Intro to Academic Research

WR3 | Workshops

Introduction to Academic Research


“The problem is that doing scholarly work is intrinsically a mess.”

Kieran Healy


Perhaps the most common feature of books designed to help students do academic research is their dishonesty. These textbooks present academic research as an orderly list of procedures and tasks, each one leading logically to the next, culminating in a superbly crafted essay. This narrative generally begins with the formulation of a research question, proceeds to the gathering of background information and secondary sources, and finally to the drafting, revision, and completion of the project.

The problem is that research just doesn’t work this way.

The narrative of the research process found in books is misleading because it often presents an idealized and simplified description of how a project is conceived, develops, and concludes. The truth of the matter is that academic research is rarely a logical, linear operation. A list of steps can never fully prepare a researcher for the nature of true inquiry—with all its serendipitous discovery and unanticipated failure. Research is a surprising, exhilarating, and fulfilling experience, but it is also a messy, recursive, and frequently frustrating one. When students try research for the first time and experience difficulty and confusion instead of an orderly march to success, they often feel as if they aren’t good enough or smart enough to do research. So if you feel confused and overwhelmed at moments, you should know that is perfectly normal and you’re probably doing just fine.

The most important keys for success are consistent effort over time, determination, organization, and knowing when to ask for help.

With that stated, what I describe below presents a set of steps virtually identical to what I’ve just savagely criticized. The difference is that I won’t pretend that following a list of procedures will somehow magically produce an exemplary research essay. Every project is different and demands something different from the researcher. Every project requires that you learn new skills and find new sources of aid. To be successful at research requires a lot of hard work, creativity, inspiration, intelligence, and help from others. These complexities are impossible to capture in a checklist. Accordingly, the information below is not a manual of procedures; it provides only a general description of the research process and some common strategies that may help you along the way.

Research (like many things in life) is something that you must do in order to learn. Mistakes and confusion are great teachers if we are patient with them—they help reveal the limits of our knowledge and the horizon of our skills. Over time, and with experience, you will gain better research instincts. It is important to try on your own, but it is nice to have someone you can ask for help when things get really tough. I am honored to be your person. And there are many others at the library who are happy to help who have specialized training that far exceeds my own.

Click here to make an appointment with a research librarian

What is Research Writing?

Research writing involves a number of important skills: library research, critical thinking, the evaluation of sources, and the ability to synthesize information through summary, paraphrase, and quotation. Although synthesizing the thinking of others is an important part of the research essay, in its true form the research essay strives for much more than a mere restatement of what others have said on a particular topic or question. As Jack Baker and Allen Brizee state:

A research paper is not simply an informed summary of a topic by means of primary and secondary sources. It is neither a book report nor an opinion piece nor an expository essay consisting solely of one’s interpretation of a text nor an overview of a particular topic. Instead, it is a genre that requires one to spend time investigating and evaluating sources with the intent to offer interpretations of the texts, and not unconscious regurgitations of those sources. The goal of a research paper is not to inform the reader what others have to say about a topic, but to draw on what others have to say about a topic and engage the sources in order to thoughtfully offer a unique perspective on the issue at hand.

In high school you were perhaps asked to write research papers on predetermined topics. These essays were probably not what Baker and Brizee have in mind. Your projects were likely just reports—retellings of what other scholars or writers have said on a topic. A true research essay involves blazing a new path of inquiry where you produce original ideas, questions, and arguments. A research paper is a contribution to an ongoing conversation, a moment when you engage in dialogue with other important voices about a topic that you value.

The Academic Conversation

It is helpful to imagine a research essay as taking part in an ongoing conversation. Unlike the dialogue that we have with most people in our lives, these scholarly conversations occur in print—within published, peer-reviewed books and journal articles. Some conversations are vibrant, with hundreds or even thousands of participants. Other conversations are small, involving but a few specialists. Many conversations have been going on for hundreds or even thousands of years, while other conversations have only just started. Virtually everything you might write or think about is already part of one or more of these conversations. So, even if you don’t know it at the time, when you write about anything you are entering a conversation that already exists.

Like any good conversationalist, the author of a research paper wants to contribute his or her thoughts and opinions for the consideration of others in the conversation. But if you want to be taken seriously in the conversation, you have to know what the debates are about, who is involved in the dialogue, and what has been said previously. In short, you must remain mindful that your ideas have a context. This is why research is important: it is how you come to understand what has already been said and by whom.

