Research Paper Tips

Best Practices for Research

  • Get started early!

    The 10 week trimester goes by quickly.

  • Be organized

    Manage your files and data with the understanding you will be accessing them in the future and possibly sharing them with others. Name your files and folders to represent the content and version of your work.

  • Use RefWorks

    RefWorks is a citation manager that will save time. A few mouse clicks will produce your bibliography. Most of our databases and search tools allow you to export a citation directly to RefWorks. You can create an account now; check out Getting Started with RefWorks, or ask a librarian for assistance

  • Enjoy yourself

    Investigate things that are of interest to you. Research is an exploratory and iterative process that can be fun if you investigate things that are of interest to you. Start by:

    1. identifying a topic or research question, then
    2. gather relevant, accurate and timely information,
    3. evaluate the quality and possible bias of that information, and
    4. process what you've learned in a way that addresses your original question. You may realize your original question was not framed well--that's okay! It happens all the time. Go back, reframe the question, and see what you can find by looking through a slightly different lens.
  • Contact a Librarian

    Our goal is to provide you with most appropriate scholarly content, the tools to access it, and assistance at any point along the way. You will find a librarian at the Reference Desk during many weekday hours and on Sundays. Check here for the up-to-date reference hours. You can also schedule an appointment by email: or contact one of us directly

  • Identify appropriate resources

    The following search engines will help you locate books and articles (as well as reference sources and other materials). In general monographs (books, ebooks) are a thorough treatment of a research topic while journal articles are more specific and limited in scope.

    Primo - a "discovery layer" that searches across most of our licensed content (Books, articles, and more). You may find Primo delivers a large number of results, especially for a general topic, i.e., women and history. Narrow the results by refining your search terms or selecting facets in the right-hand column. Select the "Peer-Review" facet if you are doing scholarly research. Primo has licensed access to a lot of our content that Google Scholar does not.

    Google Scholar - Google Scholar does not include our library catalog or all of the articles included in Summon. We can say the search is narrower but deeper because Google indexes the full text of digital content. Combined with the power of relevance ranking this may return useful results buried in Summon. If this were fishing, Google Scholar's net is smaller but goes deeper.

    Specific Databases (A-Z) the library provides access to approximately 350 databases on a variety of topics. Some databases are considered "all topic" while others are more specific (Gender Studies, World War II). Some contain a type of publication (Reference, Newspapers). Searching via a specific database may provide a more precise search by taking advantage of it's own unique features.

  • Evaluate Results

    Identify those items that are most timely and relevant to your research

    • This brief but helpful guide describes how an academic journal article is presented and offers suggestions for "reading strategies" that can save you time. Most scholarly articles will include an abstract, a brief summary of the content, that will help you decide if it is relevant to your topic.
    • Look carefully at your search results. What you think is a book may be a book review. An article may be in an edited collection published as a book. When was it published? Is it peer-reviewed?
    • Revise your search if you are not happy with the results.

    If you are not seeing articles or books relevant to your topic try to be more specific. Are there unique terms associated with your topic? If you are researching the Ainu people of Japan then searching for ainu is much better than japanese tribal culture. Are there synonyms or equivalent terms, i.e., climate change instead of global warming.

    If your results are not adequate, few in number or poor quality, you may not be searching the best database. Make sure there are no filters or restrictions on your search. You may be using too many search terms.

  • Use Schaffer Library

    Watch this short video to find out why. It was scripted and produced by Trevor Martin ’14 and features Union College undergraduates. Why Friends Shouldn't Always Rely on Friends.

  • Primary Sources

    Your assignment may require the use of primary source material. Simply put, primary source material is anything that is related to your topic that is not the result of someone else's research. Typically, this is written material such as diaries, correspondence, historical newspapers, official papers and documents, etc. Include one of these terms or all when searching, i.e., civil war (diary or correspondence or letters or papers).
    Use this strategy with Primo and other databases. You can also browse through our A-Z list of databases that include primary source material such as historical newspapers and other archival sources. Just select either Primary Source or Newspapers- Archival under Database Type.

    Google Search may also be a good way to locate primary sources or institutions that own them. Here are links to the advanced search page and help using operators.

  • Some other things that may help with enjoying the process
    • Take a few moments to learn the tools available so you can more easily find the information you need (see Identify appropriate resources above).

    • Put away your phone, turn off the TV, and eliminate other distractions. These might feel good in the moment, but they will interrupt your train of thought and prevent you from getting in the flow. Once you start reading new resources, you may find yourself following threads, and even entering a meditative-like state without even realizing it. Plus, you'll get your research done more quickly this way.

    • Plug in your ear phones and use sound to help you concentrate. Nature sounds and binaural beats are great options for helping you stay focused. There are free videos of both on YouTube.

    • Work in timed focus sessions with timed breaks and reward yourself during those breaks. For example, do 30 minutes of research and reward yourself with a 5 minute walk, 5 minutes of social media, or 5 minutes of coloring. This will refresh your brain and help you stay sharp longer.

    • If you feel overwhelmed or frustrated with the project, ask for help by coming to the reference desk in the library or emailing