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Research 101

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

1b. Find Background Information

Get an Overview

Background research in reference works, especially encyclopedias, will give you an overview of your topic so you can select the direction of your research and choose specific research questions.

Virtual Reference

Oxford English Dictionary Online
  • Oxford
  • Full-text resource

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language.

Use this widget to search seven collections of reference books.

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Choose Your Databases

Digital Reference Texts

Full-text resources in Gale eBooks include:

Figure 1
Using Background Information

Note. From Finding & Using Background Information, by Stetson University Library, , YouTube ( Copyright by Stetson University.

Reference works can:

  • Provides a good overview of the subject matter.

  • Help you identify facts related to your topic—terminology, dates, events, and names or organizations.

  • Alert you to key issues and controversies.

  • Give you a sense of how your topic relates to other topics.

  • Help you refine your topic.

  • Introduce you to the specialized vocabulary of your topic.

  • Direct you to other sources on your topic.

Specialized Resources

Some reference works are dedicated to a specific topic.


Dictionaries dedicated to a particular field of study can:

  • Define specialized or technical vocabulary.

  • Provide definitional essays associated with the vocabulary, similar to an encyclopedia article.


These encyclopedias feature articles:

  • On specific topics within a particular area.

  • Written by experts in the field.

  • That provide bibliographies of other sources.

  • That contain cross-references to related topics.

  • That introduce and explain specialized vocabulary.

About Wikipedia

Wikipedia can deliver general information and will sometimes cite high-quality sources.

However, because it is crowdsourced, Wikipedia is not itself reliable. Do not cite it in a paper. Consider the following:

Table 1
Comparing Scholarly Reference Works to Wikipedia
Reference WorksWikipedia
Usually requiring a subscription or library access.Free on the open web.
Written by experts in the fields they cover.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia.

Sometimes general but often covering one subject in depth.General or multidisciplinary with extreme variation in depth and accuracy.
Professionally vetted for accuracy, currency, and authority by an editorial board.Has editing policies and guidelines authors should follow.

An oft-cited article in the journal Nature (Giles, ) claims that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopædia Britannica.

But while this claim has been widely touted in popular media, there is more to the story: As Kolbe () explains, the Nature piece, which is not a peer-reviewed study, only compares articles on obscure scientific subjects. On Wikipedia, such technical articles are more likely to be written and edited only by specialists. By contrast, all articles in Encyclopædia Britannica are written by specialists.

Furthermore, Nature’s interpretation of its own study is debatable: As Orlowski () notes, the Nature study actually indicates that Wikipedia has 31% more errors than Britannica. Carr () examined the Nature study more closely and found that it ignored the most egregious errors in Wikipedia. The Encyclopædia Britannica itself () has even weighed in on this debate, calling the Nature article fatally flawed.

As a rule of thumb, the more contentious a subject is, especially if it is related to current events, the more likely a Wikipedia article is to be biased, erroneous, or deliberately omissive. Information from Wikipedia should be used cautiously if at all.

See these sources:

Reference Databases

These research databases contain full-text reference works.

Their content includes encyclopedias and specialized dictionaries but may also include journal articles and other sources.

General Reference

Legal & Business Information

English & Literature

Health & Psychology

Home & Craft

Schools & Public Libraries