Step by Step
For Political Scientists
The Research Process in a Nutshell
1. Start with a question or topic.
2. Think about where the answer—or a piece of
the puzzle—might have been articulated.
3. Choose tools that will help you find those
4. Use those tools to find information you can
0. Before you get started
• The licenses for most of our research tools
require that users are on UCSD IP addresses
– Are you on the wireless network at UCSD?
• Make sure you’re using the UCSD-PROTECTED network.
– Are you off-campus?
• Make sure you’re using the VPN
1. Choose your research question,
hypothesis, or topic and keywords
• Develop your research question, hypothesis, or
– What is the effect of trade policy on the
unemployment rate in industrialized nations?
• Break that statement into key concepts,
– trade, policy, unemployment, industrialized nations
• Think of other ways to phrase those concepts. Use
synonyms. Consider more specific words (to
narrow your focus) or more general terms (to
expand your search), e.g.
– Trade: free trade, import tax, duties, tariffs,
liberalism, neoliberalism, protectionism,
– policy or laws or legislation or regulations…
– Unemployment: jobless, employment
– Industrialized nations: Democratic societies,
Western countries, OECD
Try it yourself – 2 minutes
1. Take 1 minute to jot down your research
topic, so at least you have an idea on paper,
even if it’s vague. (No one else will see this).
2. Take another 1 minute to brainstorm: What
are some terms you would expect to see in a
publication about your problem?
2. Choose tools that might be useful
for this project.
• You want a variety of
– Background sources
– Exhibits or Evidence sources
– Argument sources
– Method or Theory sources
• Each tool helps you find a specific, limited kind and amount of information.
• Knowing which tools might help you find what you're looking for will save you
lots of time.
Books typically cover a single topic in depth.
Look in an online library catalog like
(UC San Diego’s library catalog)
• Tip: Many of the Library’s books are now
ebooks. Use to find the link.
• Tip: Not enough at UC San Diego, or the
book you want checked out?
– Try to request books from other
San Diego libraries
– Try to request books from other
University of California libraries
Scholarly articles cover more specific topics than books.
Because they are shorter, they are often published a little
more quickly, making them somewhat more current. The
Library has literally hundreds of databases for finding articles.
Primary sources are materials that
document the event when it
happened—or as close to when it
happened as possible.
• News: newspapers, magazines,
blogs, social media
• Government publications and
• First person accounts: diaries,
letters, oral histories, blogs,
Statistics & Datasets
Generally available in specialized databases or
directly from the researchers as
• Aggregate/statistics (numbers already
• Microdata (lowest level of collection)
Information Timeline Graphic by adstarkel. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Try it yourself – 5 minutes
1. Take 1 minute think about which types of
sources (books, scholarly articles, news,
reports, etc.) are most useful for this project.
2. Then spend 4 minutes reading descriptions of
tools (databases) and choose at least 3 that
look like they will lead you to useful sources.
The Librarian’s Favorites
• Scholarly articles
– Worldwide Political Science Abstracts
– all ProQuest databases & all EBSCOhost databases
– Google Custom Search engines (for IGOs, NGOs, think
tanks, government information from around the world)
– Individual titles on International Statistics & Background
– ProQuest Congressional
3. Choose your search strategies for
each research tool.
• In most databases, you can combine terms
with and (both terms must appear in the hit)and or (one
term must appear in the hit—for synonyms or evenly
– trade and unemployment; unemployment or joblessness
• In many databases, you can use a symbol such as * or !
to take the place of letters to get hits with multiple
endings of a word
• In many databases, you can combine words together into
phrases using quotation marks
– “free trade”
• Example search:
trade and (unemployment or employment) and poli*
Try it yourself – 1 minute
• Take 1 minute to develop a keyword search
strategy using some of the keywords you
brainstormed in part 1.
– As appropriate, use AND’s, OR’s, truncation,
4. Refine your search with limits.
• Most databases have some sort of limits
you can apply, for example:
– date ranges
– publication types (e.g., scholarly
articles, dissertations, book chapters, etc.)
– peer reviewed articles
• When you find good hits, look at the subject headings. These are controlled
vocabulary assigned to describe the topic in the database. Also skim the abstracts
for additional keywords. Try running new searches using those terms.
• Find more citations by looking at the bibliography/cited references of sources you
find. Sometimes these citations are included in the database. (Also read the
literature review in the article itself.)
• Find more citations by looking at sources that cite the sources you find. Look for a
times cited link in the database. (If your database doesn’t have this, Google
Scholar does.) This is an especially good way to find core articles (and theory!) on
How to tell if a source is peer reviewed
• Use a database and its “peer reviewed” limits/filters
• Google the source/publication title and check the description in “journal information” or “about this journal”
• Check a directory like Ulrich’s
5. Get the actual item.
• If the full text isn’t available in your search
results. Look for the button.
• Link to full text if available.
• No full text?
– Try for the print
• No UCSD access at all?
– You can usually request the item from another
library using the link.
– For books, try or
6. Get the citation information. You
need this for your bibliography.
You list the works you cite so that readers
interested in your research can find and read the
resources you used to draw your conclusions.
• Email records to yourself as a backup.
• Some databases can export the citation in a
specific format (e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA)
• Use Zotero, EndNote Web, or Mendeley to
manage, store, and format your citations
Most plagiarism that happens at UC
San Diego is accidental.
7. Evaluate the items you find.
• Does it answer the
• What are the
– And what sources do
• Is the source current
enough for the kind
of research you're
8. Try different tools & repeat
until you have
enough to write!
• Check the help screens or guides to
each database for specifics on
combining your terms and whether your
results are ranked by date or relevance.
• When you find good hits, look at the
subject headings/descriptors. Try
running new searches using those
1. Start with a question or topic.
2. Think about where the answer—or a
piece of the puzzle—might have been
3. Choose tools that will help you find
4. Use those tools to find information
you can use.