Chapter 10: The Research Process

Venecia Williams

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between formal and informal research
  • Determine how to conduct research and investigation to gather information
  • Learn to evaluate sources
  • Understand how to be ethical, avoid plagiarism, and use reputable sources

Not every piece of business writing requires research or investigation. For example, if you receive an email asking for the correct spelling of your boss’s name and her official title, you will probably be able to answer without having to look anything up. But what if the sender of the email wants to know who in the company is the decision-maker for purchasing a certain supply item? Unless you work for a very small company, you will likely have to look through the organizational chart, and possibly make a phone call or two, before you are able to write an email answering this question. You have just done the research for a piece of business writing.

The first step in research is to know what the situation calls for in terms of the formality or rigour of research required. Although formal research carefully documents sources with citations and references, most messages relay informal research such as when you quickly look up some information you have access to and email it to the person who requested it. Either way, you apply skills in retrieving and delivering the needed information to meet your audience’s needs, often by paraphrasing or summarizing, which are extremely valuable skills coveted by employers. Knowing what research type or “methodology” the situation calls for—formal or informal research, or primary or secondary research—in the first place will keep you on track in the writing process.

Formal and Informal Research

The research methodology where you look up information and deliver the goods in an email answering someone’s question without needing to formally cite your sources is informal research. It is by far the most common type of research because any professional does it several times a day in their routine communication with the various audiences they serve. Say your manager emails asking you to recommend a new printer to replace the one that’s dying. You’re no expert on printers but you know who to ask. You go to Erika, the administrative assistant in your previous department, and she says to definitely go with the Ricoh printer. You trust what she says, so you end your research there and pass along this recommendation to your manager. Now, because your source for the information, whom you don’t necessarily need to identify in informal research, was relatively subjective and didn’t explain in full why the Ricoh was better than all the other models available, you can’t really have 100% confidence in the recommendation you pass along. This type of research will do when you’re short on time and your audience doesn’t need to check your sources.

Formal research, on the other hand, takes a more systematic approach and documents the sources of information compiled using a conventional citation and reference system designed to make it easy for the audience to check out your sources themselves to verify their credibility. Formal research is more scientific in discovering needed information or solving a problem, beginning with a hypothesis (your main idea when you begin, which, in the case above, could be that the Ricoh might be the best printer), and then testing that hypothesis in a rigorous way. In this case, you would come up with a set of criteria including certain features and capabilities that you need your printer to have- cost, warranty and service plan, availability, etc. Next, you would look at all the accessible literature on the printers available to you, including the product webpages and specifications manuals, customer reviews from other vendors, and reviews from reputable sources such as Consumer Reports, which gets experts to test the various available models against a set of criteria. You check out their selection criteria and determine which printer is right for your needs, so you respond to your manager with the make and model number. Finally, to prove that the recommendation comes from a reputable authority, you cite the Consumer Reports article showing the author, year, title, and retrieval information so that your manager can verify that you used a reputable, current source. Formal research requires more time, labour, practice, skill, and resources in following a rigorous procedure.

Primary and Secondary Research

Research can also be categorized as primary and secondary research. Like formal vs. informal research, primary vs. secondary has much to do with the level of rigour.

Primary Research

Primary research generates new knowledge and secondary research applies it. In the above case, the authors of the Consumer Reports article conducted primary research because they came up with the assessment criteria, arranged for access to all the printers, tested and scored each according to how well they performed against each criterion, analyzed the data, determined the ranking of best to worst printer on the market, and reported it in a published article. Other forms of primary research include surveys of randomly sampled people to gauge general attitudes on certain subjects and lab experiments that follow the scientific method. Primary research is labour-intensive, typically expensive, and may include aspects of secondary research if referring to previous primary research. Whether for business or academic writing, primary research can help to strengthen your topic. Interviews, surveys and observation are some common types of primary research.


Speaking to experts or individuals directly connected to your topic of research can provide valuable insight.  Prepare well before conducting an interview. Find out as much as you can about the person or persons if possible so that you can craft effective questions. Open-ended questions are better than closed-ended questions as the interviewee can choose how to respond to the questions. During the interview be courteous, stay on topic and be sure to end the interview on time.


