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1: Research Process and Scope

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    What is Your Information Need?

    In this section, you'll learn about the first pillar of information literacy. While the pillars are often presented in a certain order, it's important to remember that they're not intended to be a step-by-step guide to be followed in a strict order.

    In most research projects, you will find that you move back and forth between the different pillars as you discover more information and come up with more questions about your topic.

    The first step is to identify your information need so that you can begin your research, but as you start researching, it's likely that you'll revisit some of the ideas in this chapter to make sure you are actually meeting that need with your research findings. I've provided a text and graphic representation below of the "Identify" pillar.

    A person proficient in the Identify pillar is expected to be able to identify a personal need for information. They understand:

    • That new information and data is constantly being produced and that there is always more to learn
    • That being information literate involves developing a learning habit so new information is being actively sought all the time
    • That ideas and opportunities are created by investigating/seeking information
    • The scale of the world of published and unpublished information and data

    They are able to:

    • Identify a lack of knowledge in a subject area
    • Identify a search topic/question and define it using simple terminology
    • Articulate current knowledge on a topic
    • Recognize a need for information and data to achieve a specific end and define limits to the information need
    • Use background information to underpin the search
    • Take personal responsibility for an information search
    • Manage time effectively to complete a search

    Identifying Your Personal Need for Information

    One of the first things you need to do when beginning any information-based project is to identify your personal need for that information. This may seem obvious, but it is 

    something many of us take for granted. We may mistakenly assume that we already know enough to proceed.

    Such an assumption can lead us to waste valuable time working with incomplete or outdated information. Information literacy addresses a number of abilities and concepts that can help us to determine exactly what our information needs are in various circumstances. These will be discussed more coming up.

    Information Context

    When you realize that you have an information need it may be because you thought you knew more than you actually do, or it may be that there is simply new information you were not aware of. One of the most important things you can do when starting to research a topic is to scan the existing information landscape to find out what is already out there. We’ll get into more specific strategies for accessing different types of information later in the unit, but for now it pays to think more broadly about the information environment in which you are operating.

    For instance, any topic you need information about is constantly evolving as new information is added to what is known about the topic. Trained experts, informed amateurs, and opinionated laypeople are publishing in traditional and emerging formats; there is always something new to find out. The scale of information available varies according to topic, but in general it’s safe to say that there is more information accessible now than ever before.

    Due to the extensive amount of information available, part of becoming more information literate is developing habits of mind and of practice that enable you to continually seek new information and to adapt your understanding of topics according to what you find. Because of the widely varying quality of new information, evaluation is also a key element of information literacy, and will be addressed in future weeks.

    Finally, you will be asked to explore your topic this week. As you begin searching for information on your topic, be sure to keep your mind open for new avenues or angles of research that you haven’t yet considered. Often the information you find for your initial need will turn out to be the pathway to a rich vein of information that can serve as raw material for many subsequent projects.

    When you understand the information environment where your information need is situated, you can begin to define the topic more clearly and you can begin to understand where your research fits in with related work that precedes it. Your 

    information literacy skills will develop against this changing background as you use the same underlying principles to do research on a variety of topics.

    Information Need Leads to Questions

    Your lack of knowledge on a topic might reveal itself in lots of different ways. When reading an article or textbook, you may notice that something the author refers to is completely new to you. You might realize while out walking that you can’t identify any of the trees around your house. You may be assigned a topic you have never heard of.

    Furthering Your Thinking

    Let's explore this idea further. Wherever you are right now, look around you. Find one thing in your immediate field of view that you can’t explain.

    • What is it that you don’t understand about that thing?
    • What is it that you need to find out so that you can understand it?
    • How can you express what you need to find out?

    For example: You can’t explain why your coat repels water. You know that it’s plastic, and that it’s designed to repel water, but can’t explain why this happens. You need to find out what kind of plastic the coat is made of and the chemistry or physics of that plastic and of water that makes the water run off instead of soaking through. (The terminology in your first explanation would get more specific once you did some research.)

    Identify What You Don't Know

    All of us lack knowledge in countless areas, but this isn’t a bad thing. Once we step back and acknowledge that we don’t know something, it opens up the possibility that we can find out all sorts of interesting things, and that’s when the searching begins.

    Taking your lack of knowledge and turning it into a search topic or research question starts with being able to state what your lack of knowledge is. Part of this is to state what you already know. It’s rare that you’ll start a search from absolute zero. Most of the time you’ve at least heard something about the topic, even if it is just a brief reference in a news story, lecture, or reading.

    Taking stock of what you already know can help you to identify any erroneous assumptions you might be making based on incomplete or biased information. If you think you know something, make sure you find at least a couple of reliable sources to 

    confirm that knowledge before taking it for granted. You'll be exploring your chosen topic this week and you'll be asked to think about what you already know and what questions still need to be answered.

