You can always make better decisions if you have solid information. Any time you are spending a substantial amount of money, or investing a significant amount of your time, you should think about what information you need to make a good decision and find a way to get that information. If you learn the basics of research, you can apply that knowledge to every important aspect of your life.
This guide will lay out basic research strategy in the context of providing a "class" on finding resources to write a paper in a university level public administration or political science class.
Basic Search Steps:
Begin by determining what you need to find. To begin research for a class assignment, read the assignment. Note any requirements regarding topics, types of sources (peer reviewed, scholarly?), length, number of sources that should be in the bibliography, citation format, etc.
If you are free to choose your topic, think about what has interested you so far in the class. Look through your class notes and the textbook. There are some library resources that can help you find topics in the fields of political science and public administration:
Once you have identified a few possible topics, think about what interests you and write out possible research questions.
Here are some examples:
As you can see, once you get started, it is difficult to stop. That's fine, having more than one topic at the beginning offers a chance to dump a topic that isn't working before you invest too much time in it.
If you choose a database that fits your subject you can run efficient and effective searches rather than spending a lot of time flailing around. For all of these topics, a Political Science or Public Administration database would be ideal. In the Choose a Database list of topics, choose either Political Science or Public Administration.
To look for information on Superdelegates, I will try a political science database.
To find information on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or on transportation under evacuation I might prefer a public administration database.
Example using "superdelegates."
There are a number of different ways you can begin. You can just start with what you know and the questions that you think up. Or you could look in a subject encyclopedia or some other reference source to gather some basic background information. (We already know that CQ Researcher has an article with Pros and Cons on superdelegates!) One way or another, put together a research question.
Example: Is it fair to have superdelegates?
Identify the keywords: fair superdelegates
Running my first search (in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts): fair and superdelegates finds nothing, zero results.
The step immediately after the search is to evaluate how well the search worked. Nothing...isn't good. So the search needs to be adjusted. I'm going to take it down to the most essential word and search that - superdelegates. This search found 20. (If it had found nothing, I would have tried super delegates, in case it shouldn't be treated as one word. If that had found nothing I would have gone back to the CQ Pros and Cons to see if they are called something else. If that hadn't worked, I would have tried another database.)
This is the point at which I limit the results to peer-reviewed (it's a check-box on the left hand side of the screen). That leaves 18 search results. The third one's title is "Is the Democratic Party's superdelegate system unfair to voters" by Josh M. Ryan. I might read through that one first.
Looking at the result set, I don't think that there are going to be enough that touch on the question of fairness to be successful in writing my paper. I'm going to collect what is useful, and try another database. I go to OneSearch (on the library's home page) and find many more. Again, I limit to peer-reviewed.
Example using Strategic Petroleum Reserve:
Question: Is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve necessary for the nation's security?
Keywords: Strategic Petroleum Reserve Security
Searching ABI/Inform: Strategic Petroleum Reserve and security
When I limit the results to peer-reviewed articles,
Example using evacuation transportation:
Question: How do you plan for transportation for people who have been asked to evacuate an area due to a natural disaster?
Keywords: transportation (or transporting or transport or...) evacuate (or evacuation or evacuating)
Searching ABI/Inform: transportation and evacuate
Truncation (also called stemming): Use the root word and let the system find it with any ending. For example evacuat* finds evacuate, evacuation, evacuated, evacuating, etc. (NOTE only use the "stem." If you search Evacuation* you will find Evacuation and Evacuations, but not evacuate, evacuating, etc. That final "ion" will block all other forms of the word.
Revised Search: transport* and evacuat*
The results of this search are not well-focused, I'm going to use Pearl Searching to move to subject terms.
For the next several steps, you have TWO jobs as a researcher:
1) Gather useful articles
2) Analyze your search - continue to refine and improve it.
With every results list, ask yourself:
A database is put together by a publisher who purchases the entire collection of back issues to thousands of journals in the subject,, then hires scores of people to read through every article in every issue of every journal and attach "subject terms" to identify the subjects on which the article FOCUSES.
If you search those subject terms you can pull out everything that focuses on your topic. No need to scroll through pages of articles that barely mention it.
Example: Research question: How do you plan for transportation for people who have been asked to evacuate an area due to a natural disaster?
Best place to search: Public Administration - try ABI/Inform
Design search: transport* and evacuat*
Review results: the first page has at least one article of interest, and the subject headings include "traffic" and "evacuation."
Try traffic and evacuation as a subject search: subject("Traffic") and subject("Evacuation")
Remember that if you do not find enough on your topic you can change your search terms or try another database.