2.1 Research Process: From Topic Choice to Finding Sources

[1]What is “rhetorical research”?

Rhetorical research is a thoughtful and strategic approach to seeking and evaluating information in order to solve problems, make decisions, and/or communicate effectively.

Academic or professional rhetorical research follows a strategic process. You may have some experience with research assignments from other coursework or from your job. However, research and information finding is a constantly evolving process due to the nature of how we find, evaluate, create, and share information in our mostly digital world. In this chapter, we will focus on how to develop a research strategy that you can apply to your academic, professional, and personal life.

Research as a Reiterative Process

As much as we would like research or information finding to be a “once and done” activity that always gives us an easy and straightforward answer, that just isn’t how it works. More often than not, the first “answer” you find is not always the best one (I’m looking at you, first entry listed in my Google results). Finding quality information that is credible and represents diverse views takes time and multiple sources. Additionally, finding information related to your initial question or topic can lead to more questions which can lead to even more questions–and some dead ends — that require you to back up and redirect your research. This is a normal part of research and can actually help your understanding of an issue, question, or topic.

“Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.”[2]

The more information you learn about what you are researching, the more you are able to engage with the topic. You’ll learn what field-specific terminology is used to discuss the topic; you will learn what some major debates or controversies surround the topic, etc. All of this information can help you ask the right questions and lead you to sources that are credible, authoritative, evidence-based, and reflect varying viewpoints.

Rhetorical Research Key Takeaways

  • Research is a process.
  • The search for information takes time because you are learning along the way.
  • Your research question should and will evolve as you learn more about the topic.
  • You want to actively seek out multiple sources and voices that will truly allow you to shape your understanding and opinion of the topic.
  • Breathe through it and enjoy the learning.

The Research Process

There are many ways to approach the research process, and your particular strategy will vary depending on the specific research need you have. However, it is helpful to understand the common steps of the research process, so you can use them to guide you regardless of what it is you are searching for. For the purpose of this section, we will focus on research strategies that relate to academic assignments or projects, although they can most certainly be applied to professional and personal research needs as well.

1. Start with a general question or topic of interest

Most of the time, our search for information stems from the need to answer a question, satisfy our curiosity, or solve a problem. Begin your research strategy with a general idea of what it is you want to know or find out without feeling too committed to the topic. It is important to keep an open mind and to be topic flexible during the early stages of research, especially concerning a subject that you don’t know much about.

Need some topic ideas?

  • Think about what is important to you. What issues affect your everyday life? What are you curious about? What issues do you feel strongly about?
  • Browse articles from news sites online or from your social media feeds. Warning: those articles may not necessarily be appropriate sources of information for your actual research paper, but you can get an idea of what topics or issues are currently being discussed.
  • Browse “Hot Topic” library databases for ideas about widely discussed and debated issues.

Remember! You are not settling on a position, argument, or opinion of a topic yet. The first step is only to find a starting point based on what you want to know more about.

2. Pre-Research or Background Research

Background research is a crucial step in the research process as it will help you gain direction for your research. The pre-research stage is all about discovery and information gathering.

How to do background research:

  1. Read about your topic without worrying about exactly what your opinion is or what your argument will be. Instead, pay attention to issues that interest you.
  2. Look at multiple sources to get information from varied sources.
  3. Take note of important concepts, keywords, people, or events.
  4. Notice what details are sticking in your mind and interest you the most; those are elements you will want to research further and may be important parts of your essay.

Hint: Using a database like the CQ Researcher will allow you to find background information over entire topics in a single, cohesive document. However, these are still only preliminary research sources and they could (probably will) lead you to more sources in which you will be able to look at what individual scholars are discussing as opposed to relying on a document that’s purpose is to provide a broad overview of the topic.

Reference Sources for Background Research

Databases for Reference sources[3]


Often, the best types of sources for background information are reference sources.  Reference sources such as encyclopedias and handbooks contain fact-based information to help you gain an overview of a topic. Reference articles will broaden your understanding of a topic or issue by:

  • Providing context
  • Highlighting important subtopics, common arguments or debates, and people
  • Utilizing key terminology or jargon relevant to the discussion

Academic Reference Articles

You may be familiar with online encyclopedias such as World Book and Britannica, and these types of reference sources are similar to academic reference sources that you can find through a college library.

  • Academic reference articles are usually structured, meaning they are separated into sections with labeled headings. Take a minute to review the linked report from the CQ Researcher over “The New Labor Market.”  You will notice that to the left of the page there is a  Table of Contents, so to speak, that lists the individual topics within that report. These headings break up the large topic into smaller chunks that focus on the most important aspects of the more general topic.
  • Academic reference articles usually will include a bibliography or further reading at the end of the article. This is a great resource for finding more in-depth information about a specific aspect of the topic.

