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Step 3: Research Overview

As you set about working on a written assignment, your first order of duty will be to conduct research. The topic at hand could range from politics or economics to history, film or literature, but you will need to distinguish reliable sources of information from misleading ones. In this article, we will explore the steps involved with researching information for various types of assignments.

How to Conduct Research

In an era where information can be accessed from limitless sources, it is crucial to know which sources to choose from and how to identify factual, relevant content. Conducting research often involves at least three of the following undertakings.

Conducting Research

1. Primary Research

2. Source Qualification

3. Web Navigation

4. Archive Exploration


Primary Research

Primary research is the gathering information about subjects from personally obtained sources, such as interviews and surveys.

Source Qualification

Source qualification is verifying the accuracy and credibility of a given source of info, whether it comes from a Web site or publication.

Web Navigation

Web navigation is using the search engines and Web directories to find info across the Internet—the world’s most plentiful source of data.

Archive Exploration

Archive exploration is viewing rare materials at historical societies and universities.

Before you begin, you will want to determine the best starting points for your research. If you are seeking information on a newly breaking story, your best bet would be a reputable news source like the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, if you have been assigned to write a treatise on the works of Shakespeare, your search should center on books and academic journals. For statistical data on U.S. demographics, you should check out the most recent census reports. You will also want to determine how much info will be needed for your assignment, and whether it will be necessary to cover an issue from two sides—such as liberal and conservative—or one.

Primary Research

Primary research involves all the different sources of information that you gather on your own. Sources for such info could include charts, surveys, interviews and personal observations. Talented researches have the ability to cull the right info from these sources and combine it all in a coherent manner.

Once you have gained the knack for gathering primary info, it will help you identify the pertinent content to take from secondary sources, such as newspapers, hardbacks and monthly publications. Whether you are doing this research for a class assignment or business project, the integration of primary and secondary research will help you produce a solid and compelling article.

Assignments that call for primary research

Tip: Certain assignments necessitate different types of research. Be sure to check with your instructor to make sure you are on the right path.


Local stories, either recent or dating back decades, that have been ill-documented. For example, if you are doing research on a Woodstock-style music festival that supposedly occurred in rural Oregon at some point during the early 1970s, yet little evidence remains of the event, you could start by speaking with musicians, concert goers and music dealers from the area who would have been of age to have been in attendance at such a festival.

Articles that explore the habits and mannerisms of specific subcultures. If you are writing about a particular music or fashion tribe—such as punk, goth or rockabilly—the best way to gain insights is to visit the bars and clubs where these tribes mingle and speak with some of the regulars.

Stories on new topics that have yet to be explored in the mainstream media. If you want to explore the possibility that humans could one day colonize Mars, you will need to do some primary research into the likelihood of whether technology will advance to the point where humans could safely travel such distances and disembark in that planet’s atmosphere.

Articles that dispute the claims of TV pundits or nationwide poll results. If you feel that coverage of the Affordable Care Act has been skewed one way or the other, you could hold your own local survey to see whether or not opinions in your area conform with the recent national consensus.

Types of Primary Research

Depending on the needs of your assignment, you might opt for one or more of the following methods of primary research.

Types of Primary Research

1. Analysis

2. Interviews

3. Observations

4. Surveys



Analysis involves the gathering of info and the arrangement of it all in a unique way according to your own specifications. This method can come in useful when you are looking to identify patterns, such as the aesthetic trends from a particular period. For example, if you are researching the visual characteristics of music videos from the late 1970s, you could analyze 20 or more videos from that timeframe and look for recurring style choices, such as in the lighting, camera angles, production gimmicks and film quality.


Interviews can occur in group or person-to-person settings. Interviews can be very useful when you are trying to gather info on a unique local topic that is not likely to have been the subject of any book, such as personal accounts of what your hometown was like between the two world wars.

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Observations consist of collecting notes on a given event and assembling it all into a narrative. On topics that are generally lent to partisan spin by the media, you can get around such biases by extracting the obvious facts from various sources and then draw your own conclusion from a combination of that info.


Narrower in topic yet broader in scope than interviews, surveys consist of asking one or two simple questions to a broad range of people for the purpose of determining how a given populace feels about a wide-reaching issue, such as a social trend or a public policy.