Surveys collect information from larger groups of people. Unlike interviews, the types of questions on surveys tend to be close-ended and quantifiable. If you plan on creating a survey, clearly define your research question and identify your target audience. Doing so will help you design appropriate questions and choose the best way to gather data- face-to-face, over the phone or self-administered online. Nowadays it is easy to create online surveys that quickly compile the results automatically. Several free survey tools such as Survey Monkey and Google Forms are available online to design surveys and interpret the data.


Another way of collecting information is through careful observation and note-taking. Depending on the type of data you wish to collect, you may decide to simply watch or listen and take notes or perhaps become an active participant. Observation can be subjective; therefore, it is important to first, understand that your feelings and opinions may affect your observations and second, take detailed notes about what you see.

Whichever primary research method you use, make sure you are aware of the drawbacks. People may not always be truthful when answering questions they think cast them in a negative light and the way people normally behave can change significantly when they know they are being observed.

Secondary Research

Secondary research is what most people do when they have academic or professional tasks because it involves finding and using primary research. To use the printer example above, accessing the Consumer Reports article and using its recommendation to make a case for office printer selection was secondary research. Depending on whether that secondary research is informal or formal, it may or may not cite and reference sources. Common secondary sources include print sources and electronic sources.


Books are an excellent source for in-depth data but may contain more out-of-date information compared to other sources because of the time it takes for a book to be published. Whenever you use a book as a source, always check to make sure the information is still relevant.


Periodicals can provide up-to-date information in a specific research area as they are published at regular intervals. Periodicals include scholarly or peer-reviewed journals, trade journals, newspapers and popular magazines. Unlike newspapers and popular magazines which are written for a more general audience, peer-reviewed and trade journals often contain technical jargon which can make them difficult to understand.

Online Sources

Increasingly, it had become rare to start the research process by going to the library to access printed resources (many books and periodicals are available in digital form). Most students and business professionals start online. With the vast amount of information available online through websites, social media, multimedia and blogs, it is easy to find almost any kind of information. Online sources pose special challenges to students and professionals conducting research since most will expediently conduct research entirely online, and with the vast amount of information online, credibility becomes an issue. The most credible information is may not always be the first to appear in your internet search. In fact, with sponsored links common on most search engines, it is likely that the first link(s) will be advertisements that may or may not contain information related to your topic.

Once a source has been located online, other issues arise. Sometimes the author isn’t revealed on a webpage, perhaps because it’s a company or organization’s website, in which case your scrutiny shifts to the organization, its potential biases, and its agenda. A research project on electronic surveillance, for instance, might turn up the websites of companies selling monitoring systems, in which case you must be wary of any facts or statistics (especially uncited ones, but even cited sources) they use because they will likely be selected to help sell products and services. And instead of checking the publisher as you would for a print source, you could consider the domain name; websites with .edu or .gov URL endings usually have higher standards of credibility for the information they publish than sites ending with .com or .org, which are typically the province of commercial enterprises and special interest groups with unique agendas.

Wikipedia is sometimes one of the first sources students and professionals turn to when conducting research online. Although successful in being a comprehensive repository of knowledge,, for instance, is not generally considered credible and should therefore not appear as a source in a research document unless it’s for a topic so new or niche that no other credible sources for it exist. By the organization’s own admission, “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found [on their site].” The Web 2.0, user-generated nature of Wikipedia means that its articles are susceptible to vandalism or content changes inconsistent with expert opinion, and they aren’t improved by any formal peer-review process (Wikipedia, 2020). A Wikipedia article can be a good place to start in a research task, however. If you’re approaching a topic for the first time, use Wikipedia for a general introduction and a sense of the topic’s scope and key subtopics. But if you’re going to cite any sources, don’t stop there; use the credible ones that the Wikipedia article cites by scrolling down to the References section- check them out, and assess them for their credibility using the criteria outlined below.

