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Academic Research: an Overview: Start Before the End of the Semester

Information and resources for doing academic library research and scholarship


At the college level, academic research is not a matter of googling a topic or grabbing a few articles from a database. It is a thoughtful, time-consuming process in which students learn to be professionals in a field, practicing what they are taught, and in which professionals contribute new knowledge to their fields.

"To newcomers the world of academic studies can seem like a foreign land. But as with traveling, one can become quite comfortable over time by learning some of the language and basic customs. The following provides an overview of how studies are produced, their relevance and how they might be used."  This overview article, though intended for journalists, describes the types of scholarly research you may be expected to do in college or graduate school.

Quick Help Video from the Credo Reference Database

Guides to Research Methods and Writing

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research. Cheryl Lowry, Ohio State University Libraries,  2016. An online, open textbook.

Outline of the Research Process

1. Choose a Topic, or Focus an Assigned Topic. The purpose of a research project is to answer a question, find a solution, or develop a new approach, and it requires careful work. Choosing an interesting topic (or aspect of a topic) will keep you from getting bored with the project.  You are searching for a new approach, interpretation, application, solution, or insight. Research does not merely repeat what has already been done.

2. Create a Search Strategy. This step consists of reading, reading, and reading some more. You want to immerse yourself in the literature of your topic. This is called your Background Literature Search. Depending on your subject, you may need books, journals, reports, papers, websites, etc. You will need to determine what resources will answer your question and where these sources are located.

3. Explore the Existing Scholarship in a Field.  This involves browsing  or searching in the library catalog and relevant databases for books, journals, databases, reference resources, primary documents, appropriate online sites, etc. For items you cannot obtain at NSU, use Interlibrary Loan. For some research topics, you may have to travel to another library, museum, or archive..

4. Gather Information. Make sure you have all the materials at hand to organize and write your paper. It is very important to make sure you copy the bibliographic information for your bibliography, references, or works cited page. Note: you do not need to use every item you find. As your research evolves, you may find that the first items you collected are not really relevant. That is OK and part of the process, but keep everything until the project is completed.

5. Evaluate the Information. This involves serious thinking about what you have found. Is it on your topic? Is it too simple? too complex? Is the author an authority in the field? Is it biased? Is it timely? Who published it? Why was it published? Can you verify the information in other sources?

6. Organize the Materials and Your Thoughts. A rough draft, an outline, a research log, lots of freewriting--there are many ways to do this, and you probably learned them in freshman writing and introductory major courses.

7. Write and Cite. A paper has an introduction, body, and conclusion, and sometimes a  methodology section and a literature review. The introduction is sometimes the hardest part to write; many authors write it last. Make an outline--even a simple one will do. This is your road map.  Research can be tedious process, and most writers experience anxiety at the beginning and end of the process.  Don't be discouraged if you need to go back and do additional research, if new questions or ideas occur to you, or you discover holes in your research.

Be sure you cite everything you used from other sources in your paper. Researchers do use ideas and information from other writers, but always give them credit in in-text citations and bibliographies. The important part is how you use those ideas to answer your own thesis question. Remember the bibliography: works cited, reference list, etc. Follow the format used in the field or assigned by your instructor.

Articles: Scholarly, Popular, or In-Between?

Whether in print, online, or reposted onto a social media platform, periodicals (also called serials by librarians) are magazines, journals, newspapers, newsletters, and other media published at intervals as a series--daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. These contain articles of varying length and content. With the ease of do-it-yourself web publishing, online information sources abound, and not all of them are edited or otherwise checked for accuracy or  trustworthiness.

The category of "journals" generally refers to scholarly, academic, peer-reviewed publications. They usually include research reports, scholarly interpretations, literature reviews, debates, and maybe a few argumentative essays related to the subject field of the journal--in other words, scholarly conversation about its subject. "Peer-reviewed" means that articles are evaluated by editors and other experts in the subject, for quality, accuracy, reliability, and objectivity. Most scholarly or academic journals are peer-reviewed.

Magazines are general-interest popular publications such as Time, Vox, Rolling Stone, HuffPost, Atlas Obscura, and very many more. They are written for the general public, not scholars or professionals, and may  or may not be checked for accuracy or bias.

Many instructors require that assignments be completed with scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles. Below is a chart to help you determine if a publication is scholarly or popular. A third category, trade publications, contain news about a profession for workers in that field or subject; these magazines are usually edited but not peer-reviewed. Library databases often mark their articles to help identify their type.

Scholarly                                                            Popular

Plain cover                                                         Colorful cover, may feature a celebrity or other VIP

Research, technical, or scholarly articles           Articles cover popular, current events, or general interest topics

Author is identified with relevant credentials      Author may not be identified

Uses a formal style for citing its sources           If sources are indicated, they're usually in a sentence.

Some advertising, related to the subject.          A lot of advertising, not necessarily connected with the magazine's subject.

Publisher is an academic organization or          Commercial, for-profit publisher                                                                                          university

Audience: Professionals/scholars/students       Audience: general public        

Some publications such as American Heritage or Scientific American  overlap the categories. Always check with your professor if you have doubts about using a publication or website for an assignment..


Sometimes the best way to start is to see what materials are available in the library and what original approach you might take. Browse the catalog or the book shelves for ideas. For topics related to Louisiana, visit the Cammie G. Henry Research Center to learn about collections with which you might work.

Another library service is Interlibrary Loan (ILL); if we don't have an item you want, the ILL librarian may borrow it from another library and check it out to you. For more information, see

Be wary of open internet publications and websites. Many are useful, honest, and sincere, but not all; check their legitimacy before using the information they contain. For help in evaluating sources, see the Information Literacy LibGuide.

If you are having problems focusing your topic, searching the databases, or otherwise finding information, contact a librarian for help. Set up a personal Research Consultation with the form at this link.

Good research is not a quick process nor an easy answer. It takes time to think, to locate articles, books, etc.,to read them, and to think about how their information relates to your research question. Do not wait to the last minute to research and write your paper.