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Step 1: Select your topic

Start by expressing your topic or research question in a sentence. These terms are the keywords you will be using in your search strategy. For example: 

  • I want information on the role of women in the family in 16th century Italy.
  • I need to know about the market for running shoes in Libya.

Tips for selecting the right-sized topic

Be sure that your question isn't so broad that you'll need to write a book to answer it, or that it is so focused that you won't be able to find anything to support it! Quickly reviewing a topic in an encyclopedia (even Wikipedia) can help you determine this. 

Remember that your professor or TA is the best resource for checking that your topic is appropriate.

Step 2: Identify sources and research tools

Subject research guides

Start with the research or subject guide for your course or discipline. These are created by SFU's subject specialist librarians to recommend the best resources for the discipline, including strategies for finding books and how to search specialised databases.

Finding definitions and background information

For specific subjects or courses

Check the Background information tab on your Research or subject guide first for recommended sources to give you quick basic facts and an overview of your topic.

For topics that are general, or cross disciplines

Use interdisciplinary reference sources such as directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks to get started. 

Specialised resources:

Remember that sometimes the information you want does not exist in exactly the form you would like. Instead, you will have to piece the information together by looking at and interpreting several sources.

Step 3: Search for and find your articles and books

Start with the Books & articles tab from your subject guide.

Step 4: Evaluate 

You must evaluate each source to see if it is appropriate for academic research. For example, does the article you found come from a popular magazine or website or from a scholarly (academic) journal? Is the source reliable, or possibly propaganda or fake news?

To learn how to distinguish between types of journals, check the guide What is a Scholarly Journal?

The research and writing cycle

The research process is a cycle. The first time you go through these steps, you'll probably be looking for a couple of general sources on your topic. Each time you repeat the process, you learn more, enabling you to:

  • make your topic more focused, or
  • work with a different  research tool, or
  • try a different search query, using synonyms and related terms. 

Be patient! Research done properly takes a lot of time, but the reward for careful preparation is a paper which "writes itself."

Step 5: Write and cite


The Student Learning Commons provides in-person and online academic writing support on all three campuses. Attend a workshop, book a consultation, or try online resources like A quick guide to research papers

How to cite

To properly cite your sources, see our Citation guides for information and examples on the different styles, such as APAMLA, and Chicago.

Tracking a lot of citations? For longer projects, including theses and dissertations, you may want to use citation software


Need more help finding resources? Ask a Librarian for help online or in person.

The Student Learning Commons can help with writing, study skills, time management, and more. 

Use the Assignment Calculator to plan out your writing assignment

Research takes time as well as creativity. The Assignment Calculator lays out the steps for researching and writing, and is also a quick and effective time management tool.