Pre-Searching before Researching: The Key to Research Paper Success

As the semester gets going you might be starting to get those (possibly) dreaded research paper assignments. Sometimes the hardest part of that paper is getting started. Maybe you chose a topic or one was assigned to you, but how do you write a WHOLE paper on a topic you know very little about? Where do you even start? Have no fear, there are many tools and resources for you to use to start your “Pre-Search.”

Pre-searching is the “getting to know your topic” before you even start thinking about using library databases to find articles. Why do you need to do this? You have to know what’s out there before you know what you want. Let’s say you want to write a paper related to obesity. We all know obesity is a problem in this country, but for who? Why? What are the issues involved with obesity? Are there ways to prevent obesity? What is the treatment for this disease? Those are all questions that you might not even know to ask until you start to read more about the topic. If you go straight to the library article databases and start searching “obesity” you will get a million different results- which is not always a good thing.

Pre-searching (background reading) can help you:

  • get the big picture on your topic so you can better understand what are the issues and questions associated with it
  • see what the options are in terms of focusing your topic or paper
  • figure out what keywords to use when searching

So, how do I pre-search? I’m going to tell you a secret, Wikipedia, is an excellent starting point for many topics. “WHAT?! My teacher says I can’t use Wikipedia, I HAVE to use scholarly articles,” you say. Wikipedia is not a resource for doing research on your topic, it’s a place to do background reading. We all (should) know that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone and therefore may not be 100% accurate, but it can be a great place to get the gist of a topic area. It can help you get some background to be able to do better searching and in turn write a better paper. Check out this YouTube video from the Cooperative Library Instruction Project for more information on how to use Wikipedia for background reading:

Wikipedia isn’t the only place online to go for background reading, you can also use Google to find credible websites with background information. For many topics you can find credible background information through government, professional association, and non-profit organization websites. To limit your search to either .gov (government) or .org (organization) websites, simply go to Google and type in your topic followed by site:gov or site:org like this:


After I run this search, my results are all from government websites such as the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health.

Library Encyclopedias
A third place to do your pre-searching is through the library’s many specialized encyclopedias and other reference books. There are encyclopedias, dictionaries and handbooks on many different topics on the main floor of the library. Stop by the Research Help desk and we can direct you to reference books on your topic. Don’t feel like coming into the library? We’ve got you covered with e-reference books. One large collection of e-reference books is through a database called Sage Knowledge, a searchable collection of over 60 encyclopedias and reference works. You can access it here: A second large collection is through the Gale Virtual Reference Library, which provides access to encyclopedias covering topics from education to art to public health. It can be accessed here: You can find a list of all of the reference book databases here:

Still got questions? You can always stop by the Research Help Desk, but this week we’ve got all of your academic needs covered through the Academic Resource Fair. Stop by the fair for help from a librarian as well as the Writing Center, Academic Achievement Center, Academic Advising, Disability Support Services, and even OTS training! We’ll have prizes and snacks too! Stop by for a minute or stay the whole time!

Academic Resource Fair
Monday, September 22nd 3pm-5pm
Tomorrow: Tuesday, September 23rd 10:30am-12:30pm
Cook Library, 3rd (main) Floor

 Carissa Tomlinson
First Year Experience Librarian
Cook Library


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