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Conducting Research

Tips from your Washington University librarians on locating, evaluating, and citing sources used in your research.

How to choose a topic

The very first step in the research process is choosing a topic that is not too broad or too narrow in scope.

To help you define a good topic you are advised to do one or all of the following:

If you think you have a good topic or are getting close, try applying your topic ideas to the questions listed below.

Testing your topic

Test the main concepts or keywords in your topic by looking them up in the appropriate background sources or by using them as search terms in the WUSTL Discovery Catalog and in library databases.


  • If you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using the and operator: college students and grade point average and sleep disorders.
  • Finding too little information may indicate that you need to broaden your topic. For example, look for information on students, rather than college students.
  • Link synonymous search terms with or: academic achievement or grade point average or school failure.
  • When you use a truncation symbol, most often the asterisk (*), the system will search for all terms and phrases starting with the word stem that appears before the symbol.  For example, searching "sleep disorder*" will yield results including disorder, disorders, disordered, etc. This will broaden your search and increase the number of items you find.

Once you have identified and tested your topic, you're ready to take the next step, finding background information.

Formulate your research strategy

The steps to your research strategy will depend on how much time you have and the type of project on which you are working. In order to conduct effective research, you need to gather appropriate information for your topic. Consider the following questions to help you determine the best research strategy:

How much time do you have?

On what type of project are you working?

What type of information do you need?

Do you need primary sources? Secondary sources? Both?

Types of Sources

Primary sources can be tricky. Whether a source is primary depends on how you use it. A primary source is a written text, artifact, or other original creation upon which you focus your analysis and interpretation. For example, an article that analyzes a book, song, or society would be considered a secondary source. However, that article could function as a primary source--if you are analyzing the ideas of the author of that article, then it functions as a primary source. So anything could function as a primary source--just consider how you are using it: if it's the object of your analysis, then it's a primary source.

secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources. Examples include: scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

Tertiary sources are encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks and other reference materials that provide broad overviews of particular topics. Where secondary sources summarize and interpret an event or phenomenon, tertiary sources summarize and interpret other resources. They can be a great place to begin studying unfamiliar topics.