Conducting research: a guide for undergrads

This resource focuses on how to identify reputable sources as well as recommended UW resources for conducting research. This guide provides an overview of the research process, introduces you to various types of reputable sources, and provides tips for assessing reputable online content.

1. Find and identify reputable sources

The first step is to think through the assignment:

    • What is the main goal of the assignment?
    • Are there specific types of sources required (e.g., scholarly articles, books)?
    • How many sources do you need?

Understand the main types of credible information resources:

  • Government publications, such as reports, statistics, and policy-related information, provide reliable information. Almost all federal government information can be found on .gov sites such as NIST. However, you can find information from all branches of government on some .com or .org sites, so double-check.
  • Popular news sources, such as broadcast news (even if it’s online) as well as blogs, magazines, newspapers and radio, inform and entertain the general public.
  • Scholarly sources [1], such as books and journals, provide discipline-related research for scholars (faculty, researchers, students) and are authored by experts in the field. They are often peer-reviewed; contain extensive citations and references; and follow a specific format. Publishers may include professional organizations like ACM or IEEE as well as research universities. For general internet searches, use Google Scholar.
  • Special purpose websites, such as those maintained by non-profit or university organizations like the ACLU, CIDRAPEFF and SPLC. I’ll also discuss Wikipedia in a footnote [2].
  • Trade publications focus on specific industries and are usually situated in-between popular and scholarly in tone and content.

Note: acronyms used intentionally to stimulate exploration!  

Next, go to the library. Not the building (necessarily) but its website.

Although most of us are more familiar with Google, Bing, Duck-Duck-Go than our university or local public library (SPL), the library is an excellent place to begin your research. 

Libraries provide access to specialized databases of sources that have been vetted by the company selling access to its databases. Common online sources include:

Databases usually allow you to customize a search via a series of fields, such as publisher, author, title or date. Google et. al. have their own criteria for determining which sources come to the top of your search results. However, not all sources are created equal, whether from intent or ignorance. I’ll address source credibility in a moment.

Focus on crafting effective queries, whether library, database or internet search.

  • Experiment with multiple words (“a string”) that are related to your topic
  • Use advanced search techniques
  • Use multiple search tools (they feature different sources and use proprietary algorithms)


Table 1: Examples of advanced search techniques

Technique Example Explanation
Advanced search Offered by most databases as well as Google Advance Search Allows you to easily combine specific factors, such as data, author, keyword or title search
Boolean operators Climate change AND renewable energy climate change OR renewable energy Search for articles containing both terms (narrows)
Search for articles containing either term (widens)
Date range publication date: 2010-2020 Search for articles published between 2010 and 2020.
With Bing, use radio buttons or pull-down menus
With Google, specify dates or timeframes
Media search Select audio, video or images option plus query Commercial search engine specific
Search this site (Google) lithium Search the website for all pages containing the term
Quotation marks “global warming” Search for the exact phrase “global warming.”


Once you find sources, you’ll need to evaluate their credibility and determine their relevance to your assignment.  You will need to examine a variety of sources to determine which does the better job of moving your assignment forward.

Begin with a basic quality check: any site that fails here may need no further review:

    • Do the links work?
    • Does the article have a date?
    • Does the website look like it was created recently or 15 years ago?
    • If you don’t recognize the source, is there an author?
    • Is any advertising clearly differentiated from information?


California State University created the CRAAP test to help students remember best practices for evaluating content.

Table 2. CRAAP, criteria for assessing source credibility

  • Is the information up-to-date (either its original published date or an updated notation)?
  • Does the work update other sources or add new information?
  • Are these topics addressed well, with clearly presented arguments and adequate evidence?
  • Does its intended audience match your intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (not too elementary, not too advanced)?
  • Is the information relevant to your research?
  • Would you be comfortable using this source in your research paper?
  • Are the sources for factual information clearly listed so they can be verified?
  • Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors?
  • Can you contact the author or publisher via email or phone?
  • Can you verify the legitimacy of the organization, group, company or individual running the site?
  • Does the article cite sources known to be reliable?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Can you easily find the goals or purpose of the sponsoring organization or company (“about us”)?
  • Can you easily tell if the content is fact, opinion or propaganda?
  • Does the content appear objective or does it display evidence of bias?



2. UW resources for conducting research


Remember to explore various types of sources, including books, industry and government publications, journal articles, news articles, and websites such as blogs.


[1] How do I know my resource is “scholarly”?
Scholarly sources:

  • Are usually peer reviewed by discipline specialists before being accepted for publication. Search journal titles in bibliographic databases like PubMedScopus or Web of Science.
  • Are written by and for “academics” (faculty, researchers and students).
  • Include full citations for sources in a reference list.
  • May include books, conference papers, and reports as well as journals published by professional organizations.
  • Although journals may contain book reviews or editorials, those are not considered scholarly sources.
  • See this resource from Washington State University (pdf).

Table 3: Comparing scholarly and non-scholarly resources

Feature Scholarly Resource Non-Scholarly Resource
Authorship Experts in the field Journalists, general public
Audience Professionals, students General public
Citations & References Extensive citations and references Few or no citations and references
Peer-review Often peer-reviewed Rarely peer-reviewed
Source Type Books, journal articles, etc. News articles, blog posts, etc.
Structure Structured format Informal or varied format

[2] About Wikipedia
Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for many research topics. Quality Wikipedia articles are well researched and cited. Read Wikipedia to establish an overview of a topic; follow its citations to go into greater depth.

For most college assignments, Wikipedia is not a preferred or accepted source; for this course, it is an acceptable source for images. It does not otherwise count towards source minimums.

Prepared with assistance from ChatGPT 4.
K.Gill, private communication with OpenAI’s chatGPT, Apr. 18, 2023.
Header image licensed from Adobe Stock Photo




📖  Citations and references are important

    • Conducting research 
    • How to format IEEE references in this course
    • Sample References list (pdf)
    • External source: OWL: IEEE General Format