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The Research Process

This page will help guide you through the entire research process, from start to finish.

Choosing a Topic

If you know you are interested in doing research in a broad subject area, try to think of ways you can make your subject more specific.

Example: writing a paper about global warming

Brainstorm for topic ideas

What aspects of your topic are you interested in?

  • Environmental-- The impact of global warming on the sea level.
  • Economic-- The impact of global warming on the agricultural industry.
  • Political-- Frequently representatives of countries gather together to address pollution problems that may contribute to global warming. Has this process been effective?

What time period or geographic area are you interested in?

  • Geographic Area-- How will global warming affect developing countries?
  • Time Period-- Have reports of global warming increased over the past 10 years?

What do you already know about the topic?

  • I've heard that there is disagreement in the scientific community about the existence of global warming. What are the arguments on both sides of this issue?

Some tips to consider when choosing a topic:

  • When selecting a topic, be sure to choose a subject area that is of genuine interest to you.
  • Consult your instructor, as he or she may be able to give advice concerning paper topics.
  • In order to articulate your ideas, it helps to express your topic idea as a question.

Example: Global Warming > The effect of global warming on the agriculture industry > Will global warming cause the grain belt to move north? Will farmers have to change their crops as a result of global warming?

  • What if you don't have enough information to express your topic idea as a specific question? If this is the case, doing some background reading can help you to articulate your research topic.

For more help, please visit, Choosing a topic or Develop a topic and create a concept map.

Background Information

Finding background information about a topic is an important step of the research process. If you are interested in pursuing a topic which is unfamiliar to you, reading an encyclopedia or a general article about the subject can allow you to articulate your topic idea and assist in pointing out areas for further research.

Sources to consult for background information include:


Encyclopedias are available in both general and subject specific formats. If you are just beginning your research and need general background information, sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana can be good starting points. Subject specific encyclopedias can give you background information about a particular discipline or subject area. Examples of subject specific encyclopedias include The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology and the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. There are many encyclopedias available covering different subject areas. If you are having trouble finding an encyclopedia to use for background information in your research, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

General news articles

News articles in a newspaper or general magazine can give you a starting point for your research. Article databases that you can use to find general articles include Readers' Guide, and  InfoTrac. Please see the databases listed under General Interest Databases on the Article Database page for more information.


Experts in a particular field will sometimes compile lists of useful resources for people pursuing research. Many bibliographies on a variety of topics are published in book form and are available at the Illinois library. The home pages for some UIUC departmental libraries may also provide information about bibliographies for their particular subject. For more information, please see the LibGuides page.

Quick tip:

To search the library catalog for bibliographies, do a keyword subject search by typing the word bibliography and words that describe the topic of your research. For example, if you are researching a paper on global warming, you could run a search for 'bibliography global warming' to see what resources are available. For more information, please visit Top Ten Tips for Tackling Tricky Database Queries.

You can find more background information in the Library's Online Reference Collection.

Finding Articles

Searching for sources

  • Identify important concepts in your topic.
  • Once you have articulated your topic, try to pick out important concepts or keywords which you can use when you search for articles.
  • Example: How will global warming affect developing countries?

  • Identify the subject area.
  • For the global warming and developing countries topic there are a couple subject areas to consider when trying to choose a database or index. The issue of global warming could be described as environmental or scientific. The fact that the issue of developing countries is also a factor means that the subject area also involves international issues.

  • Consider how recent or historical your search is.

  • Since global warming is a recent concern, finding the most current articles would be useful.

  • Choose the appropriate article database or index.
  • Look at the Online Journals and Databases and match the subject areas of your topic with the subject areas of the different article databases that are available for you to search.
  • Example: For the Global Warming topic, you can look at the Life Sciences & Medicine database subject area and see that there is an Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management database that deals with environmental issues. By looking at the Social Sciences, Business, & Education database subject area, you can also see that the PAIS Archive (Public Affairs Information Service) database might have articles dealing with developing countries. Searching both of these databases for articles relating to your topic would be a good place to start your research.

