To do bibliographic research aimed at developing a dissertation, a review or a paper, you need to follow a specific method, paying the required attention.

Defining a clear field on which the research will be focused, analyzing this field, specifically identifying the topic and stating a search query are the steps you need to follow if you want to obtain a significant and relevant result.

These steps do not have to be seen as preliminary to the bibliographic research, because it is just with a continuous use of documentary sources that you will be able to analyze the field, define the specific topics, select them and turn them into search queries. Documents used during the different steps can vary in terms of structure and treatment depth.

The bibliographic research has to be done several times, trying to identify the most suitable documents for each step.

To do good documentary research you should follow carefully these steps:

Field definition (macro-topic)

When starting thinking about writing a review, a dissertation, an essay, or a paper, students often choose a topic only because they “know something about it” or because they have some pretty strong opinions, without taking into account the possible difficulties and obstacles that they will face in dealing with it, especially in terms of finding the necessary information. 

A strong interest in the research field is useful and necessary to deal with difficult and demanding tasks, but defining your own project with too many details makes things harder and the work of finding and rescuing the necessary documents inefficient.

In order to do the documentary research efficiently, first the field has to be defined without excessive precision.  A further definition will be identified during the research through the analysis: retrieval and consultation of documents will allow better clarification of the focus of the research.

Preliminary processing to identify the focus

Once you have chosen the macro-topic, you need to have in mind its complexity.

  • How many parts can you distinguish?
  • Which kind of sources (and how many) are available in the library?
  • Which kind of sources (and how many) are available elsewhere?
  • Which ones can be considered interesting?
  • Which words are used in these sources to represent the different elements included


Reviewing collected terms and organizing them into groups

The terms highlighted while reading the preliminary documents must be grouped depending on the role they play in the field of investigation. As you write, it is a good idea to add any terms you think are useful for completing the "map" of the field.

Defining the research focus

Now you are ready to precisely define the research topic. You can get a clear idea of how it could be divided, how it links with other topics, what sources should be consulted, and which are and are not available.

Formulating the search query

This is a crucial step.

It is necessary to define a search query, i.e. to formulate your task in terms of one (better) or more questions that can be answered depending on both the length of the paper and the time available.

The need to explicitly formulate a research question is not always well understood and this step is seen as unnecessary: "Why can't I research a topic? Why do I need to try to answer a question?".

Actually relying on a topic instead of questions can bring to these problems:

  • If the topic is too abstract or general - i.e. not specific or concrete enough - it can lead to the typical complaint of "You can't find anything" or conversely to find so many documents that the research becomes impossible.
  • The bibliographic research on too narrow topics can provide a small number of disconnected books and articles - thus leading to research project lacking a focal point.

Note that a well-defined research question keeps the research focused, whereas thinking only in terms of topics or worse disciplines could lead to an incomplete and/or inconsistent bibliographic research.

Terminological analysis  

The general reconnaissance phase allows identifying the focus of the research; moreover, it has to be used also to determine the specific terminology, both in Italian and in other languages, on which the documentary research will be based.  

This task is useful to avoid doing bibliographic researches by using slang terms. To do this operation efficiently and effectively, you should use dictionaries, encyclopedias and textbooks.

Research strategy formulation 

The research strategy must be written defining:  

  • Where (even virtually) to do the research and which tools to use 
  • What to look for  

This phase is similar to the process of specifying the procedure or the methodology in other types of research.

Information collection 

After having defined a clear focus and search query – as well as a clear search strategy – you have to start collecting useful documents: most will be useful to develop your research.  

End of document retrieval 

In this phase, your job is to read carefully what you have collected. It is very important to verify the quality of the sources on which your research will be based. In order to do it, it is essential to have a continuous interaction with the instructor who is helping you with your dissertation. Especially when you have found plenty of documents, it is crucial to clearly have in mind what are the most important ones and which ones you have to prioritize (documents are any information found on any channel and in any form: books, newspaper articles, statistics, balance sheets, electronic documents, etc.). 

Carefully evaluate if you have found something that is in contrast with your research. You may need to look for further information in order to fill possible gaps. Rarely, you may have to revise your dissertation.

Start with your writing  

The efforts done during the documentary research phases allow you to have a preliminary formulation of many parts of the paper you are about to write. The focus now is expressing clearly and effectively your own ideas on the addressed topic.  

The suggested list partially refers to what Carol Kuhlthau proposed in: Carol Kuhlthau, Teaching the library research process (2nd ed.). Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1994.