Part 1. Get Started on your Research

2 Background Reading

As you are exploring your topic and figuring out ways to narrow it down to a searchable question, it’s wise to do some initial reading. For one thing, you might not know much about your topic yet. For another, such reading will help you learn the terms used by professionals and scholars who have studied your narrower topic. Those terms might become your keywords or search terms later on, so keep them in mind.

Getting your words right

It’s important to understand that the search terms you use will have a direct correlation with the kinds of sources you find. And spending some time early on in your research learning relevant terms will save you time later on.

For instance, if you were going to do research about the risk of bird flu to humans, initial background reading would teach you that professionals and scholars usually use the term avian influenza instead of bird flu when they write about it. (Often, they also use H1N1 or H1N9 to identify the strain.) If you didn’t learn that, you would miss the kinds of sources you’ll eventually need for your assignment.

Take a look at the Google search results using the terms “bird flu” and human risk vs. “avian influenza” and human risk. Compare the kinds of sources listed.

(Click on the thumbnail image for a larger view.)

search results
Comparing Google search terms


If you were to follow the linked results, you would see that the sources on the right come from government agencies and scientific journals, whereas the sources on the left come from news outlets or consumer health websites.


Wikipedia logo

A note about Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a popular place to start your research and will likely be one of the top results in a Google search of your topic. While Wikipedia articles are edited and must be supported with external links and references to other, legitimate sources, it is not a good idea to rely solely on them. That’s because you can’t verify who has written the article, and whether the author has any credibility or expertise on the subject. Content on Wikipedia has the potential to change quickly, so your source might disappear and will be difficult for your reader to find later.

What you can do with a Wikipedia article is look at the external links, the references, and the suggestions for further reading and try to follow up with those, either in the Library’s collection or elsewhere on the internet.

Try a Library encyclopedia or dictionary instead

Although you will likely start your background reading with a quick Google search, you should visit the library and its collection of reference materials early in your research. The library has access to many encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks, both in print and online.

You will find a list of KPU’s reference books here. You will also find links to individual reference books when you do a search using Summon. Think of Summon as the library’s search engine; it’s the main search box on the homepage.

Spiral bookshelf
Image by Pixabay.

Encyclopedias and handbooks will provide:

– a broad overview of your topic

– sub-topics and related issues

– controversies and criticisms

– key thinkers or researchers in the area

– references, recommended articles, and links to further reading

Dictionaries will offer a definition of your term and related terms that will be important as you develop your search strategy.


Activity: Use an encyclopedia article

The article below is from the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Psychology, and was found using the library’s Summon search tool.

Click on the hotspots to see what information the article provides on the general topic of “eating disorders.”

After this background work, you’re ready to start developing the research question you will try to answer for your assignment.



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Doing Research Copyright © 2019 by Celia Brinkerhoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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