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Step 2: Essay Research

Now that you have successfully selected a topic, it's time to get started on your essay research. Research is critical in order to build support for whatever argument you will make in your essay. In other cases, sources will add credibility and facts to your essay. While this may seem like a daunting task, rest assured that with the help of the internet and some careful consideration of your available resources, it can be easier than you think. Before we begin, it's important that we first clearly define a term that you may have seen in your essay instructions: academic or peer reviewed sources.

Peer-Reviewed Sources:

"Peer reviewed sources are usually journal articles or books that have been critically evaluated by scholars with a similar competence level in a field of study."


It's important to define this term clearly because most of the searches you do online will result in non-peer reviewed sources that most likely will not be acceptable within the context of an academic paper such as an essay. For example, the table below lists what is an academic peer-reviewed source and what isn't.

List of Research Paper Sources

  • Academic/Peer-Reviewed
  • Not Academic/Peer-Reviewed
  • Useful for Finding More Sources
  • Journal Articles
  • Wikipedia
  • Scientific Papers that cite other work
  • Academic Publications
  • Blogs
  • Personal Websites (biographical works)
  • Most books (depending on genre)
  • Yahoo! Answers

This isn't to say that non-peer-reviewed sources aren't credible or worthy, it's just that most essay guidelines that you will receive will likely require worthy sources that your professor can trust. Rather than taking the risk of using sub-par sources, it's better to play it safe and stick with what has been proven to work over and over again. More importantly, using credible sources will make your essay more convincing since it will contain information and data that is written by experts in specific fields that you are writing about. When in doubt, go with the safer option of using peer-reviewed sources for your essay research materials. 

Where to find academic sources?

It’s time to begin collecting academic sources. Based on what we know so far about using peer-reviewed materials we have narrowed down the spots where we can find them. Generally, you want to stick with various academic databases that are available online. Most likely, you have access to these through your school library’s website. If not, then there are some free alternatives that you can use. Below is a list of some really credible academic databases that have useful search tools. We have also listed whether they are free or paid, keeping in mind that you probably have access to the paid ones through your school’s library.

Table of Academic Research Sources

  • EBSCOHost: EBSCOHost is an informational center that offers library resources to customers. Note that EBSCOHost requires a valid license to access. Most universities and public libraries will have access to this service.
  • JSTOR: JSTOR is a digital library that, like EBSCOHost, requires a license to access. JSTOR has, in recent years, made much of its content freely available to the public, though the vast majority of its recent content is still protected. Visit a local library or university in order to access JSTOR.
  • Google Scholar: Google Scholar is a free-to-use database of research materials. Google Scholar contains a wide variety of materials and can be used to find academic research for virtually any paper.

Another really great place to find sources is the references page of any existing source that you have. For example, one article you have may talk about civil rights. You can go to the references page at the bottom to see where that author found that information. If you choose to use this method of conducting essay research then you can find everything you need from a single starting point, one good source.

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Use other search engines

While Google is the most popular search engine, there are other really good ones that index different parts of the web. You can use Bing, Ask, DuckDuckGo and Blekko to name a few.

Use different search keywords

When using various search engines, it's important to differentiate your keywords. For example, searching for "pro-abortion" may yield different results than searching for simply "pro abortion." Changing both the order and name of your search terms will give you far more results to go through. It's a good idea to spend time playing around with the different keywords until you find what term will get the most results.

Evaluate sources quickly

Being able to quickly sift through sources is extremely important. In the ideal world, you would go through each of them with intense focus and know whether they are relevant to writing your essay. However, you most likely don't have the luxury of time and want to get through the sources quickly and find out whether you can use it or not. The main trick here is to attack each source with the following strategy:

  • Read the abstract/introduction and conclusion
  • Decide whether you're going to use it
  • Find more sources through the references

Using this strategy not only saves you tons of time, but it also makes sure that the source material you are saving for your essay will be essential in providing the best information. You can skim read these portions for even quicker read times, but make sure that you at least understand what the article is about and what the author's main point is.

Taking notes (Google Docs, MS OneNote, Evernote or MS Word)

Last but not least, it's vital that you take notes during the essay research process. If you prefer to use pen and paper, it will take you longer to move that information into a digital format when it comes time to actually write your essay. So, we recommend using a cloud-based note taking application such as one of the few listed below:

Now that you have a nice note-taking application, you should make sure to read through your sources and note down and notable, memorable or important quotes. For example, this might be any major conclusion or piece of data that an author has argued in their article or book. Make sure to also write down the page number because you will need that for when you do your essay citations. On the whole, you should take down 5-6 good pieces of information from each source that you use. Save the source or the link to it so you can take care of your works cited page later as well.

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