  • Run the search.
  • Think about the important concepts and subject area of your topic. Choose keywords that you can use to search the databases.
  • Example: In the topic "How will global warming affect developing countries?" the important concepts are global warming and developing countries. One way to make sure that your search for articles is effective is to think of synonyms or additional words to describe your topic.

    global warming: greenhouse effect, climate change
    developing countries: developing nations, underdeveloped countries, third world

  • Most article databases allow you to build your searches by combining similar concepts with the word OR. This will result in a broader search.
  • For example: global warming OR greenhouse effect OR climate change will find any article that has any of the three concepts in it. You can combine dissimilar concepts to create a focused search.

    Example: The search "global warming AND developing countries" will find any article that has both concepts in it. For example, the search "(global warming OR greenhouse effect) AND developing countries" will find any article that has either global warming or greenhouse effect as terms and the term developing countries.

You can find more information at Choosing an article database. You may also visit this Information Literacy Tutorial, a LEARN LibGuide, for help with finding, evaluating, and using sources.

Evaluate your results

  • Look at the number of article citations you were able to retrieve. If you retrieved more articles than you expected and they don't seem to be relevant to your topic, you may need to add another concept or keyword to your search statement in order to narrow your search. If you retrieved fewer articles than you expected, perhaps your search statement was too narrow. You might want to take some keywords out of your search statement to create a broader search which will retrieve more articles.
  • Look at the abstract or subject headings of the article citations you have retrieved to determine if they are relevant to your research.
  • If you want more information about how to search article databases, workshops are offered every semester.
  • If you are having any trouble searching the article databases, check out tips on locating articles or be sure to Ask a Librarian for help.

Finding Materials at University of Illinois Libraries

Necessary Information

Once you have successfully searched and found citations or references to articles which you think might be useful, the next step is to find copies of the articles in question. In order to search for the location of a journal that contains an article you are interested in, it is necessary to have the following information:

  • Title of the journal
  • Date the article was published
  • Year and volume of the journal
  • Page numbers of the article

Once you have this information, you can use the Online Library Catalog or Online Journals & Databases to find the location of the journal you need. Since you know the exact title of the journal, use the Title search in the catalog to search for the location of the journal at the University of Illinois library.

If you want additional information about how to search the Online Library Catalog, be sure to Ask a Librarian for help. 



It is important to carefully examine the articles you find in order to see if they will truly be helpful to you in your research. The list of questions below is intended to provide a starting point for evaluating an article in four major categories: accuracy, content, author, and date.

  • Accuracy-- Based on your knowledge of the subject, does the article seem to be accurate? Are any conclusions supported or backed up by convincing data?
  • Coverage-- Does the article fully address the issues raised? Is the coverage comprehensive, or do you need additional sources? Is the article objective, or does it seem to be based on opinion?
  • Authority-- Are the authors authorities in their fields? Have they published extensively on this topic? Are they affiliated with a reputable university or institution?
  • Currency-- When was the article published? Is it current enough for your topic? Do you need to find similar articles that are more up-to-date?

Evaluating Web-Based Resources

Are you using Web-based resources in your research? Web ages also need to be evaluated to determine if they will be useful in your research. In most cases you may apply the criteria you would use in evaluating print resources to the evaluation of Web-based resources. It is important to remember that unlike scholarly print publications, where articles are subjected to a process of review, anyone can publish on the Web. Many webpages are also designed to be commercial as opposed to educational. For more information about evaluating Web resources, please see the following pages:

You can learn more about how to evaulate your sources on the Undergraduate Library "Is it Scholarly?" page.

Using Peer Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research

Your professors may require you to use peer-reviewed or refereed journal articles for your assignments. If you ever do independent projects, you will need to know how to identify refereed/peer-reviewed research. The LEARN to Use the Library Using Refereed/Peer-Reviewed Research tutorial will help you understand, identify, and use research from refereed and peer-reviewed sources by examining specific examples from the University of Illinois.

Citation Analysis

In order to gauge the impact of a particular publication, it can be useful to know the number of times it has been cited by other authors. Counting citations is often referred to as "citation analysis." "Citation chasing" - discovering other publications through citations, is a way of following a scholarly conversation and learning more about your research topic. For a tutorial on this topic, see the LEARN to Use the Library page on Citation Analysis. One type of citation analysis is Impact Factor, which you can learn more about on the Impact Factor LEARN site page. For information on alternatives to traditional citation counting (called "altmetrics") visit the Altmetrics LEARN site page.

Annotated Bibliographies

As a part of your coursework you may be asked to create an annotated bibliogrpahy. An annotated bibliography is a bibliography in which each source is briefly summarized and/or evaluated. An annotation can be helpful to the researcher in evaluating whether the source is relevant to a given topic or line of inquiry.

