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Engineering Guide: Researching a Topic

Getting Started with Researching a Topic

Once you have an assignment question, where do you start? Where do you look for information?

That depends on what you're looking for. Different types of assignments require different approaches, and you will need to look in different locations for the best sources of information for your work.

The steps below are a brief introduction to research, including how to find quality data and information for your assignment or research topic. If you need assistance or more explanation, please visit the further assistance page.

Our Information Essentials site has a great deal of information to help you with the assignment process.

  1. Make sure you understand the question.
    • Read and understand the assessment instructions, rubric, and any additional information you've been given.
    • What kind of assessment is it? This will affect how you write and what evidence you use to back up your points.


  1. Learn the basics of your topic. What do key terms mean, and how should you approach the topic?
    • Read your lecture notes, reading list items, textbooks, and encyclopaedias.

Check out Finding General Information.

You can also check up on the topic on general information websites such as Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, and is not an appropriate reference to use for your university assignments. However, it can provide basic background information that will inform your research and help you to choose keywords.

The Reading List—along with your unit materials—is the first place you should look when beginning your research. Your class readings have been chosen by your unit coordinator, a subject-matter expert. Many of these resources can be used as stepping stones to further information, by:

  • giving you essential background information about some of the main questions facing researchers in your area,
  • helping you decide on search terms and synonyms, and
  • referring to or citing other essential works and researchers.

To access your Reading Lists, sign into Blackboard or Canvas and select a unit. The menu for each unit should have a Reading Lists optio - click on this to view the reading materials for the unit.

  1. Consider what sort of sources would best serve as evidence for your assessment.
    • Scholarly, government, or industry information?
    • Cutting-edge information, or older time-tested information?
    • Facts and standards, opinion, or research and analysis?
  • You might need to look for a variety of sources, especially if your topic is new or very specific.

Is there ever 'one perfect source' when looking for information for an assignment? This tutorial, created by North Carolina State University Libraries, shows you how to get better results by breaking down your topic. Video runs for just over 2 minutes; English captions available.

Need more help?

Try brainstorming with classmates in your tutorial or in your unit's online discussion boards. If the assessment is not a group assessment, writing it together can be academic misconduct (see "Unauthorised Collaboration"), but discussing the assignment requirements and your research process is usually OK. If you're not sure, ask your unit coordinator or tutor.

Alternatively, come to a drop-in session or book an appointment with a librarian to get some tips.

  1. To make sure you have the best sources for your topic, you should search systematically.
    • Don't simply paste your question into the search box, but use the tips below to construct a search strategy.
    • Different types of sources are best located using different methods. The pages on finding different types of resources have some specific tips for each type of search.
    • Your first search should not be your final search. Use what you learn to improve your search strategy.


As powerful as search engines are, there are ways to improve your use of them. 

You can improve your search using:

  • Boolean operators: AND / OR / NOT (see below).
  • Phrase searching: using "quotation marks" to search for words together.
  • Grouped searches: using (parentheses) to perform multiple searches together.
  • Wildcards and truncation: a placeholder character, to allow a search for multiple items, e.g. wom*n for woman/women.

Most search engines (including Google and Bing) allow you to use this sort of search syntax, similar to library databases. Different search engines offer different options, and may use different symbols for the same functions.

Boolean Search Operators: AND / OR / NOT

See the Information Essentials Library Guide for details.

If you are using Google Scholar to find peer-reviewed articles, enable Find It@ECU to get access to full-text articles in databases that require a login, as long as the the Library subscribes to the journal the article was published in.

Follow these simple instructions.

  • Click on the link to Google Scholar Preferences
  • Look for Library Links in the left-hand side bar
  • Type in Edith Cowan University
  • Click on Find Library > Save Preferences.
  1. Choose your sources wisely from your search results.
    • Select sources using the abstract. When you are searching for sources, you are not expected to read every source that comes up. Read the title, subject headings, and abstract (or summary) of the results to decide if you want to read further. 
    • Evaluate your sources. Once you've chosen a source, you need to ensure it is credible and appropriate for your assessment.
    • Start reading to bring together your evidence and your arguments, taking notes as you read.


Need more help?

Visit the Academic Skills Centre Blackboard site or attend an Academic Skills Workshop to improve your skills in reading and writing. You can develop these skills over time, and it will save you time and effort over the course of your degree.

Alternatively, come to a drop-in session or book an appointment with a librarian (evaluation) or learning adviser (academic writing) to get some personalised tips.

  1. Cite your sources. Referencing is the way you give credit to the source of your ideas, and is an important part of academic integrity.
    • Keep track of useful ideas as you research a topic, and note where each idea came from. This will make your work a lot easier when you go to write your assignment and insert your citations.
    • Even if you know for certain that something is true, you must find a source to back it up. This helps other people find your facts, even if they do not have or know your experience.
    • Cite your source directly after the fact, idea, or image, even if you have changed it or rewritten it in your own words.

At university, referencing is normal and expected. It does not mean that you were unable to come up with an idea on your own, or that you do not have your own expertise in your field. It is a signal that you are engaging with scholarship in your field and can back up your ideas with appropriate evidence.

For specific referencing help, please refer to ECU's Referencing Guide. This guide details the APA (7th edition) style of referencing and has links to information about other styles.

If you are a research student, depending on your subject and the preferences of your supervisor, you might be expected to use IEEE style referencing. Information about this style can be found here and a guide with examples is available under the IEEE Style Guide tab. If you are planning to publish, check the author submission guidelines for your chosen journal. You might be expected to use a different style entirely.


Manage your references

EndNote is a computer application which provides you with your own personal reference management database. You can use EndNote to keep track of the references you found during your research and store related PDFs. You can also create in-text citations and end-text reference lists in your chosen style using a Word add-in. Downloads are available for ECU students.

Note that EndNote can be tricky, so we suggest that students come along to a workshop if possible.