How to do Academic Research: A Beginner’s Guide

This post is for university students who would like some guidance on doing academic research. Maybe you’re working on one of your first research papers, or you didn’t do so well on the last one and you want to level up. Below, I’ll focus on on how to do academic research, rather than writing up your paper – that post will be coming soon.

Here’s what we’ll look at in this post:

📕 How to evaluate information
📙 Where to find sources
📘 How to cite your sources

You can also learn how to read journal articles effectively in this post:

How to Evaluate Information

You know you’re not supposed to use Wikipedia. But why not? When you find a website online, how can you know whether you can cite it or not? Can you trust the information that’s there? Here’s what you should be checking for when you’re doing academic research for your university courses: date, source, and authority.

Date

How recent is it? Can you find the publication date? While there’s no exact timeline for something to qualify as “recent,” you want to make sure that the information you’re using is the most up-to-date.

Using out-of-date sources will not impress your professors because they are experts in the field and they will probably know! A huge part of their job is just reading, so they’ll know what the most recent arguments and discoveries in their field are.

How can you tell if it’s recent? First, look for a publication date. If you’re using academic research journals, there will always be a publication date available. If you’re using online sources such as websites or blogs, there may not be a publication date. But can you find a copyright date? Last updated? These will also give you some idea of the age of the information.

When you’re doing your research, also make sure you are looking at a breadth of sources, as well. This means you’re not just looking at 1-2 sources, you’re finding as many as you can. Reviewing these will help you find what the most recent arguments or findings are, and then you can tell if your other source is in alignment or not.

If you are in doubt about the publication date, it’s probably not a great source for you to pull from. In this case, try to find another source that has similar information, but includes a date.

Source

The source is about where you find your information. Generally speaking, you will want to use academic resources, also known as research journals, scholarly journals, or just journals. These articles go through what is called a peer review process before they are published.

You can definitely ask your librarian, TA, or professor which are the prominent journals in your area of study. They will know which are the most reputable journals that are widely read. You may also be able to see this on your course reading list – the articles you have to read for class are chosen by your professor and probably from the journals they read.

The peer review process means that one expert (or a group of experts) wrote the paper, and then it was circulated anonymously to a number of other experts in the same field, who reviewed it before it could be published. These other experts make sure that the research is sound: the researcher(s) who wrote the paper has used effective methods and has represented their findings clearly and accurately, and has not made any unsubstantiated claims. These reviews are typically done anonymously, so that the researchers have to use what is in the article to decide, they can’t just look at who wrote it.

You will be able to see whether your source is peer-reviewed in your university’s research databases (I’ll explain this below).

Occasionally, you may use some non-peer reviewed sources. Depending on the topic of your research, you may want to use a newspaper or magazine article, a blog post, a newscast, tv show, etc. You should only use these when they are needed – they cannot replace peer-reviewed sources. These sources are for when you want to talk about what was in a newspaper article, etc.

If you read about an academic study in a news article, then you should look up the original study rather than citing the news article. You would only use the news article if that was the topic of your paper – for example, if you were looking at how different news articles represented the same study differently, or wanted to analyze how news agencies represented a particular topic.

Generally speaking, though – stick with peer-reviewed journals so you can be sure your sources are reliable.

Authority

Authority is really about assessing the author’s (or authors’) credibility and ability to write knowledgeably on the topic. This is something that will be checked for already in a peer-reviewed publication, so you do not usually need to do a lot of research on authors in those.

However, if you are using a popular (non-academic) source like a news website or blog, you should definitely take a look at the author’s credentials. Are they someone you can trust on that topic? Are they an expert? If they are not, why would you use their source?

Again, if you just stick with your peer-reviewed scholarly publications, you do not have to do a lot of work at this step.

Where to Find Sources

Here’s the real how-to of doing academic research!

Now that you have some methods to analyze the sources you find, you will need to find some sources! It’s time to actually DO THE RESEARCH! How exciting. Here’s how you can use research databases and Google scholar to conduct research for your university papers.

Research Databases

Each university subscribes to a number of research databases. Typically, the larger your university is, the more databases you will have access to. You will access these through your university’s library website. If you cannot find the “databases” tab, just do a web search for your university’s name and “research databases” and you should find it.

Here are two examples of database pages. The one on the left is from Memorial University’s library site, and the one on the right is from the University of Toronto’s library website. You can see that you can access the popular databases, or you can search for them by name or topic/subject.

If you’re not sure what database to use, you can definitely search by subject. Just put in the topic of your course: history, sociology, etc – whatever it is, and have a look at the databases there. Once you click on one, you will have to sign in through your university account, and then it will take you to the database page.

Once you’re in a database, you’ll have a variety of search options. You can limit your search to peer-reviewed articles, search by date, publication (journal) title, article title, keyword, etc.

When you’re starting your research, I recommend starting with a few keywords and expanding from there. Once you’ve done some keyword searches, you will probably see which are the journals that are showing up the most in your results, and this will give you some idea of which are the top journals for your topic specifically.

Google Scholar

Google scholar is a massive research database that is open to everyone – so you don’t need to log in to your university website to do searches. You just have to go to scholar.google.com and then it’s like doing a regular Google search! So easy, right?

Not quite. Because Google Scholar is much more open than your research databases (and contains way more sources), you will have to be more careful when you are finding the sources. Make sure you are checking the source and authority according to the criteria I explained above.

Another way to very easily check the authority is to look the items up in your library’s database when you find them on Google Scholar. I do this by simply copying & pasting the article name in myuniversity’s library’s website search bar. If it’s available at my library, the listing will indicate whether it is peer-reviewed or not. Then I can access it through my library’s website, where I can usually find the correct copy of it online.

