Library:Getting Started with your Research

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Getting Started

Understanding Your Assignment

Your instructor is the ultimate resource for clarification of an assignment, but the resources below are also useful for understanding the requirements of your assignment.
Student with tablet

It's simple but true: one of the keys to producing a successful assignment is making sure that you follow your instructor's directions. If you misread or misunderstand an assignment you will waste a lot of time and effort - and your mistake could have an unfortunate impact on your grade. Here are some guides which will help you determine what you are supposed to do for your assignment:


How do I begin?

Research assignments are usually structured around a question. Sometimes your instructor will give you a topic, but more frequently your research question will be up to you. If you do get to choose your topic - it's more important that you choose something you are interested in than something you've only chosen because it's easy to find relevant sources.

I'm not sure what interests me


This is quite common - you may not always begin an assignment knowing what you want to research. Consider this your pre-research phase.

  • Start by scanning your course text, readings and lecture notes to date.
  • Make a brief list of your favourite lectures, articles and/or class discussion topics. Is there something in that list that you'd be curious to know more about?
    • Avoid choosing something that you've already covered comprehensively in class. Most instructors will expect you to cover new ground - not duplicate work you've already done even if you did that work in a different class.

Other sources of inspiration

Sometimes you will be asked to come up with a topic that was not covered in class. To trigger an idea:

  • Think about current events. Look at a newspaper, news site or check what's trending on Twitter or other social media.
  • Learn more about your discipline. Check out a subject-based encyclopedia or look at the websites for scholarly societies.
    • E.g., The Oxford Reference collection has online dictionaries, encyclopedias and companions to hundreds of different subjects. These sorts of reference materials can give you a sense of the range of research being conducted in your field.
  • Come to the Library and/or check out your branch Library's website to see what new books have been published in the subject you are studying. Glancing over the titles might spark an idea.
    • Many branches maintain a list of new books on their branch website - E.g., this one from the David Lam branch or this one from Education.
    • Is your topic in the Humanities or Social Sciences? Check out the new book collection at Koerner Library, floor 2. All newly catalogued books in the branch are on display for 2 weeks before being shelved.
  • Type some keywords into Summon - don't worry about putting together the perfect combination of search terms. Type in something that represents your general interest area and look at the results on the first 3 pages.
    • Even if you don't find the perfect article you should:
      • jot down terms and synonyms as you come across them - you'll need them later as keywords for searching.
      • jot down researchers whose names crop up repeatedly - their names can also be used as keywords.
      • jot down sub topics that you notice. For example, if you are vaguely interested in the topic of bullying - note the different areas of research that you find, such as cyber bullying, workplace bullying, or bullying focussed on a particular group or gender.

Focussing on a Topic

It takes some effort to settle on a "researchable" topic. That is, a topic that is not too broad, too narrow or so current that there's no scholarly work for you to draw from. You will likely have to adjust your search terms numerous times and possibly even tweak the focus of your topic before you find a good set of sources to consult.

Try asking yourself

  • What is your research idea? eg, something to do with bullying and girls and eating disorders
  • Can you express it as a question? eg, Is there a relationship between bullying and eating disorders in girls?

Test your idea

Start by searching for your keywords in Summon or a subject specific database. Choose keywords that express the main concepts of your research question. eg, "bullying" "eating disorders" and "girls." Note, "relationship" is not a concept in this particular research question and searching for it will likely fill your results list with irrelevant hits.

As suggested above, it's unlikely that you will find all the resources you need with your first few searches. You'll probably need to search, browse your search results, adjust your keywords and search again.

Too broad or too narrow?

Too Broad

  • Look at your results list - are there thousands of hits? For example, "bullying" is a huge topic. If you type "bullying" into Summon it will bring up over 165,000 results - coming from many different disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, medicine, criminology and more.
    • To make this topic "researchable" you'll need to limit yourself to a particular aspect of bullying that interests you AND that yields a manageable number of potential sources. Eg, bullying, girls and "eating disorders" brings up more than 700 hits from peer reviewed sources while bullying, girls and bulimia yields approx 200 hits from peer-reviewed sources.

Too Narrow

  • Are there zero or very few hits? Too few results may mean that your topic is too narrow. That is, you may be focussed on too many variables, eg, bullying AND tweens AND girls AND bulimia (5 hits)
  • Note, another common reason for getting too few results is searching in a database that isn't quite right for your topic. eg, JSTOR does not contain articles from the most recent 5 years so searching it for current topics won't work, and MLA is a literature database so searching it for research in sociology won't work either.
    • to learn about the best article databases for your subject consult the appropriate research guide.

Information Sources

Your research may begin from a specific event, person, place, element, or other phenomenon, for example, "Texting while driving a car".

In other cases, your research may begin from a general idea or large topic, for example, an assignment that tells you to write on "any aspect of the sociology of Canada".

Think about what kind of information you need before you search. And note that you may need new information at various times throughout the research process, not just at the beginning!

Here's How

  • Find your "information need" in the left hand column of the table below.
  • The centre column tells you what kind of resource is most likely to provide this information.
  • Follow the instructions in the right hand column to find the resources you need.

Note: This is a general overview. Different disciplines may have slightly different requirements and approaches to the research process.

If you need to Consider using Step-by-Step Instructions
  • identify smaller parts of a large topic
  • find an overview of your topic
  • fill gaps in your knowledge
  • define a term you've encountered in your reading
  • learn about theoretical approaches to your topic
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Encyclopedias, handbooks, specialized dictionaries, etc.

Enter search terms in Summon, the search box on the UBC Library homepage at

When results display, look at the Content Type menu to find a link for Reference. (If the Reference link isn't showing, click on More to scan through the entire list of content types.)

  • find more in-depth information than an encyclopedia article, including different approaches, methodologies and theories
  • find a more general view of a topic than an article provides
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Books, book chapters

Type your keywords into Summon.

When results display, limit by Content Type to books/eBooks.

  • find out about research in a very narrow area.
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Articles from peer-reviewed journals

You have two choices:

1. For lots of results and from many perspectives, type your keywords into Summon and then click the Scholarly & Peer-Review and/or Peer-Review links (under Refine Your Search )

2. For fewer results, from specific perspectives, use a specialized search engine (aka, article database) for your research. If you don't know which database to use:

  • Find the Research Guide for your topic - there's one for every subject taught at UBC.
  • Click the Research Guide and click on the Articles tab to see a list of specialized article databases.
  • Choose a database, connect, and type in your keywords.

Databases: Search Strategies provides general instructions that apply in all article databases.

Choose from the complete list of search guides at Get Research Help

More Help

Video recap

If you prefer to follow along to a video then watch this playlist for a recap for much of the information presented in this guide:

In person

Evaluating your sources

The quality of your paper stems in part from the quality of your sources. Just because you find material which seems to be "on topic" doesn't mean that it's accurate, up-to-date, written by an expert, unbiased, sufficiently thorough etc.

Books to help you write your paper

  • Buckley, Joanne. Fit to Print: the Canadian Student's Guide to Essay Writing.
    LB2369 .B83 2009
  • Even more: In the UBC Library Catalogue, search the subject: report writing. In addition, this topic list will bring up books on writing literature reviews and writing reports for specific disciplines, such as nursing, engineering, geography, psychology and English literature.

Other pages of interest