The Research Process - 5 Steps to Success

A lot of students are uneasy about the library research process, not knowing how or where to start. This guide breaks the process into five easy steps: 1. defining your topic, 2. selecting and using the best research resources for your topic, 3. locating the information you identify in these resources, and most importantly, 4. evaluating the resources you've found and 5. documenting your research.

Defining | Selecting | Locating | Evaluating | Documenting

1. Defining your topic

Begin by clearly mapping out the concepts you want to research. This will help you identify the key terms and concepts you should use when searching electronic databases and print research resources.

a. Clarify your understanding of the topic by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What level of research does your assignment require? Is it a brief class presentation or are you preparing to write a research paper with a bibliography and footnotes?
  • What do you already know about your topic?
  • What are the main issues?
  • Does your topic deal with historical or current events?
  • Has your lecturer required that you consult certain types of materials such as popular or scholarly journals, newspapers, or a particular database?

b. Do some background reading to familiarize yourself with the topic

This will also provide you with relevant keywords or synonyms to use during database searching. Some key resources that will help you gather this information are:

Subject Dictionaries and Thesauri:

Dictionaries provide an alphabetical list of definitions of words, phrases, theories, terminology or people which can help you clarify basic information. Thesauri contain subject headings which list preferred research terms, usually produced to support a research tool.


  • Encyclopaedias provide a condensed overview of every branch of a subject.
  • At the end of an entry there is often a list of other useful books and journal articles.
  • If you cannot find an entry for your term or concept, check the back of the last volume - there is often an index directing you to where your term is found in the encyclopaedia.

    Handbooks and Research Guides:

    A handbook is a short treatise or guide-book to a subject. Research guides provide an overview of the research process in a given area.


    Bibliographies contain the history or systematic description of literature on a specific subject, including information on authorship and publication details.

      Where do you find material for defining your topic? 
      • Search Voyager, the Library Catalogue. Try a Boolean Keyword search, combining your key word with one of these types of material. For example: encyclopedia AND women
      • Check the Subject Guides page - some subject pages feature a list of research resources for particular topic - look under "GUIDES".
      • Check the Library - encyclopaedias, handbooks and dictionaries are often shelved in a library's Reference Collection. Some libraries produce bibliographies of their major print research resources.
      • Ask a librarian.

c. Map out the concepts you wish to search

Use the information you have collected to create a concept map. A concept map is an easy method of devising a strategy for finding information in print and electronic research resources.


2. Selecting and Using the Best Research Resources


Information for assignments or for research which does not require in-depth study can usually be found in books or articles in Desk Copy or Short Loan Collections.

Use Voyager, the Library Catalogue to find:

  • books and journal titles held at the University of Auckland, using key words or concepts you have identified in your concept map.
  • material recommended to you by lecturers and reading lists.
  • annual reviews on your subject.
  • bibliographies of books and articles on a particular topic.
Online help is available within Voyager, but here are a few tips to enhance your searching:
  • If you know the material you want is on Short Loan or Desk Copy, try the Course Material search option on Voyager.
  • When you find the record of a relevant book, click on the subject headings next to LC Subject Heading(s) to find similar books.
  • Once you have found a useful book on the library shelf, check its contents to see if it has a bibliography - this will refer you to other books and articles.
  • Use our guide on Interpreting References.


To find coverage of all the relevant research literature on a particular subject, you need more than Voyager. Indexing Publications, Abstracting Journals, and Electronic Databases are the major research tools you should use to locate articles, conference papers, etc. relevant to your field. They all provide basic descriptions of articles and enough information for you to see if this material is held by the Library.

Indexing publications (usually referred to as "indexes") list basic descriptions of articles and other literature relevant to your field, usually grouped by subject and/or author. They provide enough information for you to check Voyager, the Library Catalogue, to see if the Library has the items your want. Many Indexes are now available as Electronic Databases.

Abstracting journals (usually referred to as "abstracts") provide similar information to indexes, plus they provide a summary of the article (the abstract). The abstracts are usually listed numerically, under subject groupings. Many Abstracts are now available as Electronic Databases.
How do you find relevant Indexes and Abstracts?
  • Try an Advanced Keyword search, combining your subject area with either the term abstracts or indexes. For example: abstracts AND chem?
  • Check the Library - Abstracts and indexes are often shelved in a separate collection within a library; Some libraries produce bibliographies of their major print research resources.
  • Ask a librarian.

Electronic databases

Many print indexes and abstracts are now available in electronic format, making them quicker and easier to scan for information. Some databases now provide the full text of the article.

Where do you find relevant Electronic Databases? 

Research Consultation

If you haven't found the information you need, talk to Library staff. Some libraries have subject librarians, with whom you can discuss your research and the best approach to take.


3. Locating the Information You Have Identified

Check Voyager to see if the Library has the items you found during your searches. Once you find the items on Voyager, note the item's Location, Call Number and Status.

  • If you cannot find an item which should be available, ask Library Staff.
  • If Voyager shows the item is already charged out, fill in the information at the bottom of the screen to recall the book for yourself.

Material from other University of Auckland campuses

If you have located material on Voyager which is available but held at another campus, use the Requests button in Voyager and fill in the online form to ask for that item to be delivered to your nearest University of Auckland Library. See also Intercampus Delivery Service

Material from outside the University of Auckland

Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery Service is generally available to postgraduate students and staff of the University of Auckland. Undergraduate students may apply if they can provide the signature of their lecturer or tutor on the printed application form. An electronic application form is available.


4. Evaluating resources

Print resources

Sometimes, we have the tendency to believe anything we see in print. Critical thinking is a necessary skill to develop as you read through all the information you've found on your topic.

Most research publications go through an external editing or peer review process that helps verify the authority and accuracy of the information presented. Reputable newspapers and magazines also check their facts, but you will also want to consider such issues as objectivity, currency of your information, and how thoroughly your topic is covered.

Internet Resources

The majority of Internet resources lack this kind of peer review or even simple fact checking, which means that you, the user, must thoroughly evaluate anything you encounter on the Internet before deciding whether you should use it in your research.


5. Documenting / Citing Your Research

You want to be careful to fully document or cite all the resources you use in your research, especially if you are quoting or otherwise using other people's work, ideas, or phrasing. This includes anything you find on the Internet. NOT citing the sources of your research can be considered plagiarism, a serious form of academic dishonesty and theft. When photocopying articles you might use for your research make sure you write down the bibliographic details - this will save you a lot of time trying to track them down later.

Depending on the format of your assignment, you will probably compile a reference list, footnotes, a bibliography, or a combination of these.


This page is a part of the Study & Research Help website. Last updated : 07/01/2009.
Comments & suggestions to : Learning Services