What is Research?


Imagine that you arrive at a party, and everyone in the room is discussing the same topic. Some people are passionate and animated, some try to sound rational or conciliatory, and others appear to be mumbling to themselves. As it turns out, you also have an opinion on the subject. You might even have the urge to yell at everyone to be quiet so that you can address the entire room. However, deep down you know that wouldn’t do. It would be more polite to first get to know the crowd. You might introduce yourself and hear what others have to say. You might ask questions when you don’t understand something. Only then will you be you in a position to state your own opinion. And, when you do, you can have a real conversation in which everyone’s voice is heard.

In academic writing that conversation is called research. Research is the attempt to understand the viewpoints of others. In the process, your own ideas and opinions will evolve, and may even change entirely. When you then turn to writing an academic essay or book, you are able to express your conclusions in a way that is interactive, constructive, and respectful. And, if you do all these things, you will be the star of the party.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Scholars often split their sources into two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Primary Sources

A primary source is either the main focus of your discussion (e.g., a novel you’re analyzing), or it’s a source that provides first hand information about a particular topic or event (e.g., a newspaper from the time period you’re studying).

Primary sources are valued for their immediacy. For instance, when you do historical research you’ll want to hear from eye witnesses who were close to the action. Here are some common types of primary sources:

  • newspapers
  • letters
  • diaries and autobiographies
  • original books and articles
  • government documents
  • legal records
  • scientific experiments
  • interviews
  • photographs
  • artifacts (clothing, historical objects, etc.)
  • buildings and architecture

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are a kind of commentary on primary sources. For example, if I write an analysis of a Shakespeare play I’m producing a secondary source. Here are some more examples:

  • book reviews
  • academic books or articles
  • biographies
  • documentaries
  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • dictionaries

These lists are not exhaustive, and there is often considerable overlap between primary and secondary sources. For instance, how would you characterize an older work of criticism (say a medieval commentary on Aristotle)? Obviously, the lines get blurred a little, but the main point is that good research is about finding the best sources–which often means looking for primary sources that get us as close to the action as possible.

Using Sources

As you incorporate your research in your writing, you’ll need to decide on the purpose of each source. Here are some of the most common ways to use a source:

Proof. By citing or quoting from a source you can demonstrate that you have sufficient evidence for your argument.

Agreement. You can explain what parts of the source meet your approval.

Background. Perhaps you just want to add some flavour or context to your writing. You can do this by providing background information.

Clarification. Sometimes a source says it better than you can. Alternatively, sometimes your source provides additional perspective and broadens the point you’re making.

Advancement. It can happen that you agree with your source, but you want to share how the insight gained might be applied in a new context or in a different way.

Disagreement. When you find sources you disagree with, you can point out their inaccuracies and shortcomings.

Once you’ve decided how you want to use your source, the next step is to interact with the source in your writing. This is where you have to decide how important the source is to your argument. If your source illustrates a minor point, you might be content with a quick mention or a paraphrase. You might even relegate the source to a footnote. If you source is absolutely central to your argument (say your entire essay is a reply to one person’s opinion), you’ll need to introduce it early and spend some time explaining why your audience should care.

Either way, it’s important to remember that your essay belongs to you, and not to your sources. That’s why we generally discourage people from using quotations in their thesis or in topic sentences. First clarify your own argument and then relate it to the viewpoints of others. Even if an entire paragraph is dedicated to a single source, we still want to know your opinion about it.

Integrating Sources

When you use a source, there are typically three things you need to do. First, you’ll have to introduce the source, which means that you have to give enough context that we can understand it. For a quotation this might mean explaining who is talking, or what the quotation means. For an illustration or graph you might want to point out what it demonstrates and how it relates to your argument.

Next, you need to provide the source, whether by quoting, paraphrasing, or inserting an image. Make sure you cite the source, following the appropriate style guide in your discipline. For the rules on quoting and paraphrasing, please consult our pages on integrating quotations (in the section on Essay Writing).

Finally, you need to interact with your source. Explain any difficult aspects (key words, concepts, ideas), indicate if you agree or disagree with your source, and connect your source to the rest of your argument.