 Evaluating Sources

Evaluating your sources is critical to the process of research. When you write for business and industry you will want to draw on reputable, reliable sources—printed as well as electronic ones—because they reflect on the credibility of the message and the messenger. A question that is central to your assessment of your sources is how credible the source is. This question is difficult to address even with years of training and expertise. Sarah Blakeslee and the librarians at California State University, Chico, came up with the CRAAP Test to help researchers easily determine whether a source is trustworthy. Figure 10.1 explains the important questions to ask when evaluating sources using the CRAAP Test.


Figure 10.1 | CRAAP Test

If you’ve found a source that fails a few criteria on the CRAAP Test, you don’t necessarily have to throw the source away. Instead, see if you can find other, more reliable sources to corroborate what your source tells you.

Writing With Integrity

Writing with integrity requires accurately representing what you contributed as well as acknowledging how others have influenced your work. Plagiarism occurs when someone uses another person’s “intellectual property” and doesn’t give them credit. Intellectual property is defined as material or ideas envisioned and created by another person. There are many kinds of intellectual property, including books, articles, essays, stories, poems, films, photographs, works of art or craft, or even just ideas.  In the course of research, it’s entirely likely that you may find a perfect turn of phrase or a way of communicating ideas that fits your needs perfectly. Using it in your writing is fine, provided that you credit the source fully enough that your readers can find it on their own. If you fail to take careful notes or the sentence is present in your writing but later fails to get accurate attribution, it can have a negative impact on you and your organization. That is why it is important that when you find an element you would like to incorporate in your document, in the same moment as you copy and paste or make a note of it in your research file, you need to note the source in a complete enough form to find it again.

Giving credit where credit is due will build your credibility and enhance your document. Moreover, when your writing is authentically yours, your audience will catch your enthusiasm, and you will feel more confident in the material you produce. Just as you have a responsibility in business to be honest in selling your product or service and avoid cheating your customers, so you have a responsibility in business writing to be honest in presenting your idea, and the ideas of others, and to avoid cheating your readers with plagiarized material.

What Is Citing?

Citing is basically giving credit. If your source is well-cited, you’ve told the audience who the ideas or words belong to and you’ve told the audience exactly where to go to find those words.

Why Cite Sources?

1. To Avoid Plagiarism
Plagiarism can occur on purpose or be accidental. It can also result from performance pressure, lapses in judgement, total ignorance, or a plethora of other reasons. This is why it is important to be vigilant and aim to be above reproach in your quest to write and communicate ethically.

2. To Acknowledge the Work of Others
One major purpose of citations is to simply provide credit where it is due. When you provide accurate citations, you are acknowledging both the hard work that has gone into producing research and the person(s) who performed that research.

3. To Provide Credibility to Your Work & to Place Your Work in Context
Providing accurate citations puts your work and ideas into context. They tell your reader that you’ve done your research and know what others have said about your topic. Not only do citations provide context for your work but they also lend credibility and authority to your claims. Further, proper citation also demonstrates the ways in which research is social: no one researches in a vacuum—we all rely on the work of others to help us during the research process.

4. To Help Your Future Researching Self & Other Researchers Easily Locate Sources
Having accurate citations will help you as a researcher and writer keep track of the sources and information you find so that you can easily find the source again. Accurate citations may take some effort to produce, but they will save you time in the long run.

How to Cite Sources

Citation and source use are all about balance. If you don’t use enough sources, you might struggle to make a thorough argument. If you cite too much, you won’t leave room for your own voice in your piece. To cite sources, you should make two things clear:

  1. The difference between your words and the source’s words.
  2. The difference between your ideas and the source’s ideas.

