Background research is an important part of research, and while it should not be the only research done for an academic paper, it should also not be omitted from your research process. Let’s explore background research in more detail!
What Is Background Research?
If you’re asked to write on a topic that you’re not already knowledgeable about, you’ll need some background knowledge, or introductory knowledge. Background research is known as the research that gives you some introductory knowledge about a topic.
Why is Gathering Background Research Important?
While you likely will not include all the background knowledge in your research paper, it’s important for you to familiarize yourself with a topic before you begin doing more specific and extensive research.
Background research will help you:
- Narrow your topic and focus your research question
- Find historical information, trends, agreements and disagreements related to the topic, and uncover gaps in your knowledge
- Learn the context of a topic – the who, what, when, where, why, and how
- Uncover keywords you can use to do more extensive research
- Find additional sources on your topic
If your neighbor asked you to help find their lost dog, how would you begin your search? Would you immediately leave your house and go looking to find the first dog you come across to bring back to your neighbor? Probably not. You’d probably want to gather some background info. What’s the dog’s name? What does the dog look like? Where was the dog last seen? Does the dog have a favorite toy or treat that could help your search? Has the dog been lost before, and if so, where was the dog found?
Your search will be much more efficient and successful if you spend a little time building foundational knowledge about your topic.
How Do I Begin Doing Background Research?
Since research is a quest to learn new information, it can be hard to find a starting place. We don’t know what we don’t know but doing background research can give us some important clues to go on. Begin by looking at the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your topic.
For example, if your topic is:
Should cursive writing be taught in schools?
You might want to find the following information:
- When did cursive become a part of school curriculum?
- How do schools decide to teach cursive or not?
- What curriculum do schools have for teaching cursive?
- Who is currently advocating for cursive to be taught in schools?
Asking these background questions is one way to drive your research, focus your topic, and develop your thesis statement.
This process of asking questions is really the mechanism that powers the research process: you ask a question about your topic, you find an answer to your question, and in that process, you slowly begin building your own knowledge and ideas, which you can then write about – and support with evidence from your research.
Then you ask more questions, then you find more answers, and in doing so, you have more ideas to write about!
Practice how you might begin doing background research by thinking about the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions you might ask about the following topics:
- Artificial intelligence in health care
- Mindfulness in the workplace
- Banning plastic straws
- Developing an organizational culture
- Raising the minimum wage
Need more info? Use this University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) guide on Narrowing a Topic & Developing a Research Question.
Is My Background Research Credible?
There are many places online you could go to for background research on a topic, but always make sure to evaluate your sources for credibility. While an online search is a good starting point for your research, most academic research will require you to dig deeper into scholarly and peer-reviewed sources.
Can I Use Wikipedia for Background Research?
You can absolutely review a Wikipedia page as a starting point, but it should never be your single source of information. You should not use it for the information you include in your academic paper.
- Wikipedia is not a reliable source for academic research, but it can be a good place for finding general background information.
- A “wiki” is a source that is open for anyone to add content to. Since anyone can contribute to a Wikipedia page, it could have information that has not been properly verified. Therefore, Wikipedia is not seen as a source with high credibility.
- Use the citations and references from a Wikipedia page to try to find more reliable sources on your topic.
Can I Use a Google Search for Background Research?
Google is a great place to start for general information. It may not always be the full truth and nothing but the truth, but it can help to get you the possible who, what, when, where, why, and how of your topic. But the background information from an internet search should not be used in your paper unless you’ve happened upon a highly credible and reliable academic source, which is rare. Using these Advanced Internet Search Techniques can help you find more credible research on Google.
Do I Have to Use the UAGC Library for My Background Research?
Doing a general internet search is perfectly fine when doing background research to familiarize yourself with a topic. However, for the most credible background research, you should turn to the university library. The UAGC Library databases are the best places to go for credible sources because they come from publishers we know have some level of editorial oversight. Also, you are guaranteed to have access to the full text of a source in the library, and that isn’t always the case with Google, where you often run up against a paywall.
You can get to the following great databases suitable for doing background research under the Find Articles & More menu on the UAGC Library homepage:
- Credo Reference: contains hundreds of reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, biographies, and more) covering every major subject.
- CQ Researcher: provides in-depth coverage of the most important issues of the day. Reports are written by experienced journalists, footnoted and professionally fact-checked. Full-length articles include an overview, historical background, chronology, pro/con arguments on controversial topics, plus resources for additional research.
- EBSCO Research Starters: provide a broad overview of a larger topic to help you begin your research. Search for a broad topic such as artificial intelligence in Library OneSearch to see if there is a research starter available, such as shown here:
Once you have done some background research and gained foundational knowledge on your topic, it’s time to begin your academic research for scholarly sources that you’ll use and cite in your assignments. The UAGC Library is the best place for academic research.
The Background Research Tip Sheet has more information on searching in the UAGC Library.
How to Turn Background Research into Keywords
Keywords are critical in finding the best research for your topic or research question. You can find keywords from your background research. These may be important subtopics you found within your main topic, or maybe a short phrase that looks at the who, what, when, where, why, or how questions.
For example, suppose your background research on Should cursive writing be taught in schools? pointed you toward the common core standards of curriculum for K–12 education. You might try an advanced search in the library database with the keyword phrase common core standards in one box and the keyword phrase cursive writing in another box. The advanced search feature breaks your search into separate concepts — try one keyword phrase per box and review the Library OneSearch Tip Sheet for more details.
Understand that keywords are not sentences or questions. You can learn how to best identify and come up with keywords that the library databases will understand by reviewing the three-minute Keywords are Critical video.
Now You’re Ready!
Now that you know about the importance of background research, explore ways you can determine the best sources for your academic paper and how to choose key information from those sources to use for your paper with the Choosing the Best Sources and Evidence guide.
Is Help Available?
Research is an important part of your academic journey and getting the degree you want. Luckily, the UAGC Library has supportive librarians available 24/7/365 as well as videos and tip sheets you can access and review at any time to help you complete your research effectively and efficiently!