The purpose of an annotated bibliography is to reflect on the things that you have read in your research and begin to synthesize the ideas you have gathered. An annotated bibliography may point your readers towards more sources on the topic that may be interesting or helpful for them.

Creating an annotated bibliography can be a very natural part of the research process. As you identify research questions and find sources that answer those questions, take notes on the materials that you've read and create a comprehensive list of sources. (RefWorks can help you keep track of your sources in an organized fashion.)

For each source on your list, you should summarize the content, assess the quality and relevancy of the source to your project, and reflect on the big ideas explicated in the source. Write a few sentences based on your reflections.

Depending on your field, you may cite your sources in a variety of styles, such as APA, MLA, or Chicago. See the citation guide for more information. Annotations may be in different formats depending on your class and professor, but usually you should just write a few sentences that summarize and evaluate the work.

Sample entry:

Gilbert, Pam. "From Voice to Text: Reconsidering Writing and Reading in the English Classroom." English Education, 23.4 (1991): 195-211.

Gilbert provides some insight into the concept of "voice" in textual interpretation, and points to a need to move away from the search for voice in reading. Her reasons stem from a growing danger of "social and critical illiteracy," which might be better dealt with through a move toward different textual understandings. Gilbert suggests that theories of language as a social practice can be more useful in teaching. Her ideas seem to disagree with those who believe in a dominant voice in writing, but she presents an interesting perspective.

The annotation above is effective because it briefly summarizes the article's argument, places the argument in the context of the field, and evaluates the article.

Learn more:

Writing a Research Proposal

At some point, you may need to write a research proposal. A proposal is a request for support of sponsored research, instruction, or extension projects. Proposals are intended to answer questions about the nature of the project, how the project relates to the sponsor's interests, what your background is in this area of research, how you will carry out the project, and why you are the right person for the project. There are a few different types of proposals, and there are particular components of a research proposal. For more information about research proposals, go to the LEARN to Use the Library Writing a Research Proposal page.

Dissertation & Thesis Writing Tips

Not sure how to get started with your dissertation or thesis? Having trouble with the writing process? LEARN to Use the Library has a page devoted to General Dissertation & Thesis Writing Tips.

Creating New Information

The library can help you not only access information sources but also create new information. Below are some issues you may face in creating new information, and how the library can help.

Academic Integrity

Academic Integrity means honesty and responsibility in scholarship. Students and faculty alike must obey rules of honest scholarship, which means that all academic work should result from an individual's own efforts. Intellectual contributions from others must be consistently and responsibly acknowledged. Academic work completed in any other way is fraudulent.

Visualization of Research

The Library's experts can help you visualize your data. Attend a workshop to learn more. Check out A Periodic Table of Visualizations.

Working with Data

The Library can assist you with Numberic and Spatial data.

Data Management Plan (DMP) Tool: From the website - "The DMP Tool allows you to: create ready-to-use data management plans for specific funding agencies, meet funder requirements for data management plans, get step-by-step instructions and guidance for your data management plan as you build it, and in many cases, get data management advice and resources for your specific institution."

Scanning and Digitization Services

The Library has scanning and digitization services to help support your research.

The Center for Writing Studies - Writer's Workshop

Anyone can set up an appointment with the Writer's Workshop to work with a writing consultant.

Citing Sources

In order to avoid plagiarism or other academic integrity infractions at the University of Illinois, it is necessary to cite your sources. Go to the Cite a Source LEARN site page. Learn more about why citing sources is necessary on the  Academic Integrity & Plagiarism page. 

Usually a professor will tell you if there is a preferred citation style for your research project. The list that follows is a sample of some of the online resources that are available for people with style and grammar questions.

Sharing your research, whether locally or internationally, requires you to make decision regarding your work. Consult with your subject specialist librarian to learn more. 

Productivity Tools and Current Awareness

The Productivity Tools for Scholarship LEARN site page provides links to a number of tools for staying organized, taking notes, organizing and annotating pdf's, managing data, managing projects, and collaborating with others. The Current Awareness LEARN site page provides information for how to stay up-to-date in your field, including using RSS feeds to receive updated information from online sources.