    Taking a Wider View

    While the identification of an information need is presented in this reading as the first step in the research process, many times the information need you initially identified will change as you discover new information and connections. Other chapters in this book deal with finding, evaluating, and managing information in a variety of ways and formats.

    As you become more skilled in using different information resources, you will likely find that the line between the various information literacy skills becomes increasingly blurred, and that you will revisit your initial ideas about your topic in response to both the information you’re finding and what you’re doing with that information.

    Continually think about your relationship to the information you find. Why are you doing things the way you are? Is it really the best way for your current situation? What other options are there? Keeping an open mind about your use of information will help you to ensure that you take responsibility for the results of that use, and will help you to be more successful in any information-intensive endeavor.

    The Point of Research

    Why do we research? Research is an exercise in inquiry. In other words, it’s about asking new, interesting, or challenging questions about things that spark our curiosity. The purpose of research should extend beyond your college classes. We as humans are naturally curious and research helps us make sense of our world.

    Research can help solve complex problems and help us make better decisions. Research helps us investigate multiple points of view and use what we learn to accomplish specific tasks. Research is about learning, and learning is not a simple transaction. Facts and figures can be memorized, but thinking critically and becoming knowledgeable about something is a process, and the research process takes time.

    The research and learning process is about:

    • asking questions
    • considering alternative points of view
    • learning to understand the circumstances or facts surrounding a specific event or issue, also also known as context, and
    • applying this knowledge to the task in front of you - writing a paper, giving a presentation, responding to an online discussion, or raising your hand in class.

    These activities, no matter how small, are what make you a part of the scholarly community. Scholarship is a conversation. It's much like talking at a party about current events where many voices are heard. Research enables you to participate in, add to, or change the conversation.


    Research requires experimentation and patience. Searching for the right sources of information is like exploring a brand new place. 

    The Research Process

    The research process is usually not simple, and it is iterative -- meaning it involves a lot of trial and error. When you begin researching, you may sometimes feel like you are 

    travelling in circles and retracing your steps. But it’s worth it! This uneasy feeling is necessary in order to get you moving on the road to research victory and finding those perfect pieces of information. 

    Learning to do research will not only improve your success in college courses, but it will also improve your ability to interpret and respond to the issues that are most important in your professional and personal life.

    Scope: Knowing What's Available

    A person who is information literate in the Scope pillar is able to assess current knowledge and identify gaps.

    The above statement is from the Seven Pillars of Information Literacy, the model of information literacy presented in the Introduction of your textbook. The following list, from the creators of the Seven Pillars model, provides more detail about the Scope pillar. Components include:

    • “Know what you don’t know” to identify any information gaps
    • Identify which types of information will best meet the need
    • Identify the available search tools, such as general and subject specific resources at different levels
    • Identify different formats in which information may be provided
    • Demonstrate the ability to use new tools as they become available

    Additionally the information literate person in the Scope pillar understands

    • What types of information are available
    • The characteristics of the different types of information source available to them and how they may be affected by the format (digital, print)
    • The publication process in terms of why individuals publish and the currency of information
    • Issues of accessibility
    • What services are available to help and how to access them

    College Research

    As a student, you're going to be asked to do academic research.

    In college assignments, it's important to understand what's expected of you. Take some time to critically read through the assignment instructions and look for details like:

    • Type of project - examples: informative, pro/con, persuasive
    • Length requirements - examples: number of pages/words to write or required time of presentation/speech
    • Number and types of sources required - examples: journal articles, books, websites, etc.

    If these details are missing or unclear, don’t be afraid to ask your instructor for clarification.

    It’s important to understand your assignment because these details will guide your research process. Think of it this way, you’ll need a whole lot more information and sources to write a 15-page paper than a 3-page paper, so knowing the assignment requirements might make a difference when choosing between a broader or more narrowed topic idea.

    The type of paper or project you’re working on is also key when deciding on a topic. Some of the most common types of college research assignments are:

    • Informative: With informative assignments, your job is to learn all you can about the topic and then summarize it.
    • Pro/Con: When working on pro/con assignments you’ll need to research an issue from two different perspectives, then explain both sides.
    • Persuasive (also known as argumentative): Persuasive assignments ask you to clearly take a stance on an issue and then support that stance with evidence.

    Information Production

    In addition to knowing that you are missing essential information, another component of information literacy is understanding that the information you seek may be available in different formats such as books, journal articles, government documents, blog postings, and news items.

    Each format has a unique value. The graphic below represents a common process of information production. When an event happens, we usually hear about it from news sources: broadcast, web, and print. Over time, more in-depth exploration and analysis of the event often comes from government studies and scholarly journal articles. Deeper exploration, as well as an overview of much of the information available about the event, is often published in book format.

    Fig 4.png

    Characteristics of Sources

    When you start exploring a research topic, your first stop might be Google, where you’ll find websites and other freely available content. Websites can be great, but as you saw, the results can often be overwhelming and sometimes it's hard to pick out the best content.

