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School for Professional Studies

The Research Process

The Research Process

You'll see by the image below that research is NOT a linear process. You don't go from topic to database to paper. Rather, research can be cyclical -- starting with a topic, getting background information on a topic to develop a research question, then researching. You may go back and have to refine your topic, or you might move on to synthesizing information. After synthesizing you may further need to develop your topic, or you may move on to writing your paper. As you're in the process of documenting your sources, you may also need to go back and retrieve information before turning in your final product. There are many steps in between these main steps, as well, such as writing a first draft, getting feedback, revising your paper, researching some more, and so on. No one's research process looks the same! 

Based off of:

Arriving at your Thesis

Primary vs. Secondary

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of events or time periods in history by people who were there. Types of primary sources include

  • diaries
  • letters
  • memoirs
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • books
  • articles (published in newspapers, magazines, and journals)
  • government publications
  • pamphlets
  • manuscripts
  • photographs
  • audio/video recordings
  • objects of material culture, art, etc.

Frequently, primary sources are collected and published in book form at a later time in history. For example, you may find a collection of primary sources related to the Civil War that was published in 2004 (the collection, not the original sources). Don't dismiss a recently published book that contains diaries, letters, interviews, or other primary documents from the time period that you are researching.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source describes, interprets, evaluates, and/or analyzes primary sources.  A secondary source is at least one step removed from an event.  However, secondary sources may include pictures, quotations, graphs, or data from primary sources with the text.  Types of secondary sources include

  • textbooks
  • books
  • magazine articles
  • scholarly articles
  • histories
  • criticisms
  • commentaries

Examples of secondary sources include

  • journal or magazine articles that review, criticize, or describe previous events or findings (in the case of research).
  • textbook (any subject)
  • book (describing, evaluating, criticizing, or promoting an event, movement, or theory using previously published sources)

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Types of Publications

Common Characteristics include:

  • Black and white with minimal color (usually photographs)
  • Advertisements
  • Articles are short, and easy to understand
  • Written by journalists
  • Usually printed daily
  • Available for purchase at bookstores, grocery stores, or available for free at newsstands around SLU! 
  • Also available online via library databases


Common Characteristics Include:

  • Full Color, glossy pages
  • Advertisements
  • Articles are short, and easy to understand
  • Written by Journalists
  • Usually published weekly or monthly
  • Available for purchase at bookstores, grocery stores, etc. 
  • Available via library Journal Holdings
    • Tip: to search for a specific title, go to the Journals tab on our homepage, and type in the title, i.e.: Rolling Stone


Common characteristics include:

  • Written for people in a particular profession or industry
  • Full Color, glossy pages
  • Advertisements, usually geared toward a particular industry
  • Written by Experts or Professionals in the field
  • Usually published weekly or monthly
  • Available via library Journal Holdings
    • Tip: to search for a specific title, go to the Journals tab on our homepage, choose Advanced eJournal search, and type in the title, i.e.: St. Louis Business Journal

Common characteristics include:

  • Written by academics in specific disciplines (i.e.: history, biology, sociology) for students or other academics/experts in the discipline
  • Articles are usually long and written using academic jargon
  • Usually black and white, very little color
  • Usually do not feature any advertisements
  • Available for subscription via the library, or via personal subscription if you are an academic in the field
  • Articles are peer reviewed, or reviewed by experts in the field
  • Articles usually have references, a bibliography, footnotes, and/or a works cited page
  • Articles are available via library databases, or by searching a specific title using the Journals tab

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