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General Engineering Research Guide

The Key to Searching in Library Databases is Boolean Searching

The Research Process

** The best help you can give yourself is to start your research early **

  1. The Basics
    You have a research assignment, but what does “research” mean? Research is:
    • Asking questions
    • Gathering information
    • Assessing or evaluating information
    • Organizing and then presenting the information
  2. Select a Topic
    Try to find an issue or topic that interests you. A good topic is:
    • Narrow: focuses on the essential element of the topic
    • Challenging: engages the reader or encourages debate
    • Grounded: can be argued from fact, not just belief
  3. Background Information
    Start by looking through:
    • general encyclopedias
    • subject specific encyclopedias
    • dictionaries
    • almanacs
    • course textbooks
    • lecture notes
    These will give you a basic overview of the topic and may provide lists of other books or articles you could consult during your research.
  4. Refine Your Topic
    You will probably need to narrow the focus of your topic since most are too broad to be covered in a research paper. Sometimes, however, a topic is so narrow in scope there is little information available. In this case, you will need to expand your focus.


    Go from a general topic, to a more specific topic and then hone it to the precise topic that you will research. For example:

    • The general topic - environmental impact of oil refineries
    • The more specific topic - environmental impact of oil refineries in urban areas
    • Your precise topic - health effects of oil refineries in urban areas.

    State your topic as a question. This will help you formulate your thesis or the main purpose of your topic. This will usually be stated at the beginning of your paper. For example, you might pose the question:

    • “What are the health effects on urban residents near oil refineries?”

    In addition, you can brainstorm other questions that might have bearing on your topic, such as:

    • How many urban refineries are there?
    • What chemicals are used or produced during refinement?
    • Are there studies comparing resident’s health before and after a refinery has opened?

  5. Shape your Search Strategy
    Once you have your research question, you can begin to look for information:

    • Look in the library catalogue for books, videos and other resources
    • Look in library databases for articles, books and other information
    • Search the Internet for authoritative websites

    How do you do this? There are 3 steps!

    • Identify the key concepts and terms in your research question “What are the health effects on urban residents near oil refineries?”
      • Health
      • Urban
      • Oil
      • Refineries

    • Think of related terms for these concepts
      • health - wellness, illness, sickness
      • urban - city, town, residential, neighbourhood
      • oil - petroleum, gas, energy
      • refinery - plant, production processor
      Tip: Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases, such as: “oil refineries”.
    • Combine terms using Boolean operators. These apply whether using a catalogue, database, or Internet search engine
      • AND- narrows and locates items that have ALL your search terms

        Example: health AND urban AND oil

      • OR- broadens and locates items that have ANY of your terms

        Example: (urban OR city OR residential) -- put words joined together by OR in brackets

      • NOT- excludes items by eliminating a concept

        Example: urban NOT rural
        Combine your operators for more exact searching
        Health AND (urban OR city OR residential) AND (“oil refineries”)

  6. Evaluate your Information
    Now that you have identified some resources, you need to decide if the information is reliable and useful. Some key considerations are:
    • Is the information relevant to your topic?
    • Is the date of publication appropriate?
    • Is the author qualified to talk on the subject?
    • What is the author’s purpose?
    • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
    • Are there references and/or footnotes?

    You should also consider your use of scholarly and popular publications in your research. Generally, scholarly articles - those written by experts for academic periodicals - add more weight, or importance, to your research than articles found in popular magazines. This guide on the Types of Journals provides more information.

  7. Begin Writing
    Now it is time to begin writing. If you need guidance on writing the research project, consult with your instructor or make an appointment at the Writing Centre


    Adapted from SAIT Polytechnic

    Library Research Strategy Guide