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Researching incorporates gathering information on a topic, assessing what you find, and then presenting it in your own writing, in a clear and logical manner.

Undertaking academic research for the first time can be a daunting and overwhelming process. However, if you know how and where to find appropriate resources, how to assess and organise them, stay within the boundaries of your topic, and have a good plan for your writing, you can be successful.

Three things to keep in mind

  1. Learn what plagiarism is and how to avoid it (go here).
  2. Get to know your library (go here).
  3. Keep your resources organised so you can find the information easily (see below).
Image of a woman asking a question

Finding resources

Consider the following research question

Do good leadership qualities derive from genetics or the environment?

From this question you can write a sentence that describes what you will be looking for.

E.g. I am looking for literature and data that focus on leadership qualities that are influenced by both genetics and the environment.

Use this statement to choose key words and key phrases. These terms will become the key for searching catalogues, databases and search engines for information about your subject. 

  • Leadership qualities (management, administration)
  • Genetics (nature, heredity)
  • Environment (nurture, surroundings, workplace.

Using these combinations of search terms you can search websites, online databases, and libraries for books and documents that may be suitable for your research.

You are expected to incorporate course content and research into your writing as evidence to support your ideas. Visit our Assessment Planning page for information on how to find course content and research to support your ideas.


The internet can provide an enormous wealth of resources, but it can also overwhelm you with too much information and it is hard to know what is relevant or credible. 

Wikipedia is a good place to get an overview by using keywords related to your topic, following links and recommended resources. However, use it only to start getting your head around the topic – do not cite it as a source in your writing.

Google Scholar is a very well known search engine that is used especially for academic research. If you cannot get access to the full document you can use the reference to locate it through the online databases offered by your library.

Microsoft have also developed their own academic search engine.


Libraries and databases

If you live near your enrolling institute, visit their library for help with your research. Librarians are extensively trained in research skills, extremely knowledgeable, and will be able to suggest places to search, and search terms that you have not thought about.

Libraries have electronic databases that you can search online, through the library’s website. These databases hold lists of articles, reviews, and scientific results published in academic journals worldwide. Once you find a document you can usually download it immediately or have the library order it for you. These databases are usually grouped in subject areas. Visit our Library Services page for information about how to access your enrolling institute’s library.


Searching websites and databases

To be efficient when searching for online resources it is important know some basic search functions and how Boolean operators work.

Use key words: List key words that define your topic – these will become your main search terms. Be as specific as possible.

Use quotation marks for exact phrases: “leadership qualities” will result in web pages where that exact phrase appears. There will be fewer sites than if you just typed in the two words – leadership qualities.

Advanced search: Most search engines and databases have an advanced search button that can be used to refine your search by date, country, type of document, language, etc.

Using bibliographies: When you find an article or book that matches your own topic examine the bibliography or reference list at the end. The author’s references are a goldmine of sources for your own research.


Finding resources

Unfortunately, not everything you find will be appropriate to use as it may not possess academic credibility, may not be completely unbiased, nor stay within the boundaries of your topic. Being able to evaluate sources is an important skill to develop. Choosing good sources means paying attention to who wrote the information, and why and when it was written.

Evaluating books and journal articles.

Ask yourself the following questions when evaluating books and journal articles:

  • Does the content specifically address the topic of my research?
  •  Is the author reputable? e.g. university based or from a research institution?
  • Does the reference list or bibliography appear comprehensive in its coverage?
  • Is the information presented still valid and applicable today?
  • Is the content of the source fact, opinion, or propaganda?

Evaluating websites

Ask yourself the following questions when evaluating information from a website:

  • How did you find the page? Was it from a general search or from a site like Google Scholar? Was it a link from a reputable site, or cited in a scholarly or credible source?
  • What is the site’s domain? If the source is from an .edu website it is from a school and should be credible. If it has a .com address the site is from a company and may be more interested in selling you something. What is the authority of the page? Is the author’s name visible? Is the author connected to an organization or institution? Does the author list his or her qualifications?
  • Is the information accurate and objective? Are sources of facts or statistics cited? Is there a reason the site is presenting a particular point of view on a topic?
  • Is the page current? When was the page created? Are dates included for the last update of the page?

Organising resources

It is very important that you have a system for organising the many references that you find while researching. It is annoying when you want to include a quote or idea in your writing and you cannot remember where you read it. Using a pen and paper system has been around a long time and may still work for you. If you’d like to use this method, you can print out the template below and use it to record your key findings for the sources you find the most useful. There are many good computer programs that are wonderful for organising everything you find.

Whatever method you use, make sure that every quote, fact, and thought is linked in some way to its source. This will make it easier to insert references while you are writing.


The content on this page has been adapted from a resource created by Learning Support@Student Success, Otago Polytechnic.