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The Research Process

Quick Tip

Be sure to give yourself adequate time to thoroughly brainstorm your topic, search for sources, evaluate the information you find, and complete your assignment.

The University of Michigan Libraries' Assignment Calendar can help you outline the tasks you need to complete with deadlines to keep you on track.

Planning Your Search

1. What are the main concepts of your topic and what keywords might you use when searching?

  • Identify the main concepts within your topic.
  • Brainstorm synonyms for your search terms that might help you expand your search.

2. Determine what information you need. Follow your instructor's syllabus carefully.

  • Decide (or identify within the assignment) how many sources you need.
  • Decide (or identify within the assignment) what types of sources you need.

3. Get background information on your topic.

  • Use references sources to gather information on the broader context of your topic.
  • Identify more keywords for searching.

Identifying Keywords

Library databases and search engines depend on precise search phrases to yield precise results, it helps to think of your topic in terms of the key concepts that define it. Using your research question pick out the nouns that sum up your topic:

How effective is the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression in group therapy with adults?

After identify your key concepts, you will also want to come up with related terms in order to expand your searching. Keywords are the terms and phrases you use during a search. Keep a list of these words because you will use them when searching for information on your topic. 


cognitive behavioral therapy


group therapy


Related terms


psycho-social intervention

mindfulness-based therapy


bipolar disorder

seasonal depression

group counseling

support groups





When searching, string your keywords together with “AND” rather than entering the entire research question. Mix and match terms depending on results. For example:

cognitive behavioral therapy AND depression AND group therapy AND adults

mindfulness-based therapy AND depression AND group counseling AND grown-ups

cognitive behavioral therapy AND seasonal depression AND support groups AND seniors

Understanding Sources

The Information Cycle illustrates to the way information is processed and distributed, and how it changes over time. It describes the progression of media coverage concerning an event or topic during which information goes through various stages of reporting, research, and publication. 

Understanding the Information Cycle can help researchers decide what sources are most current and accurate, what information they may or may not include, and how facts and narrative about an event or topic can continually change.

Learn more about the Information Cycle by viewing the graphic to the right, or viewing "Understanding the Information Cycle" video created by the Undergraduate Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Type of Source Description / Characteristics Examples

News Sources (Newspapers, Social Media, etc.)

  • The who, what, why, and where of the event
  • Quick, not detailed, regularly updated
  • Authors are journalists, bloggers, social media participants
  • Intended for general audiences


The Boston Globe

Periodicals (Magazines, Journals)

  • Published on a schedule (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.)
  • Includes articles written by different authors with oversight by an editor or group of editors
  • Popular magazines are intended for a general audience or specific nonprofessional groups
  • Scholarly journals are intended for professionals within a field and typically contains vocabulary 
  • Periodicals vary in scope, depth, and range depending on whether they are popular or scholarly. More information on periodicals can be found here.


Social Psychology Quarterly


  • In-depth coverage ranging from scholarly in-depth analysis to popular books
  • Authors range from scholars to professionals to journalists
  • Include reference books which provide factual information, overviews, and summaries

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Origin of Species

Indices / Indexes

  • An open-ended finding guide
  • An index provides a list of informational headings (subject terms, phrases, names, etc.) and where to find it in a work or body of work(s)
  • Follows a specific format (much like a reference work)
  • Analyzes contents of a publication

Most people are familiar with an index found at the back of a book, but they can span a whole author or discipline.

A Hand-Book Index to the Works of Shakespeare

The New York Times Index

Reference Sources
  • Reference books provide overview information on different topics
  • You refer to these sources for quick information
  • They include bibliographies or references to other sources on a topic
  • The information within them is organized in particular ways (alphabetically, chronologically, etc.)
  • Types: Encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases/maps, almanacs, bibliographies, manuals, concordances, yearbooks, etc.

Encyclopedia Britannica 


Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary

Primary In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic, used in preparing a derivative work.

Ex: Diary entry or original manuscript

Secondary Any published or unpublished work that is one step removed from the original source, usually describing, summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, derived from, or based on primary source materials. Also refers to material other than primary sources used in the preparation of a written work. Ex: Biography or book review
Tertiary A written work based entirely on secondary sources rather than on original research involving primary documents. While secondary sources are almost always written by experts, tertiary sources may be written by staff writers who have an interest in the topic but are not scholars on the subject. Ex: Textbook or encyclopedia entry

Current or Historical

Current Information that is in progress, recent, or up-to-date. Information published within the last five years is usually regarded as "current." Ex: An article on the applications of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Historical Information about the past, opposed to the current state of affairs. Ex: A book on phrenology (i.e. the process that involves examining the skull to determine an individual's psychology)

Scholarly or Popular

Scholarly Information written by experts and published after peer-review to advance the scholarship of a particular field. Ex: A case study published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Popular Information written for a general audience by a journalist or freelance writer that does not undergo peer-review before publication. Ex: A magazine piece on the latest trends in app technology.

Gather Background Information

The best type of source for gathering background information on a topic is a reference source. Encyclopedias are typically the most well-know type of reference source, but atlases, indexes, almanacs, and dictionaries also fall in the reference category.

Browsing the reference section of a library may help you find titles that include information on your topic, but don't forget to search some of the reference databases available to you for reliable background information on your topic.