Adding Your Library in Google Scholar

You can connect Google Scholar with your university’s catalogue so that you can easily access any sources you find with just one click from Google Scholar. Just click on the hamburger menu in the top left of the Google Scholar page, and then click Settings and then Library Links. From there, search for your university library and follow the steps to connect it.

Now, when you find ssomething on Google Scholar that is available at your university’s library, it will have an icon next to the listing that you can click to access it.

One caution with Google Scholar – it does not always provide the final published version of an article. This is another reason that I will usually go back to my uni’s library site to access the article! Then I know i have the official publication. Sometimes the ones on Google Scholar are a pre-print or a conference paper, and they appear as word documents. If this happens, make sure you search for the official article through your university’s site.

Setting Up Google Scholar Alerts

These are basically the same as Google Alerts, but they tell you when articles are published that fit a particular search term. You’ll get an email with a list of new articls that meet your search criteria. You can set these up by going to Google Scholar and then accessing the hamburger menu on the top left, and then clicking Alerts.

From there, click Create Alert and follow the steps to save your alert. Now you’ll get an email every time a new article shows up on your topic!

Research Tips

Search Terms

If you are having trouble finding research on your topics, try playing around with different keywords and search terms.

For example, in researching higher education, I know there is a topic called “college choice” that I can search for. However, when I want Canadian research specifically, it won’t work becuase we don’t call universities “college” like they do in the US, so I know that searching for “college” will only show me American publications. Instead, I might try “Canadian college choice” or “university choice” or “Canadian university choice” or “student choice university.” If those don’t work, I will just keep trying!

How to Get Started

Before you start reading articles all the way through, pop in your search terms, restrict to the last 1-2 years, and find some articles that look relevent, and just read the abstracts. The abstract is a short summary of the paper that is placed at the beginning that will tell you what the paper is about and what their conclusions were. You may also head to the end of the paper and read the conclusion or discussion section. The discussion section of the paper talks about how or why the findings of the paper are relevant, and how they might be applied.

Once you have read a handful of recent article abstracts, you will likely have some idea what the themes are. This will help you to narrow down your paper topic and do further research.

Use the Reference List

When you find a useful journal article, you can go through its reference list to see all the articles that were cited and find more useful information and sources.

The reference list shows you where the journal article authors got their information from, and you can get your information from the same sources.

Find Articles That Cited The First Article

When you find a useful article, you can also look up who has cited it. This will help you find more related articles. There are different tools you can use to do this – there is an option in many of the research databases (it would say something like “cited this” or “cited in”). You can also use Google Scholar or Connected Papers.

Google Scholar

To find out where your article has been cited, look it up on Google Scholar (search by article title) and then click “Cited by” underneath the listing. This will take you to a list of articles that cited the first one and are likely to be on the same or similar topic.

Connected Papers

You can also go to ConnectedPapers.com and put your article title in to see all of its citations (the reference list) plus all the articles that cited it in a graph and list format. This is a little bit more overwhelming to decipher than Google Scholar, but combines all of this information, which you may prefer.

On the left, it will show you a list of all the papers, including both the ones cited by your paper and those that cited your paper. In the middle, it shows the connections between these papers in a chart, and then on the right it shows you the first paper (the one you searched for) with its abstract.

One really cool thing with Connected Papers is that you can click on any of the dots in the graph and it will show you the citation and abstract for that paper, as well as several direct links to find more information, including one to Google Scholar.

But, honestly, if you find this a little overwhelming it’s totally fine to just use Google Scholar and your university’s databases – I think Connected Papers might be level 2, so try it out when and if you’re ready.

Citation Styles

One more thing that is really important is that you cite your work. This means that you have to give credit for any ideas in your paper that weren’t yours. As an undergrad student and new researcher, this will be most of the ideas in your paper.

Essentially, the citation information ensures that someone reading your paper can see where you got your information from. This means another reader can evaluate your sources and make judgments about the quality of your paper – the same way academics do during the peer review process.

Not citing your work properly can be a form of plagiarism, and you can get in trouble for it at most institutions, so make sure you learn how to do this. Not a lot of professors will teach you how, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know how to do it.

Each discipline or area of study will typically use one citation style. It might be APA, MLA, Vancouver, Chicago, or something else. Your professor will usually tell you which style is preferred, but if they did not, make sure to ask. Some instructors are very strict and will take marks off if you do not format your citations correctly.

Your university library will have a page dedicated to citation styles that will explain more about how to do it, and if you have questions you can reach out to your librarian for more information.

How Can You Learn More About How to Do Academic Research?

Your university’s library is there to assist you with your research, so that is the best place to start. If you go to a smaller university, there may be fewer resources. In this case, you can definitely have a look at larger universities’ library websites, in Canada or the US, and search online for more information.

Your professors and TAs are also likely to be helpful. Since TAs are usually graduate students, they have already been where you are now and can share what they’ve learned. Additionally, your professor is a professional researcher and can provide further information.

For more information on how to level-up your study skills, check out this post:

3 thoughts on “How to do Academic Research: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. Man you always post the right things EXACTLY when I need them!!
    THANK YOU❤😄
    Could you perhaps do a post for students who study in an online university also in Canada (which is my case)… Just some general things that we should know… I mainly struggle with the fact that I study alone (and now I’m demotivated to study because of that), unlike in high school where I studied with friends.. At my uni right now we don’t have online lectures so its like every man for himself if that makes sense. Would appreciate your help! Thanks once more😊

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