You essentially have three ways of using source material available to you:

  • Quoting text: copying the source’s exact words and marking them off with quotation marks
  • Paraphrasing text: representing the source’s ideas in your own words (without quotation marks)
  • Summarizing text: representing the source’s main ideas in your own words (without quotation marks)

Quoting Sources

Quoting is the easiest way to use sources in a research document, but it also requires care in using it properly so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize, misquote, or overquote. At its simplest, quoting takes source text exactly as it is and puts quotation marks (“ ”) around that text to set it off from your own words. The following points represent conventions and best practices when quoting:

  • Use double quotation marks: In North America, we set off quoted words from our own words with double quotation marks (“ ”). Opening quotation marks look a little like a tiny superscript “66” and the closing marks like “99.”
  • Use a signal phrase to integrate a quotation: Frame a quotation with a “signal phrase” that identifies the source author or speaker by name and/or role along with a verb relating how the quotation was delivered. The signal phrase can precede, follow, or even split the quotation, and you can choose from a variety of available signal phrase expressions suitable for your purposes (Hacker, 2006, p. 603):
    • According to researchers Tblisky and Darion (2003), “. . .”
    • As Vice President of Operations Rhonda Rendell has noted, “. . .”
    • John Rucker, the first responder who pulled Mr. Warren from the wreckage, said that “. . .”
    • Spokespersons Gloria and Tom Grady clarified the new regulations: “. . .”
    • “. . . ,” confirmed the minister responsible for the initiative.
    • “. . . ,” writes Eva Hess, “. . .”
  • Quote purposefully: Quote only when the original wording is important. When we quote famous thinkers like Albert Einstein or Marshall McLuhan, we use their exact words because no one could say it better or more interestingly than they did. Also, quote when you want your audience to see wording exactly as it appeared in the source text or as it was said in speech so that they can be sure that you’re not distorting the words as you might if you paraphrased instead. But if there’s nothing special about the original wording, then it’s better to paraphrase.
  • Don’t overquote: A good rule of thumb is that your completed document should contain no more than 10% quoted material. Otherwise, it will appear that you have few original ideas and rely on quotations to write your document for you.

Paraphrasing Sources

Paraphrasing or “indirect quotation” is putting source text in your own words and altering the sentence structure to avoid using the quotation marks required in direct quotation. Paraphrasing is the preferred way of using a source when the original wording isn’t important. This way, you can incorporate the source’s ideas so they’re stylistically consistent with the rest of your document and thus better tailored to the needs of your audience. Also, paraphrasing a source into your own words proves your advanced understanding of the source text. A paraphrase must faithfully represent the source text by containing the same ideas as in the original in about the same length. As a matter of good writing, however, you should try to streamline your paraphrase so that it tallies fewer words than the source passage while still preserving the original meaning.

A common mistake made when paraphrasing is to go only partway towards paraphrasing by substituting-out major words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) here and there while leaving the source passage’s basic sentence structure intact. This inevitably leaves strings of words from the original untouched in the “paraphrased” version, which can be dangerous because including such direct quotation without quotation marks is considered plagiarism. Figure 10.2 compares an unsuccessful and successful paraphrase.

Original Unsuccessful Paraphrase Successful Paraphrase
“Students frequently overuse direct quotation [when] taking notes, and as a result they overuse quotations in the final [research] paper. Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes.” (Lester, 1976, p. 46-47) Students often overuse quotations when taking notes, and thus overuse them in research reports. About 10% of your final paper should be direct quotation. You should thus attempt to reduce the exact copying of source materials while note-taking (Lester, 1976). Lester (1976) advises against exceeding 10% quotation in your written work. Students writing research reports often quote excessively because of copy-cut-and-paste note-taking. Students should try to minimize using sources word for word (pp. 46-47).

Figure 10.2- Unsuccessful and Successful Paraphrase

In the unsuccessful paraphrase, several strings of words from the original are left untouched because the writer didn’t go the distance in changing the sentence structure of the original. The fix would be to paraphrase more thoroughly by altering the words and the sentence structure, as shown in the successful paraphrase.