The moves you make in these conversations will take many forms. We might, for example, take the idea of one scholar and build on it in some way—perhaps by extending it to a new context. Or, we might offer a new interpretation of the meaning of a particular film, historical event, or scientific experiment, distinguishing our view from the ones that already exist. During this process of articulating our own views, we often find ourselves in conflict with the thinking of others. As a result, we will often contribute to the conversation by expressing the reasons why we disagree in part or in whole with one or more of the other individuals in the conversation. On the other hand, we may also choose to bring in some ideas or words from others that we find helpful in making our own case. But, critically, our writing should never be a mere rehashing of someone else’s work. In any case, we must remain mindful that the conversation we hope to take part in existed before we entered it, and that whatever we might say or argue has a context that must be considered. Thus, every academic paper you write will not only argue an original point or idea, it will also show how that idea emerges from an existing conversation.

The Research “Process”

Step 1: Find a research question you would like to investigate

Discovering your own research topic can be an overwhelming experience. With so many things to choose from, finding a narrow focus is often difficult. However, before you can truly begin your library research you need to find a way to narrow your field of inquiry to a small set of research questions or problems.

As you begin your research, try to keep an open mind and allow yourself to be pulled in new directions. It is important to think of the research process as something more than a mere attempt to find information on a predetermined topic or an effort to find evidence that supports an idea or belief that one already holds, an error commonly referred to as confirmation bias. Instead, research should be process of discovery where you encounter ideas and contemplate questions that you would have otherwise never imagined.

Done properly, research has the power to change us—altering our views, values, and sense of things. But you must first allow yourself to become vulnerable to new ideas and follow the evidence, wherever it goes. During any particular research project you should be prepared to change your mind and your focus many, many times. You will frequently encounter dead ends; but you will also experience the thrill of serendipitous discovery that will take you down a path you would have never considered.


Step 2: Generate some keywords that are relevant to your topic

Library searching is done by querying databases with a set of keywords. Perhaps the most critical first step in research is to create a list of keywords that you associate with your question, problem, or topic. These keywords will be used during your initial searches in the library’s catalog and databases.

Inventing good keywords often requires some metacritical thinking (thinking about your thinking). And you may need to ask someone who already knows a lot about your subject to help you with selecting your keywords. Searching with improper keywords will leave you with the impression that there is nothing in the library on your topic, which is almost certainly not the case.

To put things bluntly, if your keywords suck you will not find good sources.

Significantly, you may not be able to determine the best keywords for searching until you’ve stumbled into some good sources and use them to help you refine your search keywords. For example, a student may search the catalog to find out how nations spy on their citizens by analyzing the population’s social media accounts. Using the word “spy” turns out not to be the best keyword; the keyword “surveillance” was far more productive. And as her knowledge grew, the student began using the names of specific countries and the names of their security agencies as keywords. So, as your knowledge deepens and you gain more insight into your chosen topic, you will constantly refine your keywords to cast more light into the darker regions of the library’s holdings. Research is an iterative, accretive process—not a linear one.


Step 3: Search for Books and Periodicals

The library uses special software designed to augment the searching of the its holdings known as a “discovery layer.” Dartmouth’s main library search engine currently uses a discovery layer product known as Primo. While Primo will apply your keywords to the catalog to show the physical holdings the library has on site, it will simultaneously search subscription electronic databases containing journal articles, newspapers, magazines, and other media.

After you submit your search terms in the field, these items are organized by relevance, as determined by an algorithm (which may, or may not, be a good thing). After entering your keywords, you will notice ways to further refine your search by clicking on several options within the left pane of the window. To limit your search to books only, select Format > Books on the left side of the page. Or limit the search to peer-reviewed articles by selecting Show Only > Peer-Reviewed Content and Format > Articles. There are many further ways to refine your searches in this way, if desired. It is usually worth your time to further limit your searches in this way.

🔴️ WARNING about Primo

A word of caution about Primo: while it searches the library catalog it its entirety, it does not search all of the electronic databases to which Dartmouth has a subscription. This means that if you exclusively use Primo for your searches, you will miss out on potentially vast amounts of possible sources that could be discovered through searching the various databases individually.