    By using a library, you'll have access to many different types of sources, including more scholarly content. Using a variety of source types will help build your knowledge on a 

    subject. Here are some of the types and characteristics of sources you'll find in the library.


    Books are usually the first thing that come to mind when you think about libraries. And books can be very useful for all types of research projects. What are some of the benefits of using a book?

    • They often provide in-depth coverage on a topic.
    • They can give you good background, history, or provide a thorough analysis of a topic.
    • Authors consult many different sources and synthesize information into one book.
    • Physical books (and some ebooks too) are often hand-selected by librarians because of the quality of the author and/or content.
    • They often contain a bibliography, footnotes, or endnotes that can be used as jumping-off points to find other relevant sources.

    You might be thinking, “I don’t have time to read a whole book!” You don’t have to (unless you really want to). When using a book for research, check out the table of contents or the index to figure out which sections will be most relevant to you. It’s also helpful to read the introduction, since that’s usually where you’ll find a big-picture overview.

    Academic Journals

    Often your research assignments will call for academic journal articles, but what are they? Academic journal articles are scholarly sources where experts and scholars publish their research findings.

    Every academic discipline has scholarly journals. Their purpose is to provide a space for researchers to share information and also to maintain a record of new knowledge.

    Scholars and researchers read journals to keep up with the latest research in their fields, but they’re also for students like you. This whole process becomes a kind of evolving conversation among scholars. Many journal articles are peer-reviewed, which means that new articles are read and critiqued by other experts in that subject before they are accepted for publication. What are the benefits of using academic journal articles?

    • They can provide powerful evidence to back up claims you’ve made in a research project.
    • They are considered some of the most credible types of sources because of the amount of careful work involved in writing, reviewing, and publishing them.
    • They often have a very narrow focus and might try to answer a specific question through original research, or summarize research done by others on a very specific topic.
    • Authors cite their sources. When you read them, look for references, footnotes, or endnotes and use these as a jumping-off point to find other relevant sources.

    News and Magazines

    News & magazine articles are usually short and are written by journalists or freelance writers for a general audience. They usually focus on current issues and events.

    Magazines and newspapers are often called popular sources because they are written for the general population, as opposed to academic or scholarly sources (such as books and journals), which are written by and for scholars and other experts.

    The purpose of magazines and newspapers might be to inform, entertain, or persuade, along with the overarching purpose of selling copies or getting website clicks. What are the benefits of using newspaper or magazine articles?

    • The writing style is professional, but at a level that allows most people to understand the content.
    • They can provide an overview of a topic and/or interviews with a first-person account (called a primary source) or reaction to a topic or event.
    • They can help you understand how the same story is covered in different parts of the country or world.
    • They can help you understand issues happening in specific communities; most every city and town has a newspaper.
    • They are published frequently (daily, weekly, or monthly) so it’s important to make sure the information hasn’t become outdated.
    • They sometimes contain visuals like photographs or colorful graphics to keep the reader’s attention.

    Reference Material

    Reference works are most often books and ebooks that give you a good snapshot of a topic. These sources are not meant to be read cover to cover, but instead offer definitions or brief entries on specific topics. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and collections of primary source documents are examples of reference sources.

    The Los Rios Libraries have print reference books and lots of eBooks that are available online. What are the benefits of using reference books?

    • They may provide short entries on a lot of different topics (example: Encyclopedia Britannica).
    • They can be specialized to focus on a very narrow subject, but cover many aspects of that topic (example: Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion).
    • They can provide ideas to narrow a broad topic down to something more researchable.
    • They often provide brief entries that allow you to wrap your head around difficult topics, ideas, or events, making them a great starting point for your research.


    Your college library also owns videos including documentaries, performances, feature films, and more. Videos might be available on DVD to check out or through a streaming media database to view online. What are the benefits of using videos?

    • They are great sources if you learn well by seeing and hearing information.
    • Documentary films and news clips can give you a first-person view (called a primary source) of an event or topic.
    • Films and videos can sometimes present complex material in new ways so that it is easier to understand.
    • Most videos include closed captioning or subtitles so they are accessible to a wide range of viewers.

    CC BY-NC logoThis chapter was compiled, reworked, and/or written by Andi Adkins Pogue and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, unless otherwise noted.

    Original sources used to create content (also licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 unless otherwise noted):

    Identify: Understanding your information need. (2016). In G. Bobish & T. Jacobson (Eds.), The information literacy user's guide. Milne Publishing.

    Los Rios Libraries. (2020). What is research? Los Rios libraries information literacy tutorials. 

    Scope: Knowing what is available. (2016). In G. Bobish & T. Jacobson (Eds.), The information literacy user's guide. Milne Publishing.


    1: Research Process and Scope is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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