By: Paul Dexter, Director of Academic Retention Initiatives, Megan MacGregor, Instruction and Outreach Librarian & Elizabeth Bull, Library Specialist

In last week’s article, we offered guidance on how to improve your writing process for any type of writing task. We also noted how there are additional considerations when the writing involves research. Engaging in research can be exciting and inspiring, but also daunting and confusing if not knowing how to start the process. This week, we’ll outline action steps and considerations to demystify and de-stress the research aspect of writing.

The broad goal of the research process, namely the gathering and synthesis of scholarly sources, is to provide evidence for the argument you will make in your paper; evidence is what makes it scholarly. Rather than giving your personal opinion, you represent the ideas of others, citing how the author of each journal, article, or book explained their findings and argue their points. While some of the research processes may differ based upon the topic, discipline, or scope of your paper, typically the steps include:

  • Identifying an initial topic
  • Gathering sources
  • Refining the topic
  • Organizing information and citations
  • Writing and rewriting

Starting your research can often seem like the most intimidating part of writing a research paper. While your professor may provide an initial prompt, it’s up to you to make sense of the prompt, come up with a relevant topic, find the information you need, and then distill all of that down into a cohesive written format. Don’t get overwhelmed. As with other aspects of writing, think of research as an adaptable, ongoing process and approach it with a step-by-step mindset. You are also not alone. You have the USM librarians to help you on your journey!

When choosing a topic, try creating a mind map of all of the different ideas you’ve had so far. This will allow you to make connections between concepts and layout all of your thoughts on paper. Once you have a topic of interest, it’s time to collect some initial background information, and to determine which sources will be best suited for your topic. In most cases, your professor will require “peer-reviewed” sources. If you’re having difficulty finding information, it might be the words you’re using to search. Librarians can help you come up with keywords on your topic to type into databases, catalogs, and GoogleScholar, to bring back what you’re looking for faster. This saves time, and allows you to focus more on crafting your masterful scholarly argument. Revising your initial topic can make it more “researchable,” reducing potential frustration with the search.

When you’re conducting background research on your topic, pay attention to themes or issues that keep coming up. For example, a quick look in CQ Researcher’s article on the Internet and Social Media shows you that this very wide topic is broken down into the subtopics of privacy concerns, crime and sabotage, and copyright. You could use any of these to narrow the topic of Social Media. A librarian can help you find sources on your topic and subtopic so you can spend less time searching and more time thinking about the information you find.

Once you’ve narrowed the scope of your topic, it’s time to go deeper into the USM Libraries website at Try searching for additional sources in OneSearch – allowing you to see in one place the books and articles that emerge. You can then jump down to the A-Z list of databases, providing USM students with access to thousands of online journals and other publications that are not available via a Google search. The Library site also includes Subject Guides, theme-based resources curated by USM Librarians. By spending time investigating these resources, you’ll not only find sources for the assignment but develop your research skills for future assignments.

When it comes to learning any skill, having a knowledgeable guide can make a dramatic difference. Much like a Subject-Based Tutor can be your academic “personal trainer” and your peer Writing Assistant a consultant for your writing process, consider the Librarian as your research copilot. Use their expertise to assist you at any stage of the research process. In Portland, most of the librarians live on the second floor of Glickman library. Here you can also find our Learning Commons Navigators, fellow students who are trained in guiding you through the initial steps of conducting academic research. In Gorham, the librarians are on the 1st floor at the circulation desk in the library in Bailey Hall. In Lewiston, they can also be found at the circulation desk, or in the office by the free books. If you want to be sure to catch them, set up a meeting via email. Librarian contact information is on the USM Library Website, under People in the left-hand menu. They are also available online at Ask A Librarian, a virtual chat.

With spring break approaching, it’s important to look ahead to know what research and writing assignments you have to complete in the second half of the semester. As explained above, library research involves a multi-step process used to gather information in order to write your paper, create a presentation, or complete a project. Time management is essential when it comes to the research process, as it is often necessary to rethink, revise, add additional material or even adjust your topic as you progress from one step to the next. This week, take some to review your syllabi and know what research and writing assignments you have to submit in the last half of the semester. Make a plan for when to begin, creating a suitable timetable for when to complete tasks associated with each major assignment.

We hope these recent articles have offered clarity on actions to take when tackling your research and writing assignments, as well as useful reminders on the resources available to you at USM to support your efforts, many of which are located together in your campus library. Consider taking a step today to move your process forward. Discuss your assignment with your professor during office hours; swing by the Library to explore your initial topic well in advance of the due date; craft a mind map of your ideas; schedule an appointment with a Writing Assistant. Remember: as with any learning endeavor, it’s what you DO that matters.


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