Chapter 26: Strategies For Conducting Research

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Distinguish between primary research and secondary research and explain why it is important to include both in a persuasive document.
  • Explain different methods and locations for conducting research online

Key Terms and Concepts

  • primary research
  • secondary research

You have arrived at the final part of the planning phase of your report: conducting the research. You’ve already done a lot to get here. So far, you have:

  1. generated a focused topic and research question that you will address in your report
  2. used the rhetorical theory found in Bitzer’s rhetorical situation and Aristotle’s modes of appeal to starting planning your message,
  3. learned how distinguish between popular and scholarly sources and how to evaluate both

Now it’s time to start doing the actual research!

In this chapter we will explain the two types of research—primary research and secondary researchthat you should be doing for your report, and give you tips for conducting research online.

What is Research?

Research begins with questions. You’ve already started this process by going through Bitzer and Aristotle. Odds are, as you did so, more questions came up that you were not sure how to answer, and that’s okay! Doing the actual research will help you answer those questions. However, as you start acquiring sources, it’s important that you are mindful of the two types of research that can be conducted for a report.

Primary v. Secondary Research

There are two basic kinds of research: primary research and secondary research.

Primary research is often first-person accounts and can be useful when you are researching a local issue that may not have been addressed previously and/or have little published research available. You may also use primary research to supplement, confirm, or challenge national or regional trends with local information.

Primary research can include:

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Observations and analysis
  • Ethnography (the study and description of people, cultures, and customs)

Secondary research is what many students are most familiar with. This type of research generally requires searching libraries and other research institutions’ holdings.  Secondary research requires that you read other peoples’ published studies and research in order to learn more about your topic, determine what others have written and said, and then develop a conclusion about your ideas on the topic in light of what others have done and said.

Some examples of sources that might be used in secondary research include:

  • Academic, scientific, and technical journal articles
  • Governmental reports
  • Raw data and statistics
  • Trade and professional organization data

It is rare to see a persuasive argument that doesn’t include both primary and secondary research. Let’s look at an example. Say you are interested in using STEM knowledge to improve the quality of life for the homeless population in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The most successful project would use both secondary and primary research. The next two sections will demonstrate what this might look like.

Secondary Research in Action

First, the secondary research will help establish best or common practices, trends, statistics, and current research about homelessness broadly in Canada and Saskatchewan, and then more narrowly into Saskatoon.

Your brainstorming would likely lead to questions regarding the following:

  • The major issues facing homelessness and combating homelessness in the Canada.
  • The homeless population and demographics for Saskatoon and Saskatchewan.
  • Services currently available for the homeless in Saskatoon
  • Services available in other cities and the province.

The above information would likely be available through secondary research sources. Useful information would likely be available through city and state government agencies such as Health Canada or the Employment and Social Development Canada; local and national homeless advocacy groups such as the Canadian Alliance to End HomelessnessSaskatchewan Human Rights Commission, Carmichael OutreachThe Lighthouse Supported Living, and the Homeless Hub. You would also need to search relevant research databases—which are discussed below in the Where Do I Look? section—in subject areas such as engineering, sociology and social work, and government documents.

Primary Research in Action

Primary research, such as interviews or surveys, can provide a more in-depth and local bent to the numbers and details provided in secondary sources. Some examples of groups to interview or survey include local homeless advocates; shelter and outreach employees and volunteers; people currently or previously experiencing homelessness; and researchers or university-affiliated groups that conduct, compile, and apply research on homelessness.

Will all this research generate a lot of content for your report? Most definitely.

Do you need to include it all? Absolutely not.

What matters is that your strive to include both types of research in your reports. This is because the strongest research—and most persuasive arguments—blend primary and secondary research.

Where Do I Look?

Now that you can distinguish between secondary research from primary research, where do you find them?

In the 21st century, we generally turn to the internet when we have a question. For technical, scientific, and academic research, we can still turn to the internet, but where we visit changes. We will discuss a few different places where you can perform research including Google, Google Scholar, and your university library website.

Google and Google Scholar

The default research site for most students tends to be Google. Google can be a great starting place for a variety of research. You can use Google to find news articles and other popular sources such as magazine articles and blog posts. You can use Google to discover keywords, alternative terms, and relevant professional, for-profit, and non-profits business and organizations.

The most important thing to remember about using Google though is that search results are organized by popularity, not by accuracy. Further, because Google customizes search results based on a user’s search history, searches performed by different people or on different browsers may provide slightly different results.

For many technical, scientific, and scholarly topics, Google will not provide access to the appropriate and necessary types of sources and information. Google Scholar, however, searches only academic and scientific journals, books, patents, and governmental and legal documents.  This means the results will be more technical and scholarly and therefore more appropriate for much of the research you will be expected to perform as a student.

