Conducting a functional bibliographic research for writing a dissertation, report, or paper requires methodical, careful, and systematic steps. 

These steps are the following: clearly define the research scope, analyse this scope, accurately identify the topic, and finally formulate a research question. 

These stages should not be perceived as preliminary to bibliographic research, because it is only by continuous use of documentary sources that you will be able to analyse and define specific topics, choose them, and turn them into research questions. The documents that will be used in the various stages can be very different in structure and insight. 

The literature search has to be carried out in several rounds, trying at each stage to identify the most suitable documents. 

Defining the scope (macro-topic) 

Often when students begin to think about writing a report, thesis, article, or paper they choose a topic just because they "know something about it" or because they have fairly firm opinions, without taking into account the possible difficulties and obstacles they will encounter in dealing with it, especially in terms of finding the necessary information. 

A strong interest in the area of research is useful and necessary for tackling difficult work, but defining your project too precisely only on the basis of this interest often makes the work of researching and finding the necessary documents inefficient. 

To approach document search efficiently, the scope, at first, must be defined without too much precision. Greater definition will be achieved during the work through analysis: in fact, retrieval and consultation of documents will allow to better specify the focus of the research. 

Pre-processing to identify the focal point 

Once the macro-topic has been chosen, it is necessary to get an idea of its complexity. 

  • Which parts can it be divided into? 
  • What kind and how many sources are available in the library? 
  • What kind and how many sources are available elsewhere? 
  • Which ones are of interest? 
  • What terms are used in these sources to represent the various elements involved? 

Review of collected terms and their organization into groupings 

Terms highlighted during the reading of preliminary documents should be gathered according to the roles they play within the scope of inquiry. As they are progressively written down, it is a good idea to add any terms that are deemed useful in completing the overview on topic itself. 

Define the focus of the research
Now it’s time to define precisely the research topic. You can get a clear idea of how it might be broken down, how it ties in with other topics, what sources should be consulted, and which are or are not available locally. 

Formulation of the research question 

This stage is crucial. 

Conceiving a research question consists in summing up your work in terms of ideally one, or more, questions that can be answered accordingly to both the size of the paper (number of pages) and the time available. 

The need to explicitly formulate a research question is not always well understood and this step is seen as superfluous: "Why can't I research a topic? Why do I have to try to answer a question?" 

Actually relying on a topic instead of questions can rise some issue: 

  • if the topic is too abstract or general (i.e. not specific or concrete enough) it can lead to the typical complaint, "I can't find anything," or conversely, to finding so many documents that the search is impeded. 
  • the literature search on too narrow topic can provide a small number of disconnected books and articles - thus leading to a research project lacking a focal point. 

It should also be emphasized that a well-defined research question keeps the search centered, whereas reasoning only in terms of topics, or worse disciplines, may lead to conduct an incomplete and/or inconsistent bibliographic search. 

Terminology analysis 

The general examination phase, in addition to enabling the identification of the focus of the research, must be employed to determine what proper terminology will be used as the basis for the documentary research. 

This work is needed to avoid performing bibliographic research using slang terms. To do this effectively and efficiently, it is a good idea to make use of dictionaries, encyclopedias and manuals. 

Formulation of the search strategy 

The search strategy should be formulated in writing by defining: 

  • where (even virtually) to conduct the search and through which tools; 
  • what to search for. 

This step is similar to the process of detailing a procedure or a methodology in other types of research. 

Information gathering 

After defining a scope and a clear research question - as well as a defined research strategy - we will move on collecting documents: some of those retrieved will be actively used during the writing process.

End of document retrieval 

In this phase the task is carefully reading what has been collected. It is very important to check the quality of the sources on which the research is based. In order to do this, continuous discussion with the professor supervising the  work is indispensable. Especially in the case where the documents retrieved are many, it is essential to be clear about which are the most important and which should be given priority (by documents we mean information in any medium and in any form: books, periodical articles, statistics, financial statements, documents in electronic format...). 

Also thoroughly consider whether you have found anything that conflicts with your research thesis. You may need to retrieve additional information to cover any gaps. In rare cases you may need to revise your research thesis. 

Beginning drafting 

The effort put in the research stages enables a preliminary formulation of many parts of the work about to be written. Now attention should be focused on clearly and effectively expressing your ideas on the topic at hand. 


The proposed list refers in part to that proposed by Carol Kuhlthau, Teaching the library research process (2nd ed.). Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1994. 


Page edited by Piero Cavaleri and Laura Ballestra