Share Your Research

The publication process - videos

Guide to publishing with Cell Press. Are you looking to submit an article for publication for the first time? These videos provide an excellent introduction to the submission process. From the website: "Watch four Cell Press editors answer questions from three early career scientists about preparing, submitting and publishing an article in a Cell Press journal." Videos include discussions on preparing a manuscript submission, what happens after the initial submission, the decision process, and what happens after manuscript acceptance.

ACS: Publishing your research 101. The American Chemical Society produced videos that give an overview of the publishing process including "How to write a paper to communicate your research," "writing your cover letter," "Selecting peers to suggest as reviewers," "Ethical considerations for authors and reviewers," "The review process for authors and reviewers," and "Open access and ACS AuthorChoice."

Understanding copyright

  • Learn more about using copyrighted works in teaching, research, and scholarship. Despite complexities of U.S. copyright law and international laws, students and faculty must determine if materials they want to use are under copyright and if so, if their intended use could be protected by fair use. Because copyright law is interpretive, this website does not offer definitive or legal answers, but Scholarly Commons experts are available to help students and faculty talk through these issues.
  • It is imperative in your role as an instructor and researcher that you have an understanding of fair use. Copyright law includes a variety of limitations and exceptions that govern the ways that copyrighted material may be used. The exception most people have heard about is fair use. Below are brief descriptions and links to some of the limitations and exceptions set out in copyright law. Check out the Fair use checklist
  • The Open Access movement allows you to  make your research  freely accessible for anyone to read, distribute, reproduce, print, or search on the internet. 
  • Learn more about how to assign a Creative Commons license to your work as well as how you can use Creative Commons licensed work. Creative Commons licenses are agreements that allow copyright holders to modify the copyrights for their works. Creative Commons licenses specifically address four aspects of use: attribution, the manner of sharing allowed, creation of derivative works, the commercial use.
  • What are y our rights as an authorAs the original author of a work, you hold the copyright to that work. The decision to reproduce, alter, or distribute the work is entirely in your hands. However, you can sign these rights away to publishing companies if you are not careful.
  • As an instructor, copyright law determines how you can and cannot use copyrighted materials in the classroom and online. Learn more about the TEACH Act, course reserves course packs, and University of Illinois policy. Section 110 of copyright law is an exception that addresses classroom use of copyrighted material. This section makes it legal to use materials for teaching if:
    • The class is face-to-face and located in a classroom or similar educational setting (see the TEACH Act for distance education settings)
    • The school is a non-profit institution
    • The school legally owns a copy of the material being shared
    • The information is necessary to the course
  • Stay up-to-date on the ever-changing landscape of copyright concerns by monitoring the news and social media outlets.
  • "Can I Use that Picture?": Find out more about The Terms, Laws, and Ethics for Using Copyrighted Images.

Scholarly communication Issues

  • Author's Rights: The University of Illinois Library's Author Rights campaign seeks to help scholars take control of their work and their careers by becoming more informed about trends in scholarly publishing.
  • IDEALS: Illinois Digital Environment for Access to learning and Scholarship: Deposit your work into the University of Illinois' institutional repository so that you can share your work with colleagues and the world. 
  • Journal Impact Factors: Impact factor is a measure of the frequency with which the "average article" published in a given scholarly journal has been cited in a particular year or period and is often used to measure or describe the importance of a particular journal to its field. The Thomson-Reuters (formerly Institute for Scientific Information (ISI)) ranks, evaluates, and compares journals within subject categories and publishes the results in  Journal Citation Reports
  • AltmetricsAltmetrics, or “alternative metrics,” are an emerging field of new methods for measuring the use and importance of scholarly articles, particularly in the sciences.

Conferences and symposiums

Sharing through social media

Copyright and Visual Media

When searching for images to use in your research, it is important to keep in mind the laws, ethics, and terms of using images. This is necessary for avoiding copyright infringement. The links below are intended to serve as guides in determining when it is legal to use an image, and when permission must first be granted. Information about copyright can be interpreted differently, so use your best judgment. Also, please note that laws may be different in other countries.

   Thumbnail image of "Can I Use that Picture?" Infographic

Find out: Can I Use that Picture?: The Terms, Laws, and Ethics for Using Copyrighted Images - an infographic (thumbnail above) from The Visual Communication Guy

Some additional sources, including a critique of Can I Use that Picture?, are listed below:

Illinois also has some great resources to help with finding and using images: