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Module 2: Finding Sources: Starting the search

Looking for sources

Consider the aspects of your research project.

Are you looking for background information?

Track down foundational texts on your topic. (e.g. researching second-wave feminism, start with a subject-specific glossary or encyclopedia to gather key names and texts). The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms has a two-page entry on feminism that will direct you to Simone de Beauvoir, and Gloria Steinem.

Look at historical texts – archival sources: What did topic x look like in y time period? E.g. What do 1950s magazines say about child psychology?

See contextual sources – sources that place your topic in its political, professional, historical, cultural, and/or biographical contexts. (e.g. How were college athletes treated differently in the 1970s? How has federal legislation impacted college athletes?)

Look for sources that will interpret or analyze your argument. Consider primary sources: Literary or artistic texts; Case studies; Biographical or archival sources; research findings.

Look for sources that already speak to your topic. That argue one way or another? See journal articles and books by scholars in the field.

For sources that provide definitions of terminology and concepts? Or give you methods to interpret your primary sources? See texts that define your topic, including its conventions or rules, key elements, opportunities and challenges, and historical and cultural associations.

Keywords for database searching

Brainstorm a list of 10-20 keywords based on your needs.

  • Effective searches use 2-4 keywords.
  • Use a thesaurus to find synonyms.
  • Try different parts of speech (e.g. “food,” “eat,” “dining”).
  • Brainstorm the words an author might use.


See an example.

  • Research question: What motivates adult learners taking online courses?
  • Keywords: motivates, adult learners, online courses
  • Words such as "what" and "taking" do not relate to the core concepts of the research question and are not effective keywords.
  • Brainstorm alternative keywords that an author might have used. This includes different word forms:
  • motivates
  • adult learners
  • online courses
  • motivation
  • adult student
  • distance education
  • motivating
  • non-tradition student  
  • web-based course‚Äč[1] 

[1] Example from Walden University, “Keyword Searching: Finding Articles on Your Topic: Keyword Search Strategy,”