Writing a Report

27 Strategies for Conducting Research

Research begins with questions. You’ve already started this process as you considered the purpose of your report and came to understand your task. Odds are, as you did so, more questions came up that you were not sure how to answer and that’s okay. Doing the actual research will help you answer those questions. 

Primary versus secondary research

There are two basic kinds of research: primary research and secondary research.

Primary research is often first-person accounts and can be useful when you are researching a local issue that may not have been addressed previously and/or have little published research available. You may also use primary research to supplement, confirm, or challenge national or regional trends with local information.

Primary research can include any of these data collection methods:

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Observations and analysis
  • Ethnography (the study and description of people, cultures, and customs)

Secondary research is what many students are most familiar with. This type of research generally requires searching libraries and other research institutions’ holdings. Secondary research requires that you read other peoples’ published studies and research in order to learn more about your topic, determine what others have written and said, and then develop a conclusion about your ideas on the topic in light of what others have done and said.

These are examples of sources that might be used in secondary research:

  • Academic, scientific, and technical journal articles
  • Governmental reports
  • Raw data and statistics
  • Trade and professional organization reports

Secondary research in action

First, the secondary research will help establish best or common practices, trends, statistics, and the state of current research about your topic.

Your brainstorming would likely lead to questions such as these:

  • What are the major issues in this field? What are the controversies?
  • Who is impacted by this issue and how?
  • What is the current state of the issue locally and for your client?
  • What has been done about this issue recently or significantly in the past? Did it work? Why or why not?

The above information would likely be available through secondary research sources.

Where do I look?

In the 21st century, we generally turn to the internet when we have a question. For technical, scientific, and academic research, we can still turn to the internet, but where we visit changes. We will discuss a few different places where you can perform research including Google, Google Scholar, and your college/university library website.

Google and Google Scholar

The default research site for most students tends to be Google. Google and other search engines can be a great starting place for a variety of research. You can use Google to find news articles and other popular sources, such as magazine articles and blog posts. You can use Google to discover keywords, alternative terms, and relevant professional, for-profit, and non-profit businesses and organizations.

The most important point to remember about using Google, though, is that search results are organized by popularity, not by accuracy. Further, because Google customizes search results based on a user’s search history, searches performed by different people or on different browsers may provide slightly different results.

For many technical, scientific, and scholarly topics, Google will not provide access to the appropriate and necessary types of sources and information. Google Scholar, however, searches only academic and scientific journals, books, patents, and governmental and legal documents.  This means the results will be more technical and scholarly and, therefore, more appropriate for much of the research you will be expected to perform as a student.

However, while Google Scholar will show academic and technical results, that does not mean that you will have access to the full-text documents. Many of the sources that appear on Google Scholar are from databases, publishers, or libraries, which means that they are often behind paywalls or password-protected. Do not pay for these documents! There is a good chance you will be able to access them through your college, university, or even local library.

College and university libraries

College and university libraries have access to databases, peer-reviewed journals, and books that are generally the best choice for accurate and more technical information. A Google search might yield millions and millions of results and a Google Scholar search may yield tens or hundreds of thousands of results, but a library search will generally turn up far fewer, perhaps a handful to a few thousand, which is actually a benefit.

You may think, “Isn’t fewer results a bad thing? Doesn’t that mean limiting the possibilities for the project?” The quick answer is yes, fewer results means fewer options for your project, but no, this does not mean using the library limits the possibilities for a project. Apart from having more peer-reviewed and academic resources, generating fewer results through a library’s academic database search saves time because there are fewer results to sift through. Besides, you weren’t going to check all 11,800,000 hits from a Google search, were you?

Overall, library resources are more tightly controlled and vetted. Anyone can create a blog or website and post information, regardless of the accuracy or usefulness of the information. Library resources, in contrast, have generally gone through rigorous processes and revisions before publication. For example, academic and scientific journals have a review system in place—whether a peer-review process or an editorial board. Both feature panels of people with expertise in the areas under consideration. Publishers for books also feature editorial boards who determine the usefulness and accuracy of information.

Of course, this does not mean that every peer-reviewed journal article or book is 100% accurate and useful all of the time. Biases still exist and many commonly accepted facts change over time with more research and analysis. Overall, the process for these types of publications require that multiple people read and comment on the work, providing some checks and balances that are not present for general internet sources.

Common types of library sources

  • Databases: databases are specialized search services that provide access to sources such as academic and scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines. An example of a database would be Academic Search Complete.
  • Journals: journals are specialized publications focused on an often narrow topic or field. For example,  Computers & Composition is a peer-reviewed journal focused on the intersection of computers, technology, and composition (i.e., writing) classes. Another example is the Journal of Bioengineering & Biomedical Science.
  • Books: also called monographs, books generally cover topics in more depth than can be done in a journal article. Sometimes books will contain contributions from multiple authors, with each chapter authored separately.
  • Various media: depending on the library, you may have access to a range of media, including documentaries, videos, audio recordings, and more. Some libraries offer streaming media that you can watch directly on the library website without having to download any files.

How do I perform a search?

Research is not a linear process. It requires a back and forth between sources, your ideas and analysis, and the key words you’re using for your research.

The research process is a bit like an eye exam. The doctor makes a best guess for the most appropriate lens strength and then adjusts the lenses from there. Sometimes the first option is the best and most appropriate; sometimes it takes a few tries with several different options before finding the best one for you and your situation.

Have a wide range of keywords because not all terms will result in the same information. Developing a list of keywords can be aided by a quick Google search. A Google search may reveal more official language or terms, broader or narrower terms and concepts, or related terms and concepts. For technical and scientific topics, though, Google may not be a lot of help for finding other terms.

You can use a couple different tricks to narrow your search. See this video about Boolean operators for guidance about how to achieve better database search results

If you still are not sure where to start, or if you hit a wall, talk to a librarian. They are available to help and they can save you a lot of time and improve your research experience. I love librarians so much, I married one! (For real!) You can go to any post-secondary library for help. If are a post-secondary student in British Columbia, you can chat with a librarian online at AskAway. If you’re lucky, they might marry you.

Determining a topic and finding relevant resources are only the beginning steps in the research process. Once you locate sources, you actually have to read them and determine how useful and relevant they are for your particular research context.


Clark, S. (n.d.). Online research: Tips for effective search strategies [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTJygQwYV84


This chapter was adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted their chapter from A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications (on ohiostate.pressbooks.pub) by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.



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Professional Writing Today Copyright © 2022 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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