Most of the reference sources you will find through the library are considered subject-specific.  These sources provide in-depth background information on a specific subject area and its subtopics.

Many academic reference articles are written by or in conjunction with subject experts. This gives the work ethos.

Looking back at “The New Labor Market,” you can find that the author of that specific report is Holly Rosenkrantz. According to her bio, she “is a Washington-based freelance journalist who writes about politics, business and health care. She is a former White House correspondent and labor and workplace reporter and has written for The New York TimesThe Washington PostCBS NewsBloomberg News and Reuters. Her most recent CQ Researcher report was on the Senate filibuster.”[4]

As you learned in Composition 1, ethos (or credibility) is vital to effectively evaluate if a certain source can be trusted. Academic reference databases, for the most part, are full of sources that have authors of similar credentials which allow the sources you will find in these databases to be far more credible than those you may find on a more general, online source (such as the encyclopedias listed earlier). 

3. From Background Research to Research Question

With a more robust understanding of your topic including subtopics and issues, you can use the background research to formulate a specific research question. Having a research question will give an outline to your search strategy as you focus in on finding sources that provide evidence and support to “answer” the question.[5]

What makes a good research question?

1. Questions that are focused on a specific issue or subtopic related to your initial background research inquiry. Notice the difference between the general topic and the focused research question below.

Starting general topic: Universal Basic Income

Focused research question: What are the social effects of a universal basic income?

2. Open-ended questions. Start your question with Why or How. Notice the difference between the general question and the focused research question below.

General question: Do college athletes get paid?

Focused research question: Why should college athletes be paid?

3. Questions that focus on a solution to a problem. Notice the difference between the general question and the focused research question below.

General question: Do underserved community members vote?

Focused research question: How can we increase voter turnout within underserved communities?

Remember, your research question is NOT your thesis statement. You will use your research question to focus on finding information that will help you craft your thesis statement as well as information that can provide evidence or support for that thesis.

4. Key Concepts & Keywords

Equipped with a focused research question, you are almost ready to do a deep-dive into the literature and scholarly conversations to find evidence that will shape your thesis. Before you grab your scuba gear, you need to turn your research question into a database-friendly search statement. Library databases, unlike Google, do not understand when we search with a question or a long string of words. Databases give the best results when we search using specific keywords and phrases. These keywords, or search terms, come from the key concepts or main ideas of your research question.

The key concepts are the most important words or phrases of your research question. You will use these as the basis for developing a list of keywords which will then become your database search terms.

Identifying Key Concepts

In order to identify the best keywords to search with, start with the key concepts or the main idea from your research question. Take your research question and pick out the most important words or phrases that really capture the essence of your research question. Key concepts are usually nouns and may be a single word or a phrase.


In this research question, what do you think are the key concepts or main ideas?

  • How can we increase voter turnout within underserved communities?

In this question, the two key concepts are “voter turnout” and “underserved communities.” Words like increase, benefits, causes, etc. are not considered key concepts. These words are very general and could be applied to many different topics.  Focusing on the key concepts when we search will naturally find information that talks about the importance of and the relationship between the two concepts, so we don’t need to include these words as a search term.

Key concepts can also be search terms (keywords), the words we put into the search box of the database. However, since the library databases will only show you results based on the exact words you type in the search box, it is helpful to brainstorm several different search terms that will yield different search results.

In other words, if you only search using the terms “voter turnout” and “underserved communities,” the database will only show articles that use those exact phrases. Most likely there are plenty more relevant articles that use different terminology to discuss those concepts. In order to see those articles in the list of results, you need to try multiple searches using different keywords.

5. Identifying & Brainstorming Keywords

We don’t always know what keywords will give us the best results until we try them out in the database, but having a robust list of keywords will give you options when searching. Take some time to brainstorm before you begin searching, but also remember that you can and should add to your keywords as you find articles and learn more about the language used in the discourse around the topic. Focus on your key concepts and your background research to get started brainstorming keywords.

Consider the following when brainstorming keywords:

  • Use single words or exact phrases. For example: “voter turnout” is an exact phrase.
  • Think about keywords from your background research and keywords that people who write about this topic would use.
  • Synonyms, as well as related terms, make great keywords.
  • Keyword selection is sometimes trial and error. You may not know what keywords will get the best results until you try.
  • As you research and learn more about the topic, make sure you continue to add to the keyword list.

This table provides examples of alternative terms for each key concept.

Key Concept 1: “voter turnout” Key Concept 2: “underserved communities”
“voter suppression” “low-income”
“voter registration” “under-resourced communities”
election “African Americans”
“polling location” “communities of color”
redistricting “black Americans”
“voter identification” “underserved population”

Notice that “voter suppression” and “voter registration” represent different aspects of the same topic. Using these different terms will pull up different articles in a database search.

Also, notice that the phrase “underserved communities” could apply to many different populations or groups.

