Blackwell Library


Holloway Hall

Chemistry 403/413 - Seminar - Module 2

Research Steps


What is 'Research' Anyway?

You can make it complicated or you can make it simple, but pretty much 'Research' boils down to searching for information that you intend to use for a specific purpose.....and (usually) learning something new while doing so. 

You research what shoes you might want to wear when you ask your two roommates about their new sneakers (or when you watch old episodes of Sex and the City to check out what Manolo Blahniks look best on Carrie Bradshaw's feet), you research whose class section you should sign up for when you check, and you research what scientists are doing in terms of dye-sensitized solar cells when you search the  American Chemical Society Journal's database under the keywords ["solar cells" and "dye sensitized"]. 

In this module you will briefly learning about the Information Cycle - how information is created, collected, and retrieved.  You will also learn about formal academic Scholarship, and how to best plan out your research when conducting such types of formal scholarship, including composing your research question, outlining your research strategy, and beginning then revising your research strategy based on your preliminary results.    Lastly we will touch on the concept of Boolean Operators - a mathematical term that is used incessantly in the library world to best tailor your searches to maximize your research results while simultaneously minimizing your research time.   


The Information Cycle

Like so much else in this world, information is cyclical.  New information is always being produced, formatted, interpreted, collected, and analyzed.  Understanding this cycle of information will better aid you in understanding the entire research process. 


There are a few basics when it comes to searching for information:

  1. Understanding just exactly what it is that you need and are really looking for;
  2. Knowing the correct spot to look for this information:  YouTube for old snippets of the Muppet Show; an academic database such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for finding scholarly journal articles; and
  3. Understanding where and from whom your information is coming from.  In the case of peer-reviewed journal articles there shouldn't be any obvious author bias, but in the case of some newspapers or other less professionally-neutral sources, there is sometimes a bias present that needs to be taken into consideration.

Many college students in the Humanities rely heavily on secondary sources for their research, however as a Chemistry student you will be using mostly primary sources.  Researching something for an academic project means that you need to truly understand how information is created as well as the basic steps of both scholarship and research in order to present your best possible final project. 



Main Entry:  schol*ar*ship
Pronunciation: /-ship/
Function: noun
Date: circa 1536

1: the character, qualities, activity, or attainments of a scholar: learning
2: a fund of knowledge and learning <drawing on the scholarship of the ancients>
(Taken from Meriam-Webster online:

As a chemistry scholar you rely on the work of other chemists and biochemists (and other scientists in general) to provide background information, relevant arguments, and information on their own research that will either help to support or disprove your thesis.  Academic honesty is a crucial component of all scholarship, and it has long been a standard practice of academia (and science) to give credit to others when using their work.  Failing to do so - even by accident - is considered plagiarism.  We'll go into full detail about SU's academic integrity policy and how to avoid even accidental plagiarism in Module 5

Clearly understanding the steps required for your research and being organized will help you to avoid the pitfalls of accidental plagiarism.  Fully documenting your sources will also make a tremendous difference when it comes to avoiding plagiarism - in Module 5 we'll also discuss the various citation management tools (like Zotero and EndNote Web) that SU supports, that will help you to easily document and organize your sources. 


Planning Out Your Research

Research, like everything else, is a series of steps.  Start at step one and work your way through systematically through to the end, and you're guaranteed better results than if you start in the middle and just kind of randomly work around from there. 

  1. Select your topic (it seems to be common sense that this is the first step, but trust me - you'd be amazed how many people just kind of jump in the middle, or come to the Research Help Desk, show us their assignment, and ask the librarians what they should write about!)

  2. Compose a research question / thesis statement

  3. Outline a basic research strategy

  4. Begin research / revise your basic strategy based on search results

  5. Organize your ideas & sources based on search results*

  6. Begin writing your paper while documenting sources used*

*  While some of these concepts will be mentioned in further modules, the actual organization of ideas and the proper way to go about writing your paper is best covered by the professionals at the University Writing Center, and not by the librarians at Blackwell Library. 


      Select Your Topic & Compose A Research Question

So, let's begin at the beginning with steps number 1 and 2: Select Your Topic & Compose A Research Question. 

Most folks start the same way - they begin with a broad concept that they're interested in - say, Organometallics - and then they get more specific from there.  Here are some examples of how you can move from a broad concept to a more narrow topic to finally an actual research question/thesis statement about which you can write a paper. 

