Research Planning 101

Photo: Research from Found Drama on Flickr


Once you know what your research question is, you are ready to explore how to answer it.

To begin, it helps to know where to explore and what you're likely to find there.

Where should you begin?

  • Available sources
  • Uses of sources
  • Search strategies

Available sources to explore:

  1. Reference materials such as encyclopedias and dictionaries
  2. Books provide background and comprehensive information, but they may not be as current as other sources.
  3. Newspapers and magazines are written for a general audience and are good for current events.
  4. Journals that are peer-reviewed are more academic and specialized.
  5. And there's the web…

Explore Books

PolyCAT is the Library's catalog and it contains the titles of

  • books
  • newspapers
  • magazines
  • journals
  • videos
  • course reserves
  • senior projects
  • and more

Note: you will not find articles in PolyCAT.

Explore Articles

To find articles in newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals, use a database. The Library web site lists dozens of these, selected for their value to Cal Poly students.

You can find databases listed by subject or alphabetically.

Which article database should you use?

Some databases, like Academic Search Elite, contain information on a wide variety of topics. Others, like AGRICOLA, focus on a single subject (agriculture) and cover it more thoroughly.

To find the best database,

  • Try a general database first for a brief assignment (e.g. Academic Search Elite, Expanded Academic, Google Scholar).
  • To write a persuasive essay, try CQ Researcher or Opposing Viewpoints.
  • For research questions on a specific subject, look at the recommended databases on the Library's Research Guides, or browse the list of databases by subject.

Scholarly Resources (peer-reviewed or refereed)

My professor said I need a scholarly/peer-reviewed article for my paper. What does that mean?

There are two major types of articles:


Articles presenting original research or events related to a specific discipline that have been reviewed by experts in the subject.


Articles about current events and popular culture, opinion pieces, fiction, self-help tips written by paid journalists.

What are the differences between scholarly and popular journal articles?


  • Written for subject specialists
  • Articles are critically evaluated by experts before they can be published (peer-reviewed)
  • Footnotes, bibliographies or references support research and point to additional research on a topic
  • Authors describe methodology and supply data used to support research results


  • Written for non-specialists
  • Published to make a profit; the line between informing and selling may be blurred
  • Authors usually do not cite sources
  • Timely coverage of popular topics and current events and provide broad overview of topics

Explore the Web

A single search can be very effective as a way to explore your research question. On the web you'll find:

  • Google - general search
  • Wikipedia - place to start to get search terms and keywords
  • Google Books - preview book contents and some full text
  • Google Scholar - quick search of scholarly articles

The web can be very useful!


But what site can you trust?

Anyone can create a web site, so the process of finding information can be less efficient and give you far more information to make it difficult to decide what is relevant, irrelevant or inaccurate.

Depending on a web site's domain, credibility can be gauged.

Use domain to help determine the credibility of the source:

  • .edu = educational site
  • .com = commercial site
  • .gov = government site
  • .org = non-profit site

Kennedy Library Online

On the Library's web site you will find:

What are they useful for?

How can you use them to find answers to your research question?

Search Strategies … Types of Searches

How you ask a question involves not only the words or phrases you enter, but the kind of search you choose to perform.

The most common types are:

  • keyword search
  • subject search

Understanding the difference between these will help you find more appropriate results.

Keyword vs. Subject Searching

Keyword searches scan all words in the article description, including the title, abstract (summary) and author.

Subject searches scan only the subject field of a record. The subject headings or descriptors describe the main topics of each article or book.

Keyword Searching

  • searches different parts of the record, including title and abstract
  • searches for any word or phrase
  • may retrieve irrelevant records
  • good for obscure topics

Subject Searching

  • searches only subject heading or descriptor field
  • searches from existing list of subject headings
  • high degree of relevancy
  • good for common topics

Searching for Resources

The first step in exploring for resources on your research question is to identify the main concepts in the question.

Do this by picking out the significant terms in your question.

  • How does drinking affect driving?
  • What are the laws on drinking and driving?
  • What are the statistics on drinking and driving?

If you typed in all the words, you would probably find nothing or nothing relevant.


Once you have picked out the significant terms in your questions, make a list of synonyms and related terms. This list may provide additional terms and suggest ways to narrow or broaden your topic.


How does drinking affect driving?


  • alcoholism
  • substance abuse
  • intoxication
  • inebriation
  • addiction
  • consumption


  • change
  • influence
  • result
  • cause
  • alter
  • impair


  • motorist
  • DUI
  • transportation
  • DWI
  • Drunk Driving
  • driver

Exploring in a Nutshell

Be flexible in planning your search strategy. Understand that language matters.

  • A keyword search is always a good way to start looking for information.
  • A subject search is a great way to get more specific information.


Suppose you get zero results. Remember:

  • check your spelling and retype any search that fails
  • try your search in several databases
  • try a different search strategy by using different keywords or different subject terms
  • review your strategy and search terms with a librarian or professor
  • it often takes several tries to find the information you want

Suppose you have thousands of results...

Don't give up. It just means you may need to tweak your search a little.

For example you could try...

  • adding more terms to specify an aspect of the topic such as legal or ethical
  • restricting your search to a time period, such as the 1980's
  • specifying a place or area, such as Michigan
  • specifying a population related to the topic such as wildlife or species

After you've explored what's available about your research question,

the next step is to gather the resources.

Credits / Colophon