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How To: Academic Research

Use the tabs below to explore the different aspects of conducting academic research.

Getting Background Information

Before you begin researching, think about the following:

  • Overall Topic Subject
    Example:  evolution
  • Important Words and Phrases
    Example:  gradualism, species, endemic, genetic drift
  • Synonyms (Alternative words/phrases to describe your topic)
    Example:  natural selection, Darwinism
  • Related Topics
    Example:  biology, human evolution, physical anthropology
  • Agencies , Associations, Non-Profits
    Example:  Society for the Study of Evolution
  • Names Associated with the Topic (Anyone from a local agency you could interview? Key figures, founders, or scholars?)
    Example:  Charles Darwin

Start with encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference sources to locate terms that may be helpful in your search. When searching the library catalog, try adding the type of reference material you are looking for in the search terms. For example, "evolution" + "encyclopedia" should return results for encyclopedia volumes or entries about evolution.

While it may not be appropriate to use as a scholarly resource, Wikipedia is a good starting point. The entries are generally easy to understand summaries that can be used to identify key terms, figures, and events. It is also helpful to check the references section for the entries; oftentimes these are scholarly sources that can be used in your research, as well.

The 5 W's

Starting with the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, why) is also a useful way to identify terms and phrases that are useful when searching for books, articles, and other materials.

  • Who
    Knowing the names of individuals, groups, or organizations connected to your topic will help you focus your search on information they've published.
  • What
    Reading a summary of your topic will help you understand it better. It can also provide you with key words, specialized vocabulary, and definitions, all of which will be useful for future searches.  Find summaries using the sources listed above.
  • When
    If your topic has significant events associated with it, knowing what they are and when they happened will help you choose the best sources to consult. To find primary source documents,  look for newspapers and other documents published around the date the event occurred.   Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011.
  • Where
    Sometimes places are important to a topic.   For example, you could search for the place, Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository site if you were researching nuclear power and radioactive waste disposal.
  • Why
    Getting background information on why people are interested in your topic can help you develop an approach to your topic or help you craft an argument.  For example, why do people like nuclear power and why are they afraid of it?


The Five Ws   - created by Highline Community College librarians

Websites to Find a Topic