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About the Research Process

Finding Background Information

Finding background information will assist you in developing your topic further. Using your key concepts, look up information on your topic in dictionaries or encyclopedias. You may need to narrow the scope of your research. There are several ways to do this. Narrowing your area of research to a specific time period or geographical area is one way. You can also narrow your topic to a specific group or situation, for example, research teenage alcoholism rather than alcoholism.

Subject encyclopedias are more specific than general encyclopedias and will provide more precise background information. A great way to locate a subject encyclopedia (online or in print) is through one of our research guides on various topics. You can also find them by performing a simple keyword search in our library search. For example, to find an encyclopedia of psychology, you would type “psychology AND encyclopedia” in the search box.

Your lecture notes, textbooks, and reserve readings can be used as background sources as well.

The open World Wide Web (e.g., Wikipedia) is another good resource for gathering background information but one must be cautious when using the Web for research. Many Wikipedia articles are very good general overviews, cite academic sources, and are updated often. However, in most cases it is not appropriate to cite a background source like Wikipedia in a college-level paper. Almost anyone can publish material on the Web, so not all sources found there are reliable. Watch out for biased viewpoints, incomplete or simply incorrect material. Whereas most print sources, like books and articles, are reviewed or edited to insure that the information is accurate, there is usually little or no review of Web information.

This is not to say that all sites lack review or that information found on the Web is unreliable. The essays in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, have been reviewed by a prestigious editorial staff and might therefore be acceptable to a professor as a source for your research. Read on.