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Research Strategy

  1. The Basics
    You have a research assignment, but what does "research" mean? Research is:
    • Asking questions
    • Gathering information
    • Assessing or evaluating information
    • Organizing and then presenting the information
  2. Selecting a Topic
    Try to find an issue or topic that interests you. A good topic is:
    • Narrow: focuses on the essential element of the topic
    • Challenging: engages the reader or encourages debate
    • Grounded: can be argued from fact, not just belief
  3. Background Information
    Start by looking through:
    • general encyclopedias
    • subject specific encyclopedias
    • dictionaries
    • almanacs
    • course textbooks
    • lecture notes
    These will give you a basic overview of the topic and may provide lists of other books or articles you could consult during your research.
  4. Refining Your Topic
    You will probably need to narrow the focus of your topic since most are too broad to be covered in a research paper. Sometimes, however, a topic is so narrow in scope there is little information available. In this case, you will need to expand your focus. Go from a general topic, to a more specific topic and then hone it to the precise topic that you will research. For example:
    • The general topic - environmental impact of oil refineries
    • The more specific topic - environmental impact of oil refineries in urban areas
    • Your precise topic - health effects of oil refineries in urban areas.

    State your topic as a question. This will help you formulate your thesis or the main purpose of your topic. This will usually be stated at the beginning of your paper. For example, you might pose the question:

    • "What are the health effects on urban residents near oil refineries?"

    In addition, you can brainstorm other questions that might have bearing on your topic, such as:

    • How many urban refineries are there?
    • What chemicals are used or produced during refinement?
    • Are there studies comparing resident's health before and after a refinery has opened?
  5. Shape Your Search Strategy
    Once you have your research question, you can begin to look for information:
    • Look in the library catalogue for books, videos and other resources
    • Look in library databases for articles, books and other information
    • Search the Internet for authoritative websites

    How do you do this? There are 3 steps!

    • Identify the key concepts and terms in your research question "What are the health effects on urban residents near oil refineries?"
      • Health
      • Urban
      • Oil
      • Refineries
    • Think of related terms for these concepts
      • health - wellness, illness, sickness
      • urban - city, town, residential, neighbourhood
      • oil - petroleum, gas, energy
      • refinery - plant, production processor
      Tip: Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases, such as: "oil refineries".
    • Combine terms using Boolean operators. These apply whether using a catalogue, database or internet search engine
      • AND - narrows and locates items that have ALL your search terms

        Example: health AND urban AND oil

      • OR - broadens and locates items that have ANY of your terms

        Example: urban OR city OR residential

      • NOT - excludes items by eliminating a concept

        Example: urban NOT rural
        Combine your operators for more exact searching
        Health AND (urban OR city OR residential) AND ("oil refineries")

    It is a good idea to consult with a librarian about your search strategy and the best places to search for your information.

  6. Evaluate Your Information
    Okay, so now you have a few resources you might use for your assignment. Now you need to decide whether the information is reliable and useful to you. Here are the key considerations:
    • Is the information relevant to your topic?
    • Is the date of publication appropriate?
    • Is the author qualified?
    • What is the author's purpose?
    • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
    • Are there references and/or footnotes?

    You should also consider your use of scholarly and popular publications in your research. Generally, scholarly articles - those written by experts for academic periodicals - add more weight, or importance, to your research than articles found in popular magazines. 

  7. Begin Writing
    Now it is time to begin writing. If you need guidance on writing the research project consult with your instructor. As well, a librarian can help find books and other resources to assist you.

Adapted from Reg Erhardt Library, SAIT Polytechnic. Library Research Strategy Guide

Types of Journals

Journals, magazines and newspapers are often referred to as periodicals or serials because they are published on a regular (daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly) basis. These publications are great sources of current, up-to-date information.

Periodicals are available in electronic and print form. 

There are different types of periodicals, each with particular purposes and uses. For instance:

  • Research papers or presentations may require that you use scholarly journals
  • Current event and popular culture coverage is provided by popular magazines and newspapers
  • Trade magazines report on trends, personalities and events within a specific industry or profession

The following chart outlines the general characteristics of these different periodicals.

Scholarly and Research Journals Professional, Trade and Industry Journals Popular and News Magazines Newspapers


Journal of Communication Management
Canadian Medical Association Journal
Chemical Engineering Journal
ACM Computing Surveys

PC World
Medical Post
Aviation Week & Space Technology

Sports Illustrated
National Geographic
Consumer Reports

Calgary Herald
Calgary Sun
Globe and Mail
National Post

Value and Uses

Reports on original research; In-depth analysis of topics; Lengthy articles; Statistical information; Academic level book reviews; Refereed or peer-reviewed

Current trends, news and products in a field; Practical industry information; Company, organization and biographical news; Career information; Book and product reviews

Current events and news; Hot topics; Brief, factual information; Short articles; Interviews

News stories; Current information; Local and regional focus; Analysis and opinion of current events; Classified ads; Editorials; Book reviews; Entertainment information


Researchers, scholars, professors, academics

Practitioners in the field

General audience

General audience


Academic level writing and vocabulary; Specialized language of the discipline; Can be highly technical

Written for practitioners in the field; Specialized jargon

Non-technical vocabulary; Often simple language

Non-technical vocabulary written for a general audience


Researchers, academics, professors, scholars

Experts in the field or journalists with subject expertise

Journalists, staff writers, freelance writers

Journalists, staff-writers

Editorial Requirements

Editors/reviewers are experts in same field as authors; May participate in peer-review process prior to publication; Rigorous publication standards; Articles checked for content, format and style

Editors are generally experts in same field as authors; Articles rarely peer-reviewed prior to publication; Articles usually checked only for format and style

Editors not academic experts in subject field of article; Article topics often assigned or contracted; Articles usually only edited for style and format

Editors not academic experts in subject field of article; Articles edited for brevity

Citations and Footnotes

Footnotes and bibliographies; Documentation often extensive

Occasional brief bibliographies; Sources can be cited in text

Original sources can be obscure; Sources, when used, are rarely cited in full

Sources are rarely cited in full


Professional organizations, universities, research institutes and scholarly presses

Commercial / trade publisher; Industry institutes and professional associations

Commercial / trade publishers; Corporate ownership

Commercial / trade publishers; Corporate ownership

Graphics and Illustrations

Graphs, charts and tables; Ads and photographs are rare

Graphs, charts, tables, photographs relevant to the industry; Glossy ads

Many graphics and photographs; Many full-page, color, glossy ads

Photos, graphics and charts; Many ads

This chart was adapted from:
Gradowski, G., Snavely, L., & Dempsey P. (Eds.) Designs for active learning: A sourcebook of classroom strategies for information education. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 1998.

Adapted from: SAIT Polytechnic Library Research Strategy Guide