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Environmental Science and Studies Research Guide

This guide serves all of Iowa State's environmental programs as well as the many courses that share themes of sustainability, resource management, and environmental awareness.

Research is an active process

Often the hardest part of the research process is getting started. Below are some quick tips to help you out.

An image visulizing the research process as a cycle that starts with 1) what you know, 2) what do you want to learn, 3) where you find resources, 4) refine your search, 5) evaluate, and 6) cite your sources.

image from: Overview of the Research Process (Hancock College)

Choose a topic, develop your inquiry

  • Consider what you already know, what parts you find interesting and what areas you want to explore further.

Search the literature

Find out what other people have discovered and how they did it.

  • Make a list of search terms that describe your topic
  • Use databases and search tools that fit your topic.
  • Ask a Librarian if you need help.

Refine your Search

Narrow down your choices.

  • Add and subtract terms from your searches as you learn  which words best "match" the literature and your topic.
  • Start with the general and work your way toward the specific (example: cooking -> baking -> pastries).

Primary vs. Secondary sources for the sciences


Definition: An eye-witness account - i.e. results are reported for the first time by the authors/researchers.

Types: research articles, conference papers, lab notebooks, proceedings, technical reports, theses and studies.


Definition: A second-hand report - i.e. results are summarized, interpreted, or commented upon by others who were not witnesses or participants.

Types: review articles, encyclopedias, magazine articles and text-books.

Warning signs that you are reading a secondary source:

  • Results are summarized with little detail.
  • Researchers, labs or groups are referred to by name.
  • Results are displayed in eye-catching graphics or info-graphics.
  • Results are discussed in synthesis with other experiments.
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Lorrie Pellack
Head, Research & Instruction Services Dept.
150c Parks Library
Ames, IA 50011-2140
Phone: 515-294-5569