Engaging With Research

Strategies for Conducting Research

In the 21st century, we have more information and knowledge instantaneously at our fingertips than could have been imagined 100, 50, or even 30 years ago. Figuring out how to wade through all of that information can be daunting. Research is one way we can we can make sense of and discuss all the information available to us. Research is the basis for strong and persuasive communication because it helps us understand what others have said, done, and written about a particular topic or issue.

What is research?

Research begins with questions.  Before you begin to find sources, you must determine what your already know and what you hope to learn. Do you want first-person reflections and commentary? Statistics and facts? News reports? Scientific analyses? History?

For example, if you are interested in a recent piece of legislation then you would want to locate the full-text of the bill as well as commentary about the legislation from reliable news organizations such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. If you are interested in statistics about the U.S. population, you might go to the U.S. Census Bureau or the Pew Research Center. Perhaps you are interested in the experiences of veterans returning from active duty. In this case you may turn to blogs or  op-eds written by vets, official U.S. military records from agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, or organizations such as the RAND Corporation.

Primary v. Secondary Research

There are two basic kinds of research—primary and secondary. Often, primary and secondary research are used together.

Primary research is often first-person accounts and can be useful when you are researching a local issue that may not have been addressed previously and/or have little published research available. You may also use primary research to supplement, confirm, or challenge national or regional trends with local information.  Primary research can include:

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Observations and analysis
  • Ethnography (the study and description of people, cultures, and customs)

Secondary research is what many students are most familiar with as it is generally requires searching libraries and other research institutions’ holdings.  Secondary research requires that you read others’ published studies and research in order to learn more about your topic, determine what others have written and said, and then develop a conclusion about your ideas on the topic, in light of what others have done and said. Some examples of source types that might be used in secondary research include:

  • Academic, scientific, and technical journal articles
  • Governmental reports
  • Raw data and statistics
  • Trade and professional organization data

Primary and secondary research often work together to develop persuasive arguments. Let’s say, for example, you are interested in using STEM knowledge to improve the quality of life for the homeless population in Columbus, Ohio. The most successful project would use both secondary and primary research. First, the secondary research will help establish best or common practices, trends, statistics, and current research about homelessness both broadly in the U.S. and state, and more narrowly in the county and city.

Your brainstorming would likely lead to questions regarding the following:

  • The major issues facing homelessness and combating homelessness in the U.S.
  • The homeless population and demographics for Columbus, Ohio
  • Services currently available for the homeless in Columbus
  • Services available in other cities and the state

The above information would likely be available through secondary research sources. Useful information would likely be available through city and state government agencies such as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; local and national homeless advocacy groups such as the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in OhioColumbus Coalition for the Homeless,  National Alliance to End Homelessness, and the National Coalition for the Homeless. You would also need to search relevant research databases (discussed in the Where Do I Look? section) in subject areas such as engineering, sociology and social work, and government documents.

Second, primary research, such as interviews or surveys can provide more in-depth and local bent to the numbers and details provided in secondary sources. Some examples of groups to interview or survey include local homeless advocates; shelter and outreach employees and volunteers; people currently or previously experiencing homelessness, such as the vendors or writers for the street newspaper Street Speech; researchers or university-affiliated groups, such as OSU’s STAR House, that conducts, compiles, and applies research on homelessness.

Often, the strongest research blends primary and secondary research.

Where do I begin?

Research is about questions. In the beginning the questions are focused on helping you determine a topic and types of information and sources; later in the research process, the questions are focused on expanding and supporting your ideas and claims as well as helping you stay focused on the specific rhetorical situation of your project.

Questions to get started

  • What is my timeline for the project? You will likely want to set personal deadlines in addition to your instructor’s deadlines.
  • What do I want to know or learn about? This helps you determine scope or the limits of your research. If you’re writing a dissertation or thesis, then your scope will generally be larger because those types of projects are often 100+ pages. For a term paper, the scope will be more narrow. For example, if you’re interested in NASA funding and research, you may limit yourself to the past 10-15 years because NASA because NASA has been around for nearly 60 years. Further, you may limit your focus to research that has transitioned into technologies or resources used outside of NASA and the space program.
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What biases might I have about this topic? How might I combat these biases?

Questions to determine methodology

  • Where might I find useful, reliable information about this topic? For academic research, you will generally focus on library, technical, scientific, and governmental resources. It is fine if you are not quite sure exactly where you should look; your instructor should be able to help you determine some places that would be appropriate.
  • Will I need to perform primary research, secondary research, or both?

Next you will have to develop a research question. By this point you should have a general idea of your topic and some general ideas of where you might find this information.

Research Questions

Research questions generally form the basis for your project’s thesis. Research questions are not about facts, but are about opinions, ideas, or concerns.

Which of these is a research question?

  1. What is NASA’s budget for 2016?
  2. What is the impact of NASA’s budget on scientific breakthroughs and contributions to non-space-related fields?

