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ENG 211: Professional Communication - Shackelford: Avoiding Common Research Mistakes

DOs and DON'Ts


  • Pin yourself down to a topic before you've tested the research waters to see if enough information is out there.
  • Use irrelevant databases - think shopping mall.
  • Use only the first word or phrase that comes to mind for each concept - brainstorm synonyms.
  • Ignore encyclopedias because you can't cite them
  • Type your question in the search box the same way you would ask another human or Google - use database search techniques
  • Stop after one search, assuming that's all that is out there on your topic - skim the results and determine how you need to revise your search. It's REsearch.
  • Try to save time by skipping the abstracts - reading then just takes a few seconds and saves tons of time you might have spent looking at sources that are far from relevant.\
  • Find the minimum number of sources required for the assignment and stop. The goal is to do enough research that you're able to use the BEST sources, not just the first ones you find.
  • Assume that all sources that look legitimate are true. Misinformation is EVERYWHERE now.
  • Ignore library databases because it's easier to just search Google - relevance and ranking methods are entirely different.
  • Forget that the library faculty are here to help you at any stage of your research process. Via chat, email, in-person, phone, Zoom - however it's most convenient for you.



  1. TEST YOUR TOPIC for research viability


  3. Brainstorm major KEYWORDS/CONCEPTS associated with your topic. Write them down.

  4. Find any important SYNONYMS for these terms – use encyclopedias, thesauri, test searches

  5. Use discipline-specific ENCYCLOPEDIAS to help you understand terms and concepts better

  6. CONSTRUCT AN ADVANCED SEARCH with your terms, synonyms, Boolean operators, truncation, field searching, etc.

  7. Look through the titles and subject headings of the first screen or two of results for indications of ways you need to REVISE YOUR SEARCH – unwanted results (NOT operator), results too narrow (OR operator with synonyms, truncation), results too broad (field searching, add another concept, narrow by date, language, peer review). Revise search as needed.

  8. Skim titles and subject headings of results again. For any article that looks like it might be relevant READ THE ABSTRACT before you do anything else with the article. If it’s a newspaper article, read the lead paragraph. If it’s a book, use the table of contents and index to home in on the most relevant sections.

  9. Plan to find more sources than you end up citing. Use only the BEST, MOST RELEVANT SOURCES you find.

  10. Understand what each source is (newspaper article, scholarly journal article, book chapter, something else) and EVALUATE them for authority and bias.

  11. Use the LIST OF REFERENCES in your good sources to find other sources that they have cited. Follow CITATION TRAILS FORWARD (Web of Science, Google Scholar) as well to find what has cited these sources more recently.

  12. USE WEBSITES JUDICIOUSLY. Understand who the author of the information is and assess why should trust them, or not.

  13. USE GOOGLE JUDICIOUSLY. Remember that it isn’t a public service, and that its search and ranking algorithms strengthen the current hegemony.