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Research Starter Guide: What do I do first?

Beginning the Research Process

Start with a topic. Let’s say you want to write a paper about National Parks. That is your topic, but it is much too broad to begin your research. We’ll use that topic to form a research question. What do you want to know about National Parks?

Key Points to Remember When Forming a Research Question

  • Make sure your research question is… researchable.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Questions that can be answered with a yes, no, or simple sentence should be avoided.
  • “How” and “why” questions are typically better for research.
  • You may need to do a Google search to learn enough basic knowledge about your topic to formulate a research question.
  • Once you begin researching you may find that there is too much or too little information available. Don’t be afraid to redefine your research question.

Examples of Research Questions

Too narrow: How many people visit National Parks each year?

                This question is too narrow. It can be answered with a number (almost 331 million in 2016, in case you were wondering).

Too broad: What is the effect of climate change on National Parks?

                This question is unfocused. Are you interested in the 59 National Parks or all 417 national park sites? Is there one particular National Park that you want to research? Are you going to cover economic and environmental effects?

Try instead: How is climate change affecting mammals in Glacier National Park?

This question is focused. It defines that you're only interested in one park and that you're researching mammals, not every type of wildlife in the park. It is also not so narrow that it can't be researched in-depth. There are many types of mammals that live in Glacier National Park.

If you try to type your entire research question into a library database you're going to run into trouble. Instead, you'll need to identify key concepts out of your research question to use as search terms.

Let's use the following research question as an example: 

How is climate change affecting mammals in Glacier National Park?

The key concepts/phrases in this question are: climate change, mammals, and Glacier National Park. Those are the keywords that we'll start with.

**See the "How do I find information?" tab for tips on how to link your keywords together during your search.**

Now, let's think of some other words that we may want to use in our search. It's important to try multiple keywords to discover which combination is going to yield the best results for your research.

Climate change: global warming, snowmelt, glacial melt, vegetation patterns

Global warming isn't the scientifically correct term, but it may still be found in journal articles. Snowmelt, glacial melt, and changes in vegetation patterns are all specific effects of climate change they may affect mammals.

Mammals: bears, bats, beavers, bighorn sheep, elk, lynx, mountain lions, mountain goats, wolverines, pikas

A little background research revealed that these are the types of mammals that live in Glacier National Park.You may also choose to search for mammals using their scientific names (e.g. instead of elk try Cervus canadensis).

Glacier National Park: N/A

Since Glacier National Park is a proper name so there aren't really any synonyms to use. The park is located in Montana, so that could be used if you need to broaden your search. However, the research question posed above is specifically interested in Glacier National Park, not all of Montana.

You may need to conduct some background research before you begin your project in earnest. The internet and encyclopedias are great resources for finding background information.

There is a lot of unreliable information on the internet. One trick to find more credible websites is to use the  site: operator. Here's how:

Type   site:gov  OR  site:org  OR  site:edu

Then add your search terms to make Google only give you results from government, organizational, or college/university websites.

Ex. site:gov Glacier National Park


We have online encyclopedias and physical encyclopedias. The following databases contain online encyclopedias. Physical encyclopedias can be found using the library's catalog. See the "How do I find information?" tab for more details on using the catalog.

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