one that the university takes very seriously. Plagiarism involves using the work of someone else and failing to give proper credit or acknowledgment, thereby claiming the information as your own. The Boston University Academic Conduct Code is both a description of the University’s ethical expectations of students as well as a guarantee of students’ rights and responsibilities as members of a learning community. It provides clarity related to policy and procedure regarding academic conduct.

If you are having difficulty deciding when or how to cite sources, please contact your professor or the Reference staff at Mugar Memorial Library.