As you set about on your primary research, you will want to evaluate any predispositions on your part. Are you biased and seeking certain types of answers, or are you intellectually curious and willing to discover new angles? If you wish to do interviews, will you be able to find the right subjects for your research?

Source Qualification

The world is brimming with information on a vast range of topics, but only a select portion of the info available on a given topic will be appropriate for your research. Therefore, it is crucial to gauge the credibility of your sources before moving on to the next stage. Granted, there are some topics that have been so widely researched and documented that it can be hard to isolate all the relevant arguments. A prime example would be economics, which in name alone draws around 320 million search returns on Google. Therein lies the difficulty of determining which studies contain the most reliable info on such heavily researched topics.

Tip: Avoid personal blogs, anecdotal evidence, and poorly-constructed studies when looking for good quality sources. Occasionally, these sources may be appropriate, but be sure to check with your instructor first.


By the same token, the volume of information available on certain topics will often be inverse to the actual quality. This is typically the case with stories that are currently making the headlines, regardless of whether the subjects involve entertainment or politics. In most cases, someone behind a given article will be trying to push products, hype subjects or sway readers to particular viewpoints. In a sense, qualifying research is similar to the process you use each day to determine which stories to believe and what conclusions to draw from the daily news cycle.

As you gather info, it might be tempting to include every related fact, quote or reference that you find, especially if the info is rare and hard to obtain. Resisting this temptation is part of being a good researcher, which is predicated on your ability to find key facts and assemble them each time into a direct and coherent narrative.

Web Navigation

Performing a Web search on a given topic can be a double-edged sword. Regardless of whether an abundance of info exists on the topic you are researching, a lot of the info you do end up finding could be of dubious quality. But since all of this info is right at your fingertips, the temptation is strong to limit your research to the Web. Still, there could be lots of info available at your local library that you won’t find online. There could also be pertinent info somewhere on the Internet that won’t be detected by the standard search engines.

Millions of Web pages are indexed and crawled on an annual basis, but there is still a lot of content that will evade any basic engine search. Studies have shown that the “deep Web”—sites that are not indexed by search engines—is up to 5,000 times larger than the Internet’s surface. Engines have different algorithms for crawling and indexing pages; some engines crawl pages incompletely and only at irregular intervals. Therefore, a lot of useful info could be obscured somewhere online, despite your best efforts to retrieve it for your research.

Searching the Surface Web

Search engines are easiest to use when the needed info is on a clearly defined subject, such as acupuncture or the Constitution. Typing those words in alone will draw thousands of search returns, but you can narrow things down with various modifiers. With a word like “Constitution”, you could yield more specific returns by adding modifiers like “liberal interpretations” or “conservative readings” to the search word.

Of all the engines, Google is the largest and therefore the first choice in most searches, while Yahoo and MSN are close behind in terms of overall effectiveness. Other engines enable more specific searches, such as Lycos and Ask. On the former, you can narrow down results to the region and creation date of Web sites; on the latter, you can retrieve content by entering questions into the search bar.

Searching the Deep Web

The deep or “invisible” Web contains many sites that you won’t find on Google or Yahoo. Engines that allow you to search through this buried part of the Web include Alexa, which stores long-defunct sites, and Complete Planet, where you can find databases that never show up in standard search returns.

For magazine content, you can try MagPortal or FindArticles, both of which index thousands of articles from various publications. If you are looking for scholarly texts, HighWire and Infomine are good sources for college-level content on a range of topics.

Archive Exploration

Historical societies and institutes of higher learning will often have archives of one-of-a-kind, carefully preserved artifacts. Some of these materials have never been published, even after decades or centuries, but they have been preserved for historical and research purposes. Often times, professors will require that archival research be performed as part of an assignment.

In some but not all cases, university archives are open to alumni and outside researchers in addition to students. Even though Web searches for archive materials will generally be the preferable option, sometimes your research will necessitate a visit to an actual archive center. The material you intend to view could perhaps be unique and irreplaceable, so if you manage to arrange a time for viewing, it will be crucial to get the most from your visit.


Every good article is based on a solid thesis, the foundation of which is developed through competent research. By mastering the steps of researching a topic, you will develop a more discerning eye for the right types of sources, as well as a greater knack for combining information into solid, coherent narratives.  

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