Presearch: what to do before you research

It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of material available on your topic.  Another common problem is not have any relevant search results come up.

Both of these issues can be solved by a little pre-planning, or what I like to call “presearch.”  You’ll often come back to this step as you go through the research process.

  1. What questions do you have?
    Make a list of the questions you need to answer before you can write your assignment.  In the beginning, you’ll find this information in the assignment instructor your professor provided.  Later, your questions will likely develop after doing some reading.
  2. What information do you need?
    After figuring out what questions you need to answer, ask yourself: what information would help you answer these questions?  Before you start researching, this could include definitions of words in your assignment topic.  As you prepare to write your assignment, you might need to find some more specific examples in order to support your argument better.
  3. Where will you find this information?
    Knowing where to find different kinds of information takes practice.  If you’re totally unsure, don’t hesitate to ask a library staff person.  But here are some examples to get you started:

    • Definitions: check your textbook, encyclopedias on your topic, or dictionaries
    • Background information: again, check your textbook, check encyclopedias, or check general books on your topic
    • General information: for summaries on your topic and that kind of thing, check books and literature reviews (a type of journal article)
    • Specific information/current research: check journal articles.  Books would work, too.

    Other resource types you can consider, especially when rounding out your argument include: primary sources (i.e. newspaper articles, interviews, speeches, letters); reliable websites; and government information.

  4. What keywords can you come up with to describe your topic?
    Come up with a list of words and synonyms for those words, to type into Summon, or into subject databases and the library catalogue while you research.  Don’t forget: computers aren’t very smart and can’t predict your topic.  It’s really important, then, to type in exactly what you’re looking for – otherwise you’ll be likely to get garbage results.  (See “Keywords” blog post for more help with this).
  5. If you’re doing journal research, did Summon find enough good content? If not, what databases should you try?
    Again, this takes practice, but the library staff has helped with this task.  Check the Program Guide webpages on Western Libraries’ website or a list of databases on different subjects (i.e. Sociology, Foods and Nutrition, Religious Studies, Biology, etc).

Taking a few minutes to do some planning will honestly save you time in the long run.  Organizing your research before you start also helps to avoid confusion – and point out where you may have gone astray.