Organizing Your Research Plan

Organizing Your Research Plan

To save time and effort, decide on a research plan before you begin.

Learning Objectives

Outline the steps of the research process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Your research plan will specify the kinds of sources you want to gather. These may include scholarly publications, journal articles, primary sources, textbooks, encyclopedias, and more. Most search engines will let you filter search results by type of source.
  • You can limit your sources by date and time period when planning your research. You can use search engines to find only articles written within a specific time frame to ensure your findings are relevant. You can apply filters such as “written in the past 10 years” to narrow your search results.

Key Terms

  • research: Pursuit of information, such as facts, principles, theories, applications, etc.

A research paper is an expanded essay that relies on existing discourse to analyze a perspective or construct an argument. Because a research paper includes an extensive information-gathering process in addition to the writing process, it is important to develop a research plan to ensure your final paper will accomplish its goals. As a researcher, you have countless resources at your disposal, and it can be difficult to sift through each source while looking for specific information. If you begin researching without a plan, you could find yourself wasting hours reading sources that will be of little or no help to your paper. To save time and effort, decide on a research plan before you begin.


Books, books, books…: Do not start research haphazardly—come up with a plan first.

Creating a Research Plan

A research plan should begin after you can clearly identify the focus of your argument. Narrow the scope of your argument by identifying the specific subtopic you will research. A broad search will yield thousands of sources, which makes it very difficult to form a focused, coherent argument. It is simply not possible to include every topic in your research. If you narrow your focus, however, you can find targeted resources that can be synthesized into a new argument.

After narrowing your focus, think about key search terms that will apply only to your subtopic. Develop specific questions that can be answered through your research process, but be careful not to choose a focus that is overly narrow. You should aim for a question that will limit search results to sources that relate to your topic, but will still result in a varied pool of sources to explore.

If you are studying the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, you might decide to look into any number of topics related to the battle: medical practices on the field, social differences between soldiers, or military maneuvers. If your topic is medical practices in battle, an search for “Battle of Gettysburg” would return far too many general results. You would also not want to search for a single instance of surgery, because you might not be able to find enough information on it. Find a happy medium between very broad and too specific.

Another part of your research plan should include the type of sources you want to gather. The possibilities include articles, scholarly journals, primary sources, textbooks, encyclopedias, and more. Most search engines will let you limit search results by type of source. If you know that you are only looking for articles, you can exclude things like interviews or abstracts from your search. If you are looking for specific kinds of data, like images or graphs, you might want to find a database dedicated to that sort of source.

You can also limit the time period from which you will draw resources. Do you only want articles written in the past ten or twenty years? Do you want them from a specific span of time? Again, most search engines will allow you to limit results to anything written within the years you specify, and the choice to limit the time period will depend on your topic. Determining these factors will help you form a specific research plan to guide your process.

Example of a Research Process

A good research process should go through these steps:

  1. Decide on the topic.
  2. Narrow the topic in order to narrow search parameters.
  3. Create a question that your research will address.
  4. Generate sub-questions from your main question.
  5. Determine what kind of sources are best for your argument.
  6. Create a bibliography as you gather and reference sources.

For example, in step one, you might decide that your topic will be 19th-century literature. Then in step two you may narrow it down to 19th-century British science fiction, and then narrow it down even further to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Then, in step three, you would come up with a research question. A good research question for this example might be, “How does the novel’s vision of generative life relate to the scientific theories of life that were developed in the 19th century?” Posing a historical question opens up research to more reference possibilities.

Next, in step four, you generate sub-questions from your main question. For instance, “During the 19th century, what were some of the competing theories about how life is created?,” and “Did any of Mary Shelley’s other works relate to the creation of life?” After you know what sub-questions you want to pursue, you’ll be able to move to step five—determine what kind of sources are best for your argument. Our example would lead us to possibly look at newspapers or magazines printed in the late 18th or early 19th century. In addition, books or essays on the topic, both contemporary and older, could be sources. It is likely that someone has researched your topic before, and even possibly a question similar to yours. Books written since your time period on your specific topic could be a great source for further references. When you find a book that is written about your topic, check the bibliography for references that you can try to find yourself.

As you accumulate sources, make sure you create a bibliography, or a list of sources that you’ve used in your research and writing process. And finally, have fun doing the research!