However, while Google Scholar will show academic and technical results, that does not mean that you will have access to the full-text documents. Many of the sources that appear on Google Scholar are from databases, publishers, or libraries, which means that they are often behind paywalls or password-protected. Do not pay for these documents! There is a good chance you will be able to access them through the University library. [for help on linking your university’s library to the Google Scholar database, click here.]

University Libraries

The University of Saskatchewan Library has access to databases, peer-reviewed journals, and books that are generally the best choice for accurate and more technical information. A Google search might yield millions and millions of results and a Google Scholar search may yield tens or hundreds of thousands of results, but a library search will generally turn up only a couple thousands, hundreds, or even dozens of results.

You may think, “Isn’t fewer results a bad thing? Doesn’t that mean limiting the possibilities for the project?” The quick answer is yes, fewer results means fewer options for your project, but no, this does not mean using the library limits the possibilities for a project.

Overall, library resources are more tightly controlled and vetted. Anyone can create a blog or website and post information, regardless of the accuracy or usefulness of the information. Library resources, in contrast, have generally gone through rigorous processes and revisions before publication. For example, academic and scientific journals have a review system in place—whether a peer-review process or an editorial board. Both feature panels of people with expertise in the areas under consideration. Publishers for books also feature editorial boards who determine the usefulness and accuracy of information.

Of course, this does not mean that every peer-reviewed journal article or book is 100% accurate and useful all of the time. Biases still exist, and many commonly accepted facts change over time with more research and analysis. Overall, the process for these types of publications require that multiple people read and comment on the work, providing some checks and balances that are not present for general internet sources.

Common Types of Library Sources

  • Databases: databases are specialized search service that provide access to sources such as academic and scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines. An example of a database would be Academic Search Complete.
  • Journals: journals are specialized publications focused on an often narrow topic or field. For example,  Computers & Composition is a peer-reviewed journal focused on the intersection of computers, technology, and composition (i.e. writing) classrooms. Another example is the Journal of Bioengineering & Biomedical Science.
  • Books: also called monographs, books generally cover topics in more depth than can be done in a journal article. Sometimes books will contain contributions from multiple authors, with each chapter authored separately.
  • Various media: depending on the library, you may have access to a range of media, including documentaries, videos, audio recordings, and more. Some libraries offer streaming media that you can watch directly on the library website without having to download any files.

How Do I Perform a Search?

Research is not a linear process. It requires a back and forth between sources, your ideas and analysis, and the rhetorical situation for your research.

The research process is a bit like an eye exam. The doctor makes a best guess for the most appropriate lens strength, and then adjusts the lenses from there. Sometimes the first option is the best and most appropriate; sometimes it takes a few tries with several different options before finding the best one for you and your situation.

Once you decide on a focused topic and research question, you will need to determine keywords that you can use to search different resources.

It is important to have a wide range of keywords because not all terms will result in the same information. Developing a list of keywords can be aided by a quick Google search. A Google search may reveal more official language or terms; broader or narrower terms and concepts; or related terms and concepts. You can also search for the term + synonym to find other words you might use.  Keep in mind, a synonym search will not work for all terms. For technical and scientific topics, though, Google may not be a lot of help for finding other terms.

You can use a couple different tricks to narrow your search. Using quotation marks around two or more words means the search results will contain those words only in that specific order. For example, based on the exercise above, a search for “homelessness in Saskatoon” would only provide results where these words appear in this exact order, with no words between them. A search for homelessness in Saskatoon without the quotation marks will search for those words,  but also any sources that have the words homelessness and Saskatoon anywhere in the text.

If you still are not sure where to start, or if you hit a wall, the librarians at the University of Saskatchewan are here to help! You can go to any of the libraries on campus to ask for help, or you can use the Ask Us feature on their website to talk to them directly from your computer.

Determining a topic and finding relevant resources are only the beginning steps in the research process. Once you locate sources, you actually have to read them and determine how useful and relevant they are for your particular research context If you would like some tips on how to do that, please check out this page on Understanding and  Documenting information in Appendix D.

The End of the Planning Phase

Congratulations! You have made it through the planning phase of your the report writing process! You have already done a lot! By now you should have a focused topic and research question, used rhetorical theory to assess your audience and determine how design your message, and you have found some sources to use. Now it’s time to take all of that information and put it into a report! We will be covering different strategies for that in the following couple of chapters.

Key Takeaways

  • The most persuasive research often includes both primary research and secondary research.
  • Primary research typically includes first person accounts in the form interviews, surveys, and questionnaires.
  • Secondary research can be found in sources such as as technical journals, government reports, and raw data.
  • When searching for research, Google and Google scholar are a good place to start, but the best place to look is at the University of Saskatchewan Library website. If you ever get stuck finding sources for your report, reach out to the librarians on campus, or use the Ask Us feature and the library website.


This chapter is adapted from A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications (on by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.



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Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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