How to Paraphrase in 5 Steps
  1. Read and re-read the source-text passage so that you thoroughly understand each point it makes. If it’s a long passage, you might want to break it up into digestible chunks. If you’re unsure of the meaning of any of the words, look them up in a dictionary.
  2. Without looking back at the source text, jot down your understanding of the source-text and tailor the language so that it’s stylistically appropriate for your audience; edit and proofread your version to make it grammatically correct.
  3. Now compare your written paraphrase version to the original to ensure that:
    • You’ve accurately represented the meaning of the original without:
      • Deleting any of the original points
      • Adding any points of your own
      • Distorting any of the ideas so they mean something substantially different from those in the original
    • You haven’t repeated any two identical words from the original in a row
  4. If any two words from the original remain, go further in changing those expressions by using a thesaurus in combination with a dictionary. When you enter a word into a thesaurus, it gives you a list of synonyms, which are different words that mean the same thing as the word you enter into it.
    • Be careful, however; many of those words will mean the same thing as the word you enter into the thesaurus in certain contexts but not in others, especially if you enter a homonym, which is a word that has different meanings in different parts of speech.
      • For instance, the noun party can mean a group that is involved in something serious (e.g., a third-party software company in a data-collection process), but the verb party means something you might do on a night out with friends; it can also function as an adjective related to the verb (e.g., party trick, meaning a trick performed at a party).
  5. Cite your source. Just because you didn’t put quotation marks around the words doesn’t mean that you don’t have to cite your source.

Summarizing Sources

Summarizing is one of the most important skills in communications because professionals of every kind must explain to non-expert customers, managers, and even co-workers the complex concepts on which they are experts, but in a way that those non-experts can understand. Adapting the message to such audiences requires brevity but also translating jargon-heavy technical details into plain, accessible language.

Summarizing is thus paraphrasing only the highlights of a source text or speech. Like paraphrasing, a summary is an indirect quotation that re-casts the source in your own words; unlike a paraphrase, however, a summary is a fraction of the source length—anywhere from less than 1% to a quarter depending on the source length and length of the summary. A summary can reduce a whole novel or film to a single-sentence blurb, for instance, or it could reduce a 50-word paragraph to a 15-word sentence. It can be as casual as a spoken run-down of a meeting your colleague was absent from and wanted to know what he missed, or an elevator pitch selling a project idea to a manager. It can also be as formal as a memo report on a conference you attended on behalf of your organization, so your colleagues can learn in a few minutes of reading the highlights what you learned in a few days of attending the conference, saving them time and money. The procedure for summarizing is much like that of paraphrasing except that it involves the extra step of pulling out highlights from the source.

How to Summarize
  1. Determine how long your summary should be (according to your audience’s needs) so that you have a sense of how much material you should collect from the source.
  2. Read and re-read the source text so that you thoroughly understand it.
  3. Pull out the main points, which usually come first at any level of direct-strategy organization (i.e., the prologue or introduction at the beginning of a book, the abstract at the beginning of an article, or the topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph).
    • Disregard detail such as supporting evidence and examples.
    • If you have an electronic copy of the source, copy and paste the main points into your notes; for a print source that you can mark up, use a highlighter then transcribe those main points into your electronic notes.
    • How many points you collect depends on how big your summary should be.
  4. Paraphrase those main points following steps 1-4 for paraphrasing outlined above.
  5. Edit your draft to make it coherent, clear, and especially concise.
  6. Ensure that your summary meets the needs of your audience and that your source is cited. Again, not having quotation marks around words doesn’t mean that documenting your source(s) is not necessary.

Using quotations, summaries and paraphrases effectively takes time and practice. Purdue Online Writing Lab provides more information on how to effectively incorporate sources into your writing.

Creating In-Text Citations And References

To prove formally that research has been carried out, a two-part system for documenting sources is used. The first part is a citation that gives a few brief pieces of information about the source right where that source is used in the document and points to the second part, the bibliographic reference at the end of the document. This second part gives further details about the source so that readers can easily retrieve it themselves. American Psychology Association (APA), Modern Languages Association (MLA), and The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) are some of the most common styles.

The American Psychological Association’s documentation style is preferred by the social sciences and general disciplines such as business because it strips the essential elements of a citation down to a few pieces of information that briefly identify the source and cue the reader to further details in the references list at the end of the document.

Creating an In-Text Citation

An in-text citation tells the reader where the information in a particular sentence came from. If the in-text citation is done well, the reader will be able to use it to find the full reference in the bibliography, then easily find the exact source where the idea/quote came from.