Keywords are incredibly important to your search strategy, but we have one more step to go before we are ready for the databases.

6. Creating Search Statements

You may already have figured out that one of your keywords on its own is not enough to get you the results you need. For example, if I only search with the phrase “underserved communities,” I’ll likely get a large number of results but those results will be about many different topics most of which will be unrelated to voting. This is because the database is showing me every article and resource that includes the phrase “underserved communities.”  The fix? I need to make sure that my search includes all the relevant concepts.  Joining together keywords is called a Search Statement.

    The Power of AND

We use AND to join keywords because that’s part of database language. Here are examples of search statements:

For a database, the word AND functions differently than it does for writing. AND is a command to the database and directs the database to include only results that have all the words or phrases connected with AND. Thus, using AND narrows the search to more relevant results.

  • “voter turnout” AND “African Americans”
  • “voter suppression” AND “African Americans”
  • “voter registration” AND “underserved communities”

Also, quotation marks around two or more words directs the database to find those words as a phrase in the results, rather than as separate words.

It’s good to mix and match and try different combinations of keywords. However, not all of your keywords may mix well together. Think about what information it is that you want to find. Read the search statement. Does it make sense for what you are looking for?

7. Database Searching

Up to now, we’ve been focused on developing a research strategy primarily for an academic purpose, but it is important to remember that all of these strategies can be applied to other research needs as well as other resources of information (i.e. Google searching). Since we are focused on library databases, it may be helpful to note the differences between databases and Google.

Google Library Databases
Mostly free access to information, but many sites do require a subscription, fees, or paywalls. Free access for CSC students. Access is paid through tuition and other fees.
Most sites go unchecked/unverified (i.e. personal webpages, blogs, forums, social media, private organization/company sites) It is up to you to evaluate this information. The majority of information comes from reputable sources and publishers, however, not all information is without bias or represents all viewpoints. It is still up to you to evaluate this information.
Most information is unorganized and relies upon Google rankings and algorithms to give results. Information is organized by subject and indexed using subject terms and other metadata.
Provides some, but not very precise, search features and search options to refine results. Provides many search features and filters to refine results.  These options do vary by database.

The CSC Library provides access to general databases that include information on many different subjects and topics. The library also has access to subject-specific databases which include information on a specific topical area such as nursing, psychology, history, or criminal justice. You can search each of these databases individually or you can use the Primo. Primo is a discovery tool which means that it pulls information from many of the library’s different resources and puts it into one list of results[6].

8. Expanding Keyword List and Refining Topic Focus

Your database search results should give you a much more in-depth understanding of your research topic, and you can begin to establish your own thoughts and opinions based on what you learned so far. This process with help you begin developing your thesis statement. For example, through researching “How can we increase voter turnout within underserved communities?” using our Keywords and Search Statements, we would have learned that one way to increase voter turnout is through ride-sharing to polling locations. If we wanted this to be part of our thesis, we should include these new keywords in our subsequent searches. This would help us find information that discusses specifically this aspect of our general topic.

Some new search statements would now look like this:

  • “ride share” AND “voter turnout” AND[7] “underserved communities”
  • transportation AND “voter turnout” AND “underserved communities”

Note: If you find that your results include information about other countries, you can add the phrase “United States” to your search statement.  However, do not discount international sources or information. They could provide insight and valuable ideas.

Next Steps: Continue searching the databases, reading articles, refining keywords and search statements as needed, and keeping track of your research.

Research Tip: Use the “Ask a librarian” chat service for research assistance from a real-live librarian during their hours of operation (which you can find in your course syllabus). You can also text our CSC Library staff using the number 918-215-8TXT (8898). Outside of those hours, any questions can be sent via email!



Watch this library research tutorial video created by Ms. Ona Britton-Spears the CSC Director of Library Services to see these tips and tricks used in real-time and with the CSC databases.


  1. 2.1 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from Claim Your Voice in First Year Composition, Vol. 2 by Cynthia Kiefer and Serene Rock which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
  2. "Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education." American Library Association, February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework (Accessed June 11, 2022). Document ID: b910a6c4-6c8a-0d44-7dbc-a5dcbd509e3f
  3. This is not an exhaustive list of Reference source databases; however, these are two databases you have access to here at Connors State College that can help you find background information.
  4. About the author: Rosenkrantz, H. (2022, February 4). CQ researcher. http://library.cqpress.com/
  5. See the "Hint" in section 2 to understand why the reference sources just found do not provide the type of evidence and support you will need for your research paper.
  6. This means that the number of sources pulled from Primo will be much longer than when using a subject-specific database, which means, oftentimes, you have to more digging when using this database.
  7. Many databases automatically dd the word AND between any keyword or keyword phrases if it is not included in the search already.


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Composition 2: Research and Writing Copyright © by Brittany Seay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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