Even for research experts, it is nearly impossible to go from topic to a well designed research question without looking up basic information about the topic. Background research will give you a foundation for your research and an overview for the basic ideas and concepts associated with your topics. As you research, keep an eye out for:
Sources that are cited.
This early stage, when you are generating ideas and familiarizing yourself with your topic, is when a quick Google search or dive into Wikipedia can be beneficial to your research. Note that even Wikipedia does not recommend that you use the site directly in your research. This is not because Wikipedia contains inherently bad information, but because it is a reference source and reference sources should only be used as background information. Other reference material is also useful at this stage. Below are different types of reference materials and tips on how to use them.
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Types of Reference Sources
You can find many dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographies, and other reference material online in databases that specifically focus on reference. Databases make it possible to search multiple resources all at once.
Keep an open mind to changing the direction of your research
Search both general and subject-specific sources
When you find an interesting entry, explore the sources it cites
Dictionaries can be the typical vocabulary based dictionaries, but there are also subject-specific dictionaries that define terms in given disciplines. These dictionaries tend to have more information included in each entry than a regular dictionary, but less than an entry in an encyclopedia.
General encyclopedias include entries on a broad range of topics, typically organized in Alphabetical order. These entries ten to be brief overviews focusing in on the basic facts without digging into the fine details of the topic.
Subject Specific Encyclopedias
The entries in these encyclopedias can be longer and often delve into at least one discipline's perspective of the issue beyond the facts.
Biographies are similar to encyclopedias in that they provide brief entries organized in alphabetical order, but these entries focus on people. Biographies can either be general or subject specific.