Tip: Don’t go overboard when you introduce a source. If you’re quoting, for instance, you often just need to provide the author’s name. You don’t have to mention the title of the book or article (or publication information) unless it’s immediately relevant to your argument. All such details can be saved for your Works Cited page.


The following excerpt from an essay on the death penalty is just one example of how sources can be incorporated. In this case the author has a mixed opinion about a source:

A New York Times editorial notes that in 1966 support for the death penalty was lower (42%) then it is now (“The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End”). Yet the author of the article nevertheless concludes that the United States “has evolved past it [the death penalty], and it is long past time for the [supreme] court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion” (“Nearing Its End”). Such rhetoric assumes that as societies evolve and become more progressive, they will abolish the death penalty. Yet people do not change that quickly, and it is quite possible that should homicide rates creep up, the public may clamour for the death penalty to be brought back.

Source: “The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End” [Editorial]. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/opinion/the-death-penalty-nearing-its-end.html

Notice that the author clearly introduces and explains the source. That way the reader can easily make sense of the information.


Research is not meant to be antagonistic. You don’t have to critique everyone else. Instead, research allows us to learn from others so that through collaborative effort we can all gain in knowledge.

That also means that the tone of academic writing should be constructive. There is no need to make fun of others, or go out of your way to point out mistakes. Of course you can try to correct errors, and you may need to find flaws in other people’s arguments. Yet it is also important to point out areas of consensus and have something original and valuable to say.

So avoid adjectives like ridiculous or nonsensical, and be generous even when you’re being critical.


Students often ask how many sources or quotations their essay is supposed to have. The answer is that there is no set number. It’s always a matter of balance, of presenting sufficient evidence, of respecting the views of others, and of making sure your voice is also heard. If your entire essay is a string of quotations then your reader will wonder if you have anything meaningful to add. If you don’t provide proof or interact with other critics, your interpretation will lack depth. Doing research and incorporating research is thus an essential skill, and hopefully reading this page has given you the knowledge to write with confidence.

Doing Research

(In Bruges, living with water is a daily reality. Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)


Research is an important part of writing an essay. The reader is not going to be satisfied with generalities, so we need specific and accurate information. However, we can’t be satisfied with just any book or article. We have to find sources that are reliable and trustworthy.

Finding Sources

For your essay you will need a minimum of three sources, of which at least one has to be a book and one a webpage.

To help you get started, here is a list of the kinds of books on natural disasters that you may find in your local library:

  • Abbott, Patrick Leon. Natural Disasters. (2013)
  • Barnard, Bryn. Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History. (2003)
  • Bechtel, Stefan, and Tim Samaras. Tornado Hunter, Getting Inside the Most Violent Storms on Earth. (2009)
  • The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. (2010)
  • de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. (2005)
  • Dinwiddie, Robert. Violent Earth. (2011)
  • Fecher, Sarah. Freaky Facts About Natural Disasters. (2006)
  • Fradkin, Philip L. The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself. (2005)
  • Griffey, Harriet. Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters. (1998)
  • Guiberson, Brenda Z. Natural and Man-made Catastrophes Through the Centuries. (2010)
  • Hyndman, Donald, and David Hyndman. Natural Hazards and Disasters. (2013)
  • Jones, Lucy. The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them). (2018)
  • Langley, Andrew. Hurricanes, Tsunamis, and Other Natural Disasters. (2006)
  • Lundin, Cody. When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes. (2007)
  • McDonough, Brendan. Granite Mountain: The Firsthand Account of a Tragic Wildfire, Its Lone Survivor, and the Firefighters Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice. (2017)
  • Mother Nature Goes Nuts! Amazing Natural Disasters. By the editors of Klutz. (2008)
  • The Natural Disaster Survival Handbook: 151 Survival Tactic and Tips. By the editors of Outdoor Life. (2016)
  • Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention. By the World Bank. (2010)
  • Nature’s Extremes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis and the Other Natural Disasters That Shape Life on Earth. By the editors of TIME. (2011)
  • Tagliaferro, Linda. How Does An Earthquake Become A Tsunami? (2009)
  • Watts, Claire. Natural Disasters. DK Eyewitness Books. (2006)
  • Ylvisaker, Anne. Droughts. (2003)

If you are doing your topic on a Canadian natural disaster, here are some possible resources for you:

  • Asher, Damian, and Omar Mouallem. Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray. (2017)
  • Daffern, Gillean, and Derek Ryder. The Great Kananaskis Flood: A Disaster That Forever Changed the Face of Kananaskis Country. (2016)
  • Dixon, Joan. Extreme Canadian Weather: Freakish Storms and Unexpected Disasters. (2009)
  • Hawley, Jerron, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett. Into the Fire: The Fight to Save Fort McMurray. (2017)

Note that we haven’t provided full bibliographic information, or else you wouldn’t have anything to do!

