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Step by Step Guide to Doing Research

state your topic

The steps outlined on these pages will help you organize, research, write and document your research paper. For a more comprehensive coverage of the research process, consult Research in the Electronic Age, written by Boston College librarians, Brendan A. Rapple and Kwasi Sarkodie-Mensah.  You may also contact Subject Librarians if you need in-depth assistance with your projects.

To begin the research process, state your topic. While your topic may change and evolve with further research, it is useful to begin by defining a research question.

  1. Define your research question. Example: "Do computers threaten our privacy?"
  2. Identify main concepts and keywords--Computers and Privacy.
  3. Create a word list of synonyms and variations on the keywords that may be used to search the question.
Computers Privacy
Internet Confidentiality
Technology Civil Liberties

Create A Search.

In most online databases, simply entering your question is not an effective way to search. A search string must be created using Boolean Operators. What are Boolean Operators? The words AND, OR, NOT are Boolean Operators used to link keywords and phrases.


Connects words or phrases in order to narrow the search results to records on a specific aspect of a subject. Records retrieved must contain both terms.

Example: Computers AND Privacy

Exercise: Search Holmes to locate books using the above search example. Write down the number of records retrieved by the search, and print out one record.

» OR

Expands the search to include either word. It is particularly useful with synonyms. Thus, if you were having difficulty retrieving records on computers and privacy it would be possible to broaden the search by adding related words.

Example: (Computers OR Internet OR Technology) AND Privacy

Exercise: Using the above example, search the Holmes catalog to locate books. Write down the number of records retrieved, and print out one record.


Excludes specific terms in order to narrow the search to appropriate records. For example, it is possible to exclude records on the internet from your search results.

Example: Privacy AND Computers NOT Internet

Exercise: Do a keyword search in Holmes to locate books using the above example. Write down the number of records retrieved, and print out one record.