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Research 101

The steps of the research process & how to apply them.

The Information Cycle

How Information Grows

When a newsworthy event takes place, information about it typically develops over time according to a standard pattern. Understanding this pattern will help you select your sources when you conduct your research.

What the Cycle Is

Figure 1
Understanding the Information Cycle

Note. From Understanding the Information Cycle, by University of Illinois Undergraduate Library, , YouTube ( Copyright by the University of Illinois.

The Lifetime of Information

When an event happens, information about it develops in a predictable pattern.

There are exceptions, of course, but information usually appears in approximately this order:

  1. Internet and Social Media

    Social media is currently the most immediate form of mass communication, but it is also often inaccurate. It will contain immediate impressions and reactions.

  2. Broadcast Media

    The next most immediate form of mass media is the news broadcasts on television and the internet, which will include developing information about the event laced with opinion and initial analysis. Information may change or be corrected as updates occur.

  3. Newspapers

    Similar to broadcast media in content, newspapers, whether in print or online, take longer to appear. Newspaper articles and editorials may involve further analysis and some statistics but are unlikely to cite sources. Articles may editorialize heavily even when not marked as opinion.

  4. Magazines

    Magazines, whether in print or online, usually appear monthly or bimonthly. They may contain “think pieces” that analyze an event or subject more thoroughly, though almost always with a heavy editorial slant.

  5. Journals

    Journals are peer-reviewed publications, which mean they are vetted by experts in the same field as the author. This process, though by no means infallible, is intended to ensure some level of quality in academic research. Peer-reviewed articles should analyze a subject more thoroughly than popular articles and are required to cite their sources. In-depth research and the peer-review process cause these publications to appear much more slowly.

  6. Books

    Writing and editing a book can take considerably longer than it takes to write and edit the other sources mentioned here. Of course, there are exceptions: Popular books intended to capitalize on current events may appear quite quickly, but scholarly books take considerably longer. Book contents may or may not be peer reviewed.

  7. Reference Works

    Although the world of reference works such as encyclopedias has changed considerably in recent years as most publications have moved from a print to an online format, reference works are generally released only a few times per decade (at most) and therefore update slowly. However, they contain authoritative information written by experts. Quality reference works cite their sources.

When you research, you move the other way.

If you begin with reference works, you can get an overview of your subject and also use the reference works’ bibliographies to find other sources. Once you have an overview and have begun to narrow your topic, look at academic books and peer-reviewed articles. You may or may not need to look at magazines or other popular sources, depending on your subject.