Next, you will also need to find some reliable online sources. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for your topic. Watch out also for sources that are mostly pictures (such as this photo essay). Find a quality web page with detailed and scientific information.

Here are some further resources to help you do online research:

What is Research?


Reading Sources Effectively

Tips for Doing Research With Google

Evaluating Online Sources

Doing Research With Google


The tide is turning, and using Google for research is no longer taboo. Indeed, most instructors will encourage you to discover the amazing resources available on the web. The difficulty is in narrowing down the search results.

On this page we provide some tips for making your searches more effective. Be sure also to watch our tutorial on Google Scholar (video above) to find quality academic articles and books.

General Advice

You’ll want your search terms to be as detailed as possible. It’s better to search for general anxiety disorder than just anxiety. The order of search terms matters too. Try place your most important terms first.

At the same time, you can always refine your results, so don’t be afraid to start with just a few key words and see what you find.


Specify the Type of Source

When you’re doing a search, be sure to use Google’s tabs to refine your search:

As you can see, you can search for images, news, maps, and more. If you click on Tools you can also display the toolbar:

Play around with the different options to see what’s available.

If you click on Settings you will be able to set some parameters to your use of Google. You can adjust your preferred languages, you can clean up your search history, and you can do an advanced search.

Use Quotation Marks

To search for a specific phrase, place quotation marks around it.

Search Titles

To search just the titles of websites, use the tag intitle: before your key word(s).

Search URLs

If you want to search URLs instead, place inurl: before your key word(s).

Search Text

You can also search just the text by inserting intext: before your key word(s).

Search File Types

One cool feature of Google is the fact that you can specify what file type you’re looking for. Here are some examples:

filetype:ppt (for PowerPoint)

filetype:pdf (for PDF documents)

filetype:xls (for Excel spreadsheets)

filetype:doc (for Word documents)

Find Older Versions

If a website has changed, or if you’re just curious about previous versions, type in cache: followed by the URL. Check out also the Web Archive to go back in time.

Find Similar Sources

Found a website you liked? Use the tag related: followed by the URL to find similar websites.

Find Linked Pages

If you want to see what other sites linked to a website or page, type in link: followed by the URL.  If you have your own website this is a fun way to see who’s sharing your site.

Find Definitions

You can use Google as a dictionary by adding define: to your search.

Search a Specific Website

If you want to restrict your search to a specific website or page, write site: followed by the URL.

Alternatively, you can press Control + F  to bring up a search box for the page you’re looking at.

Use an Asterisk

If you’ve forgotten some part of a phrase, use asterisks to indicate the missing words:

Search: Ne * * Pas

Find: Ne Me Quitte Pas (song lyric)

Try a Reverse Image Search

You can find where else an image has been used by right clicking on the image and selecting “search google for image.” You can even upload your own image (drag and drop it into Google) and Google will do its best to identify the image and find related pictures.

Search Social Media

Insert @ before a word to search social media. Add # to a word to search for hashtags.

Search a Range

Looking for a range of numbers or dates? Place two period between the numbers to indicate a range:

E.g., 1964..1968

Use OR

You can specify an alternative search term by inserting OR. Note that you usually don’t need to add AND.

Eliminate Search Terms

If you want Google to ignore a particular search term, place a hyphen (a minus sign) before it.

E.g., if your main search term is mongoose, you can add -cobra to eliminate a third of the results.

Search Old Newspapers

Google provides an excellent depository of old newspapers for you to search.

Have Some Fun

Finally, if you want to have some fun, Google has created all sort of in-jokes or Easter eggs. For just one example, type in “do a barrel roll” and see what happens. There are many more funny search terms for you to discover.


Using Google is increasingly an art, so try out the different tips on this page. They will help you find exactly what you’re looking for.