How To Research In College

By Reese Lopez

Published on July 15, 2021

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College students in nearly every field write research papers, including business, sciences, and humanities students. To write a strong research paper, learners conduct research, evaluate information, and synthesize their findings. Gathering and evaluating research sources is the first step to writing a compelling paper.

This guide to college research papers explores common research strategies, tips for evaluating scholarly sources, and online resources for college students. The following sections also highlight popular online research databases, such as Google Scholar, ERIC, and PubMed Central.

Understanding and Finding Sources

While writing college research papers, learners use many types of sources. Students must be able to identify different types of sources and use them effectively together. Most research authorities define three major types of research sources: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Online research databases typically feature all three types of sources.

Primary sources recount information as close as possible to the original source. Examples include statistics and data from original research, speeches and interviews, and court decisions. Primary sources also include original texts such as novels, journals, and letters.

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. Secondary sources include scholarly journal articles, reports, and documentaries. Most research papers cite both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources often form the basis of a paper, while secondary sources add depth through critical analysis.

Tertiary sources identify and catalog primary and secondary sources. Bibliographies, literature reviews, and indexes are tertiary sources.

10 Search Engines for College Research

Google Scholar

This search engine for scholarly literature indexes most major academic research sources. The comprehensive database includes academic journals, conference papers, academic books, dissertations, and technical reports. Users can also find patents and legal opinions.

Google Scholar offers a comprehensive selection of research sources. However, the database may not include shorter pieces from academic journals, such as editorials, book reviews, and news sections.

Google Books

Google Books stores and catalogs scans of print books, including many academic publications. As of 2019, the service includes more than 40 million books written in more than 400 languages. Google Books offers access to a wealth of research information, but some sources may include scanning or metadata errors. The database makes no guarantee of scholarly authenticity, and some books may include incorrect information.

Microsoft Academic

Similar to Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic offers a searchable database of academic publications and other research resources. Users can search and browse publications from more than 49,000 academic journals and 27,000 research institutions. The service uses semantic search technology, which can provide more accurate results based on keywords.

The Microsoft Academic database features a huge array of research publications. However, the service is set to suspend access on December 31, 2021.


Bielefeld University Library maintains this resource, which provides access to more than 270 million academic documents. More than 9,000 content providers contribute research. Base carefully evaluates and indexes sources, ensuring that all content meets the highest academic standards. Users can search for terms in more than 20 languages. All search results display in-depth bibliographic information. About 60% of Base's content is available for free.


This targeted academic search engine serves teachers, students, administrators, and researchers. The database features hundreds of thousands of reputable research sources. Users can access publications from colleges, government agencies, and noncommercial research organizations. Large portions of the site's documents are editor-reviewed.

The service offers useful search specifications for teachers and education majors. Users can filter results by school subject and grade level. They can also find educational activities and lesson plans.

Users can search more than 60 federal scientific databases and more than 2,200 websites. This online database compiles research and development data from all types of federal science agencies. Participating U.S. agencies include the USDA, NASA, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine. offers valuable resources for science students and researchers, but the service isn't practical for conducting research in other fields.


Refseek offers access to more than five billion research documents. Resources include books, academic journals, newspapers, encyclopedias, and web pages. Refseek's databases cover subjects including writing, visual arts, mathematics, and coding. Refseek offers a practical approach to research. That said, the service delivers less comprehensive results than other academic databases.

Educational Resources Information Center

This searchable education research database serves academics and students. Users can access publications from hundreds of academic journals. Additional sources include policy organizations and federal departments.

Unlike many college research databases, ERIC does not require institutional affiliation. The general public can access information for free. However, ERIC primarily contains education publications, making it less useful for students in other fields.

PubMed Central

PubMed Central hosts research publications in biomedical and life sciences. The U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine operates this database, which contains more than seven million articles. Users can browse and search the database of journals, digitized content, and author manuscripts. All content is free to access.

PubMed Central is an excellent resource for science research papers. However, students in other fields may find the site less useful.

Semantic Scholar

Semantic Scholar uses artificial intelligence to help students identify relevant college research paper sources. The site uses machine learning to draw connections between papers and identify relevant publications. Operated by the Allen Institute for AI, Semantic Scholar maintains partnerships with more than 50 scholarly societies and academic publishers. The database contains more than 190 million papers, covering all major scientific fields. The site also hosts articles from other fields, such as the humanities.


Research Tips for College Students

Browsing databases can overwhelm even organized students. Smart research involves refining searches and narrowing down findings. This section highlights tips to help learners perform research efficiently.

Skimming can help you quickly identify key information in research sources. Use skimming to gain a general overview of a source before closely studying specific sections. Unpaywall legally removes paywalls from academic research sources, making it easier to find information online. Simply install the browser extension and browse open research sources, without logins or access fees. Conducting research involves evaluating sources. Typically, the most reliable information comes from websites with the extensions .gov, .mil, .edu, or .org. Try different search terms to locate varied or specific information sources. Try using quotation marks and various keywords in searches. Most types of academic papers require authors to cite all sources and include a bibliography. Students should catalog all sources while writing a research paper.

How to Evaluate a Resource for Academic Research

While writing a research paper, students should use information that is authentic, reputable, and up to date. This section highlights key questions to ask yourself when evaluating research sources.

What is the purpose of the source?
Sources that present original research or inform audiences often provide the best information. Sources that seek to persuade or entertain may contain more bias.
Who is the intended audience?
Consider whether the information is intended for the general public or for specialists such as researchers and academics. Publications targeting more specialized audiences generally make better research sources.
Who is the author, and what are their credentials?
Reputable research sources should be authored by experts in the field. If you're uncertain about a source, investigate the authors to determine their professional background and qualifications.
Who is the publisher, and when was it published?
Academic journals and books should include information about the institution or organization responsible for publication. Also check the publication year, since older sources may contain less relevant information.
Does the source include biased or objective information?
Determine whether the author expresses a specific agenda or perspective. Assertions should be backed up by data and statistics.

College Research Resources

To produce a strong college research paper, students should use relevant and reputable sources. The following websites offer academic resources for college students. These resources help users identify the best sources for research papers.

RADAR Technique

RADAR stands for relevance, authority, date, appearance, and reason. This research technique can help students quickly evaluate research sources and determine their usefulness.

OWL at Purdue

Pudue's Online Writing Lab offers comprehensive resources for academic writing and research. The site features information on common types of papers, academic formatting, and citation practices.


This free research assistant tool compiles, organizes, and cites research sources. Users can arrange information and quickly search and view research sources.

Determine If a Source Is Scholarly

The University of Illinois Library offers this guide to determining a research source's scholarly authenticity. The guide includes evaluation criteria and a flowchart.

Finding Sources

SUNY Empire State College's writing center offers this comprehensive guide to identifying and locating research sources. The guide outlines major research sources and techniques.

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