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Use this guide to learn about the research process and plan your research project.

Research Planning Guide

Step 3: Gain Working Knowledge About the Topic

Now that you've chosen a broad topic, it's time to gain some "working knowledge" about it. What is working knowledge? Badke defines it this way:

"You have a working knowledge of a topic when you can talk about it for one minute without repeating yourself" (Badke 28).

Why is this important? You need some basic background knowledge of your topic in order to develop a research question or thesis statement.  By familiarizing yourself with the topic, you will have a better chance of conducting efficient research, using relevant sources and appropriate search terms.

How can you get a working knowledge?  The best sources are reference books:

  • General encyclopedias
  • Special-topic encyclopedias
  • Special-topic dictionaries
  • "Companion" volumes to people, groups, events, schools of thought, etc.

The DBU Library has a lot of these, both online and on the shelves.  Our collection of Oxford Online Reference Titles (see link below) is a great place to start. 

The reference books in the library cannot be checked out, but you can use them in the library and make copies of the pages you need.  The Reference Librarians will be happy to help you find the best resources for your topic.

If you will be writing about current events or social issues, you can find useful background information in Gale's Opposing Viewpoints in Context.  Every topic page starts with an overview that provides broad and balanced background information.  (see link below)

A general web search can also be helpful.  Although you may not find the kinds of scholarly resources that you will need later, you can probably find a good deal of general information that will help you get a basic overview of the subject. While Wikipedia may not be an appropriate source for your research, it can supply useful background information that will help get your started. (see box below)

Get direct access to Oxford Reference Online!  Type your search terms here:

Search Oxford Reference Online  

What about Wikipedia?

Many professors will not let you cite Wikipedia as a source because Wikipedia is "written largely by amateurs" and can be edited by anyone. But does that mean you shouldn't use it at all?

Actually, Wikipedia can be a good place to start investigating your topic, IF YOU'RE CAREFUL.  You can find out if the topic is going to be interesting enough to keep your attention while you are learning about it.  The better articles will include useful bibliographies of other resources.  But you should stay away from articles that say "Citation needed" or that have bibliographies that are nothing more than lists of other websites. 

In 2005, the journal Nature published a study showing that there were only slight differences in the number of inaccuracies found in Wikipedia versus those found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Unfortunately, this article is not available online for free, but here is the citation if you'd like to read it for yourself (DBU owns a copy if you're interested). 

Giles, Jim. "Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head To Head." Nature 438.7070 (2005): 900-901.

The Britannica people responded with this rebuttal, but Nature stuck to its guns with this reply

So, what's the bottom line?  You can probably safely use Wikipedia for preliminary research, but use it with caution.  You should not use it in a bibliography, since research papers typically don't rely on encyclopedias for information, anyway.  However, Wikipedia can be useful for developing your working knowledge of a topic, and an article's bibliography could lead you to important resources.