Chapter 2: Research is Messy

2.2 Determining your scope

The first thing you need to do is determine the scope of your research. Take a few minutes to think about your topic and the kind of information you might need. You can define your research scope by thinking about the following:

  • Amount: how much information you need
  • Content: the types of information you need
  • Format: the configuration of the source (e.g., books, articles, videos, etc.)

Establishing the boundaries for your research may come from your instructor’s assignment guidelines. By carefully reviewing your assignment requirements and your instructor’s expectations, you can refine what research question you’re trying to answer and determine where you need to look for sources, what types and formats to use, and what content within your sources will be helpful.

Information that is appropriate for one research project may not be appropriate or relevant for another. For example, if you need to give a five minute class presentation on the pros or cons of an issue, you probably need a few sources that cover the key aspects of the issue and not every paper that’s ever been written on the topic. If you were writing a lengthy class paper, you would want more comprehensive coverage of your topic.

Amount of information

Sometimes your instructor will require that you use at least a specific number of sources for a project, but you won’t always have that as a guideline. If you need to determine the number of sources to use on your own, you can base it on what seems to be enough to fully answer your research question. Keep in mind that this might be more sources than the minimum you’re required to use.

Types of information

Knowing what types of information you need will help you be more efficient and successful in your research. Some common types of information are listed below.

Background information

This kind of information gives you a basic understanding and vocabulary surrounding a topic. Background information is broad and tends to be general. This is helpful when you don’t already know a lot about your topic. Examples of where you can find background information include encyclopedias like Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia or introductory textbooks.

News sources

News reports can provide information on an event or perspectives from a given point in time. They’re intended to keep us informed about current events and popular topics, and rarely go in depth or provide sources for further reading. News sources can help illustrate your points with timely examples or historical perspectives on a topic. They include historical or current newspapers, news websites, and some magazines. The Des Moines Register and Time magazine are examples of news sources.

Statistical information

Statistical information includes data and reports produced by research groups, associations, governmental organizations, non-profits, and more. These are helpful for making comparisons between groups, showing changes over time, and making predictions. Statistical databases and government websites, like the U.S. Census website, are examples of sources that contain statistics.


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