In APA style, an in-text citation generally consists of the author’s last name and the date the work was created. If you are quoting directly, you should include the page number.

  • “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” (Elliot, 2019, p. 18).
  • According to Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliot, “We know our cultures have meaning and worth, and that culture lives and breathes inside our languages.” (2019, p. 18).

If you’ve already used the author’s name in the sentence, you don’t have to repeat it in the in-text citation.


  • If you don’t know the name of the author, simply put the first few words of the title.
  • If you don’t know the date, write “n.d.” for No Date.
  • If you don’t know the page number, put in the paragraph number.

Creating a Reference

The purpose of a reference is to give enough information for the reader to find the original source.

The APA reference for the quotation cited above is as follows:

  • Elliot, A. (2019). A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Toronto: Doubleday Canada. Print.

Citation styles have different rules and learning them all can be daunting. Purdue Owl provides an up-to-date guide on how to cite sources in the different styles. You can also use a citation generator to create your references as long as you double-check for accuracy.

When Don’t You Cite?

Do you need to cite every source you use in your research? With so much emphasis on plagiarism and citation, it is can be difficult to determine when citation is not necessary.

  • Don’t cite when what you are saying is your own insight. Research involves forming opinions and insights around what you learn. You may be citing several sources that have helped you learn, but at some point, you are integrating your own opinion, conclusion, or insight into the work. The fact that you are NOT citing it helps the reader understand that this portion of the work is your unique contribution developed through your own research efforts.
  • Don’t cite when you are stating common knowledge. What is common knowledge is sometimes difficult to discern. Generally, quick facts like historical dates or events are not cited because they are common knowledge.
    • Examples of information that would not need to be cited include:
      • Vancouver is the 8th largest city in Canada.
      • The earth revolves around the sun.


It may seem like it’s hard work to assess your sources, make sure your information is accurate and truthful, and document your sources, but the effort is worth it. Business and industry rely on reputation and trust in order to maintain healthy relationships. Your document, regardless of how small it may appear in the larger picture, is an important part of that reputation and interaction.

End of Chapter Activities

10a. Thinking About the Content

What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?

10b. Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  1. Before the Internet improved information access, how did people find information? Are the strategies they used still valid and how might they serve you as a business writer? Interview several people who are old enough to have done research in the “old days” and report your findings.
  2. Find an example of a bogus or less than credible Web site. Indicate why you perceive it to be untrustworthy.
  3. Visit the parody Web site The Onion at and find one story that you think has plausible or believable elements. Share your findings with the class.
  4. How do you prepare yourself for a writing project? How do others? What strategies work best for you? Survey ten colleagues or coworkers and compare your results with your classmates.
  5. Think of a time when someone asked you to gather information to make a decision, whether for work, school, or in your personal life. How specific was the request? What did you need to know before you could determine how much and what kind of information to gather?

10c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation

Dealing with Plagiarism in a Group Project

Nina is a third-year student completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of West Haven. She is a member of a team with four other students in her class, and they have a week to complete their latest group assignment. This assignment accounts for forty percent of their final grade, so Nina is determined to get an A.

Nina is the team leader and assigns a section to each member of the team to complete. She tells them to submit their sections to her one day before the assignment due date for her to have sufficient time to edit and collate the document.

While editing the sections received from her teammates,  Nina discovers that they plagiarised most of the information they submitted to her. She immediately requests that they make the necessary changes as she knows that plagiarism can lead to expulsion at the university.

Nina’s team members are laid back and have no interest in rewriting their sections. Instead, they reassure her that the instructor will not check their project for plagiarism. Nina is frustrated and does not know how to address this.

What advice would you give to Nina?


10d. Writing Activity

Watch this video from on What really motivates people to be honest in business. Summarize the video. What is the most interesting point made by Alexander Wagner in your opinion?


This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative ,Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license ,Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Hacker, Diana. (2006). The Bedford handbook (7th ed.). New York: St. Martin’s. Retrieved from

Purdue Writing Lab. (2020). Conducting Primary Research- Observing. Purdue Writing Lab. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from

Wikipedia. (2020). Wikipedia: General disclaimer. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from


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