The former can be answered quickly and easily (NASA’s 2016 budget was about $19.3 billion), but the latter requires detailed analysis of multiple sources and considerations of various opinions and facts.

Once you have developed your research question(s), you are ready to begin searching for answers.

Where do I look?

In the 21st century, we generally turn to the internet when we have a question. For technical, scientific, and academic research, we can still turn to the internet, but where we visit changes. We will discuss a few different places where you can perform research including Google, Google Scholar, and your university library website.

Google and Google Scholar

The default research site for most students tends to be Google. Google can be a great starting place for a variety of research. You can use Google to find news articles and other popular sources such as magazine articles and blog posts. You can use Google to discover keywords, alternative terms, and relevant professional, for-profit, and non-profits business and organizations. The most important thing to remember about using Google is that search results are organized by popularity, not by accuracy. Further, because Google customizes search results based on a user’s search history, searches performed by different people or on different browsers may provide slightly different results.

For many technical, scientific, and scholarly topics, Google will not provide access to the appropriate and necessary types of sources and information. Google Scholar, however, searches only academic and scientific journals, books, patents, and governmental and legal documents.  This means the results will be more technical and scholarly and therefore more appropriate for much of the research you will be expected to perform as a student. Though Google Scholar will show academic and technical results, that does not mean that you will have access to the full-text documents. Many of the sources that appear on Google Scholar are from databases, publishers, or libraries, which means that they are often behind paywalls or password-protected. In many cases, this means you will have to turn to a university or other library for access.

University Libraries

Library resources such as databases, peer-reviewed journals, and books are generally the best bet for accurate and more technical information. A Google search might yield millions and millions of results and a Google Scholar search may yield tens or hundreds of thousands of results, but a library search will generally turn up only a couple thousands, hundreds, or even dozens of results. You may think, “Isn’t fewer results a bad thing? Doesn’t that mean limiting the possibilities for the project?” The quick answers are yes, fewer results means fewer options for your project, but no, this does not mean using the library limits the possibilities for a project.

Overall, library resources are more tightly controlled and vetted. Anyone can create a blog or website and post information, regardless of the accuracy or usefulness of the information. Library resources, in contrast, have generally gone through rigorous processes and revisions before publication. For example, academic and scientific journals have a review system in place—whether a peer-review process or an editorial board—both feature panels of people with expertise in the areas under consideration. Publishers for books also feature editorial boards who determine the usefulness and accuracy of information. Of course, this does not mean that every peer-reviewed journal article or book is 100% accurate and useful all of the time. Biases still exist, and many commonly accepted facts change over time with more research and analysis. Overall the process for these types of publications require that multiple people read and comment on the work, providing some checks and balances that are not present for general internet sources.

So what are common types of library sources?

  • Databases: databases are specialized search service that provide access to sources such as academic and scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines. An example of a database would be Academic Search Complete.
  • Journals: journals are specialized publications focused on an often narrow topic or field. For example,  Computers & Composition is a peer-reviewed journal focused on the intersection of computers, technology, and composition (i.e. writing) classrooms. Another example is the Journal of Bioengineering & Biomedical Science.
  • Books: also called monographs, books generally cover topics in more depth than can be done in a journal article. Sometimes books will contain contributions from multiple authors, with each chapter authored separately.
  • Various media: depending on the library, you may have access to a range of media, including documentries, videos, audio recordings, and more. Some libraries offer streaming media that you can watch directly on the library website without having to download any files.

How do I perform a search?

Research is not a linear process. Research requires a back and forth between sources, your ideas and analysis, and the rhetorical situation for your research.

The research process is a bit like an eye exam. The doctor makes a best guess for the most appropriate lens strength, and then adjusts the lenses from there. Sometimes the first option is the best and most appropriate; sometimes it takes a few tries with several different options before finding the best one for you and your situation.

Once you decide on a general topic, you will need to determine keywords that you can use to search different resources.


Let’s say you read an article about how four Mexican immigrants and their cheap robot beat MIT in a robotics competition, and now you are interested in the topic of immigration and STEM education or employment. After reading the article, you decide on some terms:

  • Illegal aliens
  • Hispanics
  • STEM
  • Education
  • Employment

It is important to have a wide range of keywords because not all terms will result in the same information. Developing a list of keywords can be aided by a quick Google search. A Google search may reveal more official language or terms; broader or narrower terms and concepts; or related terms and concepts. You can also search for the term + synonym to find other words you might use.  Keep in mind, a synonym search will not work for all terms. For technical and scientific topics, though, Google may not be a lot of help for finding other terms.

You can use a couple different tricks to narrow your search. Using quotation marks around two or more words means the search results will contain those words only in that specific order. For example, based on the exercise above, a search for “illegal aliens” would only provide results where these words appear in this exact order, with no words between them. A search for illegal aliens  without the quotation marks will search for “illegal aliens” but also any sources that have the word illegal and alien anywhere in the text.


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A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications Copyright © 2016 by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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