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HNRS: College Honors Program Thesis Guide

Research sources and strategies for the College Honors Program

Research Strategies

General Research Strategies:


line drawing of a tape measure Be realistic about the size of the topic that you can tackle. Consider the limitations of your timeline and available materials. It's better to address a focused topic well than to address a broader topic poorly because you are trying to cover too much material.


Begin your research early. Well-done research is an iterative process; leave yourself time for this process to occur! This has the added benefit of extending your resources to excellent sources outside of Holy Cross Libraries through Interlibrary Loan!


 Be efficient. Use the strategies we will discuss (such as: choosing appropriate and multiple research tools; making use of advanced search features; thoughtful choice of keywords; following your sources) to conduct your research in a targeted, effective and efficient manner. 


Critically Examine your sources. Examine the context of those sources (i.e., the scholarly conversation they participate in) and allow that context to lead you to other sources. For example: what else has this author written? What other useful sources are referenced? What other sub-conversations might I want to participate in? 


Ask for help as needed. Research librarians are available to assist you -- it's literally our job! Sometimes this may mean making a research appointment; other times, a quick e-mail conversation will suffice. 

Not sure where to start with your research? That's okay!

The research process cannot start until you have a few topics or themes within your project guidelines that you would like to learn more about. It can be hard to take a few concepts of what you want to do and turn it into a research question. Use the worksheet below to help you brainstorm!

Identifying Search Terms:

Here are some general tips to guide you in choosing your search terms:

- Use keywords or brief (2-word) phrases instead of sentences -- one or two for each part of your topic.

- Use concepts and other nouns as your keywords.  Think of words that are likely to be used in titles (or that you have seen in titles).

- If your keywords aren't turning up many results, you may need to:

  • Try thinking of synonyms or other ways of phrasing your topic. If you can find one or two relevant articles, check to see what subjects are listed for them and try to build keywords from there. 
  • Try a broader search (broader topic, broader date-range, etc.).
  • Try a different database.

You can use the worksheet below to help jumpstart your keyword searching: 

Expanding on Existing Research:

No piece of research stands alone; each is part of a broader scholarly conversation in that topic/ field. You can use a single article  or other resource to find other, similar research by tracing the paths of that conversation:

Keywords – Check the abstract, subject terms and full-text to discover the vocabulary being used in this particular scholarly conversation.

Subject Terms – Subject terms not only provide insight into vocabulary you should use but also serve as search tools – click on these tags in any database (or the catalog) to find more resources on a given topic.

Cited References – Check the references list (or bibliography) to see what previous research this resource is drawing on. From here, you may wish to consider: 

- Previous articles or books published on your topic
- Other authors who have published on your topic
- Journals where your topic is frequently discussed

Times Cited – Check Google Scholar to see which articles or books have cited your sources, and to find
more-recent research which builds on your original information.

** Once you find a new resource, you can also trace the scholarly conversation around that book/article to find even more resources! **

For a simpler, graphic representation of this research strategy, download the handout below: 

Recommended Tools: 

Browsing the Stacks [when possible]:

Browsing library stacks can be a valuable technique to expand research on your topic, no matter where you are. This is perhaps even more true when using libraries whose catalogs you are unfamiliar with. 

Most academic libraries, including the libraries at Holy Cross, use a system called Library of Congress Classification (LCC) to organize books. Each book or journal is identified by a unique call number. Unlike call numbers in the Dewey Decimal System, LCC call numbers include a combination of both letters and numbers. These call numbers identify the location of the book in the stacks; they also identify the subject (or the main subject if there are more than one) of the book or journal. 

Because call numbers are subject-based, it is possible to physically view most of the books on a given topic in one area of the library. This means that it is possible to visit the stacks and browse the selection of materials on your topic, and that the number section for your topic should be the same, even in different libraries. 

To begin, you can....

(a) Locate a book on your topic in the library catalog, and note the call number; OR
(b) Identify the LCC call number range that corresponds to your topic, by viewing this list

This will tell you the area of the library where you should begin browsing. If your topic is complex or multidisciplinary, there may be more than one area that you should visit. 

Use the handouts below to guide you in understanding LCC and navigating the Dinand  and Science Library stacks. 

Why browse the stacks? 

It's true -- it might require less effort to virtually 'visit' the library stacks via the website. And, the catalog is a great way to find both e- and print materials on your topic. However, because the catalog relies on keyword searching, sometimes truly relevant titles slip through the cracks -- maybe your keyword wasn't in the description of the book recorded in the catalog (these descriptions are not always comprehensive), or appeared in a slightly different form. 

When you visit a library's stacks, you can view all of the books on the shelf (so long as they are in the right spot!) and see what you might be missing. Often, browsing the shelf will turn up an even better resource than the one you were originally searching for. It's also possible that, in going through a long list of search results, you overlooked a title that is a little more eye-catching on the shelf! 

Understanding & Choosing Appropriate Sources

Scholarly vs. Popular Sources:

Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.  

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 
The chart below compares the characteristics of scholarly vs. popular (non-scholarly) sources:  

It's important to keep in mind that scholarly sources are not always the best or only source available to you -- it depends on what information you are trying to find:

  • Due to the time required for a scholarly article to be researched, written, go through the peer review process and then be published, it can be difficult to find scholarly articles published about recent events, discoveries, etc.. You should expect 1-2 years between the time an event occurs and the time academic research on that event begins to be published, with some exceptions. 
  • In some disciplines, other means of conveying timely and research-based information have developed -- for example, working papers in the discipline of economics. Working papers have not undergone the same kind of rigor and review as their scholarly counterparts, and they often represent early versions of research that will later be published in a peer-reviewed forum. However, in many cases they are still perfectly reliable and robust sources of information and analysis. 
  • For matters related to policy, official government documents or publications such as CRS Reports are also good sources of information that may not be available in peer-reviewed formats. 
  • News articles, correspondence and other 'primary sources' can also provide useful insights, again depending on your topic.  

The Information Lifecycle:

The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time. 

Note that this timeline is just a general sense of the information lifecycle -- the exact timing can vary greatly from one discipline to another! 

Primary Sources in the Humanities

In humanities research, a primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history).  Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.   

Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources. 

Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.  

Primary Sources in the Sciences

In the natural and social sciences, on the other hand, primary and secondary sources are usually distinguished by their proximity to the original research being reported upon. 

Primary/Research articles are scholarly sources that provide valuable first-hand information about research being conducted in a given discipline. These articles directly present the experiments/studies and subsequent results currently being conducted in the field, as presented by the scholars who conducted these studies. You can identify these sources by their use of sections such as methodology, results/findings, etc., that indicate reporting of primary research, i.e., research actually conducted by the author(s).  Primary research may use observational, experimental or descriptive research methods. 

Secondary/Review articles are also a type of scholarly/academic, or peer-reviewed, source that provides valuable information about research being done in the field. However, they are a step removed in that the authors of Secondary/Review articles are reporting on research that has been conducted by other scholars, rather than sharing the results of their own research. These articles usually lack the primary research indicators of methodology, results, etc. and may take the form of, for example, metadata articles (articles that collect, compile and present data from many studies into one article), literature reviews, and/or clinical trials.