Library:Getting Started with your Research Paper

From UBC Wiki

When you search for information on a topic, save time and avoid frustration by planning a research strategy.

Understand your Assignment

Your instructor is the ultimate resource for clarification of an assignment, but the resources below are also useful for understanding what an assignment is asking you to accomplish.

  • Command Words: lists terms that are commonly used terms in assignment descriptions and tells you what kind of task the assignment is asking you to do. For example, "Analyze: To break the subject up into its main ideas, and evaluate them"
  • Kinds of Assignments You Will Write: Examples and guidance for writing different kinds of assignments - evaluation, synthesis, etc.

Develop your Topic

For some assignments, the topic is quite open and it's up to you to find something to research. As you start searching for information, you'll revise your topic as you go along. If your topic is too broad, you'll be overwhelmed with too much information. If it's is too narrow or obscure, materials will be difficult or impossible to find.

Identify the main concepts or keywords. Try to state your topic as a question.

Here's an example:

Pierre Elliot Trudeau too broad
Pierre Elliot Trudeau's legacy and Canada's foreign policy too broad
Trudeau's influence on Vancouver city government too narrow
How did Trudeau shape Canada's foreign policy in the 1970's? good choice

The key words are trudeau and foreign policy.

Consider the Kind of Information You'll Need

  • Will you need historical or current materials?
  • Should you consult primary sources?
  • Does your topic concern a particular geographic area or time period?
  • Should you include statistics?

Find Information

Adapt this strategy to your needs. The time you spend on each step will vary according to your topic.

  1. Find an overview
    • An overview or summary from a general source such as an encyclopedia, dictionary, or textbook provides background, definitions and key ideas. You can test your main concepts or keywords. If you haven't decided on a point of view, an overview will help you focus your research and provide a context. It often includes a list of books and articles for further reading.
    • Ask a librarian to help you find an encyclopedia, handbook or textbook.
  2. Find books
    • Books are comprehensive and typically include an index you can use to go directly to the information you need. An edited book, where each chapter is written by a different author, can provide information about different aspects, approaches or theories about the same topic. For more information, see How to Find Books.
  3. Find journal articles
    • Articles from academic journals articles provide sharply focused information reporting research results, new analysis or innovative approaches to a topic, etc.. Most articles do not provide a comprehensive overview to their topic. Were any articles cited in your overview or in the books you've found? Use Finding Sources from a Citation to find articles. For step by step directions on finding articles on a topic, see to Find Articles
  4. Look for a bibliography, statistics, etc.
    • A bibliography is a published list of book and/or article citations. If it's "annotated", each book or article is summarized. The Library will not have a bibliography on every topic. But if you find one, you can see immediately how much information there is. Then use the UBC Library Catalogue to find out if the books and articles are available.
    • Other forms of information include statistics, government publications, pamphlets and much more. Ask for help finding these specialized resources.
  5. Look for information on the Web
    • Use Google to find information, but take care to ensure that the information that you find is current, credible and appropriate for your assignment. Consult our guide to Evaluating Information Sources for more help.

Evaluate Your Sources

What is the scope or content? Is the discussion of your topic detailed and comprehensive?
Does the work update other sources or add new information?
Evaluate books by skimming prefaces, tables of contents and indexes.
Evaluate articles by scanning them or reading abstracts (summaries).
Who is the intended audience? Popular sources are written for the general public, in other words, for non-experts. Popular sources generally do not include bibliographies (lists of sources cited).
Scholarly sources are more challenging to read, but offer greater depth and detail. They also usually include footnotes or bibliographies.
Is the author an authority? If the author's work has been published in a journal or by an academic press, she or he is an expert in the field. For the authors of webpages you found in a Google search, be sure you find out whether the author is qualified to write on the topic.
Use Google to find the author's institutional affiliation or educational background.
Is it a scholarly press? Some publishers, especially university presses, publish works appropriate for scholarly research while others publish popular works for the general public.
What is the date of your source? Note the date of your source. Some topics require only current information, but keep in mind that older materials may contain information that applies to current ideas/research/events.

Distinguish between Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources are the original words of a writer - novel, speech, eyewitness account, letter, autobiography, interview, or results of original research...

Secondary sources are works about somebody or about somebody's accomplishments... writings about the primary sources and about the authors who produce primary material.

-From Writing Research Papers; a complete guide by James D. Lester. New York, HarperCollins College, 2005. p.110.

For more information about finding Primary Sources check out:

Keep a Record

Keep a detailed list of all sources you intend to use. You must cite them in your footnotes and bibliography.
For information see the page How to Cite.


Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct in which an individual submits or presents the work of another person as his or her own. Scholarship quite properly rests upon examining and referring to the thoughts and writings of others. However, w hen excerpts are used in paragraphs or essays, the author must be acknowledged through footnotes or other accepted practices.

- From The University of British Columbia 2001/2002 Calendar, p.41.

  • For more information about academic integrity and avoiding plagiarism see the Academic Integrity Resource Centre website here.


Books to Help You Write your Paper

  • Buckley, Joanne. Fit to Print: the Canadian Student's Guide to Essay Writing.
    LB2369 .B83 2009

There are many 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