  Example 1 Example 2 Example 3
Broad Topic Inorganic Chemistry Biochemistry Organic Chemistry
Narrow Topic Organometallics Biomolecules Organic synthesis
Narrower Topic Metalorganic compounds and their structural features. Enzyme-catalyzed reactions in proteins. Total synthesis.
Actual Research Question What metal-oranic complexes could be used for the enentioseltive epoxidation of alkenes? What is the mechanism for the oxygen activation in heme proteins? What methods are known for the total synthesis of disparlure? 


You never want to get too specific on your topic, but likewise you never want to be too general.  While a general topic will certainly get you a large number of search results, you’ll be overwhelmed by all of them and won’t know where to start or how to pick just one article from the thousands crowded in front of you.  If you get too specific in your topic, you'll be left with just two or three articles to chose from and will be boxed into a corner with no real room to work or move. 

Common problems with research questions are: that the question you are asking is too broad (What are all the applications and uses of benzene?); too narrow (What is the one way that a protein can be catalyzed at 32.976 degrees F under the conditions of a sunny day by a tall, brown-haired chemist named Bob?); or that the question can’t be strictly answered by research (Is it morally ethical for a chemist to work for a large oil company helping to refine extracting processes, given the damage that oil has caused in third-world countries?), and as such you need to chose accordingly and carefully.

Once you have your research question properly selected and suitably refined, it is time to start researching the background information that needs to follow.   As you search for journal articles on your topic, the information that you find should help you to further refine your original research question.  Background information will help you to get a better grasp of your topic, will let you know what are the key/controversial issues in your research topic, and will introduce you (potentially for the first time) to the specialized language that is unique to your discipline.  In order to gather this background information, you'll need to first come up with a basic search strategy for how you are going to find, then sort through, all of this information without being overwhelmed or led down the wrong path.


      Outline A Research Strategy

One of the best things that you can do to help you get started is to write your research topic as a question.  After you've turned your topic into a question, re-write that question as a statement.  This will make it nicely clear to you what the main concepts of your research topic really are, and therefore what your keywords should be. 


  • Write down your topic:     Protein hydrolysates compared to whole proteins and amino acids in relation to skeletal muscle protein anabolism. 

  • Write down your research question:  Are protein hydrolysates superior to whole proteins and free amino acids when examining the anabolism of skeletal muscle protein?

  • Write down your research question as a statement:  Protein hydrolysates  are superior to whole proteins and free amino acids in terms of skeletal muscle protein anabolism.

  • List your statement keywords:  "protein hydrolysates" / "whole proteins" / "free amino acids" / "skeletal muscle proteins" / anabolism

Once you have your keywords set, begin plugging them in to some of the databases that we have access to at Blackwell Library (a list of recommended chemical-information databases can be found in Module 3), using a variety of the search strategies listed below. 

      Begin Research / Revise Your Strategy Based On Results

When you begin your research, it's important to understand the various methods/concepts you can use to search with. 

Keyword searching is the most basic form of searching that pretty much everyone does whenever they look for something online.  A keyword search typically scans through the full-text of each journal article, so the search results from keyword searches are both extremely thorough and all-encompassing.  A standard keyword search would be to search on protein + hydrolysates

Phrase searching is a more refined way to get narrower search results, one that lets you focus on a more complicated topic in exactly the way that you want.  Phrase searching is exactly what it sounds like - instead of searching for protein + hydrolysates you do a search on the phrase "protein hydrolysates" with the phrase bracketed by quotation marks. 

A key technique to use when doing any kind of searching - keyword or phrase - is to use Boolean Operators to make sure that you get exactly what you want and that you leave out what you don't.  Boolean Operators is a fancy (mathematical) way of saying "use the words and, or, not when doing a search." 

An example of a simple phrase and keyword search with three keywords connected by Boolean Operators would be as follows:

"protein hydrolysates" AND "whole proteins" AND anabolism


A great way to understand  Boolean Operators is to "see" how they work.  Click on the following link to see a short YouTube video of Boolean searching in action. 

Boolean Operators Video

Remember in your research that just like in life, balance is key.  Too much (too broad a topic) or too little (too narrow a topic) is never a good thing, and striking a balance is crucial to end up with something that you can work with. 





Chemistry 403/413 Professor:

1. Plagiarism isn't really plagiarism if you meant to cite the source but just forgot to do so. 




2. The following research topic:  How cholesterol effects the heart is:

Too broad

Too narrow

Just right


3.  What is background information useful for?




4.  From the following drop-down list, chose a research topic and complete the following steps:


Write out the chosen research topic above as a question:


Write the question as a statement:


List at least two or three keywords/phrases (put the phrases in "quotes") from your statement above.


Using your keywords/phrases above, construct a coherent search string
making sure to use Boolean Operators to narrow your topic appropriately.