Step 4a: Use subject headings to systematically survey your topic

Your initial keyword searches will lead to a number of books that are useful to you, but there are limits to keyword searching. It is often inefficient and inexact. This is why the Library of Congress assigns a series of subject headings and subheadings to every copyrighted book. These subject headings are an example of what is known as a controlled vocabulary in library and information science. Every book is placed within the system of categorization which means that once you find the subject headings and subheadings that are relevant to your research, you can easily find every book published on your topic. This is extremely useful as it allows for a systematic examination of your topic rather than the hodgepodge efforts through keyword searches.

  • You can download .pdfs of all the Library of Congress subject headings on their website.

  • Or you can browse the list of subject headings by searching their catalog. Choose “SUBJECTS containing” from the dropdown menu and enter a keyword. This will reveal every subject heading related to the topic you entered.

Perhaps the most helpful thing about subject headings is they are an easy means of finding additional (and closely related) sources on your topic once you have acquired one. For example, if you discover that historian Alan Taylor’s1 book The Civil War of 1812 is an important source for your research project, you can use the book’s subject headings to find all of the other books written on those topics in your library. As you may see from this example, the Library of Congress assigned the book the following three subject headings:

Click to see the books on these subjects held by our library:

In most library catalogs these subject headings are hyperlinked; clicking on any of them leads you to a list of every other book in the library that shares that particular subject heading. Thus, if your research interest is the social aspects of the War of 1812, you can quickly find every other book the library owns on that subject by merely clicking on the hyperlinked subject heading in the catalog. Note, however, that clicking on the subject heading will only give you the books that your library owns, not the full universe of books. For that, you must do a subject heading search at the Library of Congress or a service like WorldCat.


Step 5: Read background information on your topic

Since your research process will cause you to encounter a variety of unfamiliar terms, theories, people, and events, you will frequently need to stop your research and read background or reference materials to shore up your understanding. Much of the scholarship you will read is written with an audience in mind who already possess a great deal of knowledge about the topic. These writings will often refer to things in an offhanded way, trusting that the audience already knows the jargon or information in question. This can be a somewhat alienating experience for a novice in the field. For that reason, we have reference works to help orient ourselves in these critical conversations.

Thus, a research project should always involve the reading of general reference materials about the topic. Before you can ask an intelligent question about your topic or contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation, you need to develop a working knowledge of basic facts to serve as a foundation for your project. The best way to develop this basic understanding is to examine peer-reviewed reference works such as encyclopedias, biographies, dictionaries, and other forms of reference material.

Baker-Berry library has a number of helpful reference resources in this regard. If you visit the Library Reference Resources link in the Library’s Research Guides, you will find an impressive array of organized reference materials like bibliographies, encyclopedias, and dictionaries. Most of them are fully digitized and do not even require a trip to the library. Always start your research project with reference works and gain a basic grounding of your topic before developing your research question or thesis. For example, before you begin an essay on Iraqi feminism in the 1960s, you should read the Wikipedia article on the modern history of Iraq to get a broad sense of the context you are entering with your writing. Other helpful background information aids of note:

A word of warning about Wikipedia (and internet sources in general): it has not been through a process of scholarly peer-review. For that reason, it is unwise to rely on Wikipedia as a source for a research project. Use Wikipedia to gain background information on your topic and lead you to other authoritative sources, but when it comes time to write your essay, use a peer-reviewed source.

Step 6: Perform citation chases 2

Many students will find a book or article that is perfect for their research project, do a celebration dance, and then return to the library catalog to use keyword searches to find more sources like it. But consider that the source you hold in your hand was substantially built from other, extremely relevant sources that are cited in the bibliography. Look at the source again: it is now a treasure map that may lead to untold riches!

When you discover books and articles that are relevant to your project, perform what is known as a “citation chase.” This involves examining the bibliography of the book, article, or chapter, looking for other relevant items. Find these related sources in the library and then repeat the process again. Performing a citation chase is often the best way of discovering other sources connected to your research focus—far better than using keyword searches.

  • Some databases, such as the multidisciplinary Web of Science, perform these citation chases automatically.

Related reading:


  1. I am not that Alan Taylor. ↩︎

  2. I cannot emphasize how important this practice is. If you learn nothing else from me, take this one with you. There is probably no more powerful insight in performing research. ↩︎