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The Research Process

This guide is created to help students through the steps of writing a research paper or project.


Selecting a topic can be the most difficult part of doing research. Defining and refining your topic is an ongoing process. Be prepared to change the focus of your topic as you gather more information. How you select your topic will depend also on what your instructor has specified.

 These are some general guidelines to follow:

  • Interesting: Select a subject you can get interested in.  Since you will be spending a considerable amount of time researching your topic, you will want it to be something that holds your interest and that of the reader.

  • Focus: Make sure that your topic isn't too narrow or too vague. If the topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with information. If the topic is too narrow, you may not be able to find enough information for your research paper. A good first step is trying to ask a question about your topic to give you both a focus and structure.

Broad topic: diabetes --> Focused topic: What is the relationship between eating carbs and getting diabetes?

Your research question should be open ended, will guide you in further research, and will help you formulate your thesis. 

Adapted from Binghamton University "How to do Library Research"

Brainstorm topic ideas:

• what are your personal interests

• discussions with your instructor or classmates

• browse issues of periodicals or magazines  

• look in your textbook, or read articles in an encyclopedia, and reference books to get ideas

• browse the CREDO Reference database 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It is a collection of skills that enables us to use, interpret, analyze, and evaluate information. 

Critical thinkers exhibit an important set of characteristics.
* constantly ask questions - ask questions about why things are as they are.
* keep an open mind - don't make up your mind about an issue until you have seen all the facts and evidence, and be willing to change your viewpoint.
* recognize other viewpoints - critical thinkers admit that others have the right to disagree.
* approach issues systematically - collect and weigh evidence in a systematic, organized fashion.

In short, critical thinkers question, challenge, and respond with interest to new ideas and information. 


An assumption is an idea or principle that the writer accepts as true and makes no effort to prove or substantiate. 
For example, an author may assume television encourages violent behavior in children and proceed to argue for more restrictions on watching TV. Without evidence to support his argument, a critical thinker would question the author's assumption. 


Bias is a partiality, preference, or prejudice for or against a person, object, or idea. Biased material is one-sided.
Take for instance the statement: How can a hunter, solely for his own pleasure, delight in the mutilation of a living animal? The author of this statement does not take into account research that agrees hunting ensures that wildlife populations of game species are sustainable from one generation to the next. 


When you read or listen to biased materials, keep the following questions in mind:
* What facts are omitted? What additional facts are needed?
* What words create positive or negative impressions?
* What impression would I have if different words had been used? 

(adapted from the book Study and Critical Thinking Skills in College, by Kathleen T. McWhorter)

The Research Question

The Research Question    question mark


Your topic is the starting place for your paper or project, and the foundation of a strong research paper is the research question. When you develop a research question it helps you to focus your research into a logical essay. Also, once you have the answer to your research question that answer will be the thesis of your paper.

When determining the research question:

• Try listing all of the questions about your topic that you would like answered yourself. 

• Does this question put a new spin on an old issue, or does it try to solve a problem? 

• Is this question researchable, within the time frame of the assignment? 

• Is the question measurable, what type of information do I need, can I find actual data to support or contradict a position?

• What sources will have the type of information that I need to answer the question (journals, books, internet resources, government documents, interviews with people)? 

(adapted from the Vanderbilt University Writing Center)

Refining your Question

Choose a question that is not too narrow or too broad: 

     For example, you choose the topic of water pollution and ask the following questions:

          • What can we do to reduce the amount of pollutants in our water? - too broad

          • How much garbage is dumped into the Atlantic ocean on a daily basis? - too narrow

          • What are the effects of plastic particle water pollution on humans and marine wildlife? - just right