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APUS ePress: Research Primer

Welcome to the APUS ePress site - the home of the fully electronic university press for the American Public University System.


Those beginning university studies, especially anyone re-entering school after a long delay, face daunting tasks. Higher Education is demanding and may not be suited for everyone. It is a different world. In addition to classroom study, you must learn how to research, write, and cite in keeping with well-established and rigorous principles. Such techniques will also be peculiarly adapted or nuanced for each program of study or discipline. And, the challenges are magnified in the Web Age for matriculants in online universities. You will need to adapt to both:

  1. Traditional Academic Practice featuring the Scientific Method with print-based approaches that have been honed over the centuries.  
  2. Web Information Literacy methods that are rapidly evolving and redefining established academic skills. 

Learn the Jargon: This demanding voyage starts with language lessons in your new culture. You can begin with a handful of concepts. Although in English, the phrases may seem a bit alien, but they are part-and-parcel of becoming a sophisticated college student. The following, for example, encompasses some general theoretical grounding in Academia along with practical applications for modern Web-based studies:

  • Scientific Method—the primary approach and scholarly standard behind collegiate-level studies.
  • Peer-Reviewed/Scholarly Literature—the locus for secondary research and distinguishing elements for scholarly communications.
  • Disciplinary Frame—to speak to the particular methods, specialized literature, jargon, and style manuals for your field(s).
  • Repository Skills—to engage the methods and materials for research in libraries and archives.
  • Online Searching—to utilize tools and resources on both the Open and Deep Web.
  • Note Taking/Citations—to record methods, results, sources, and avoid plagiarism.

Scientific Method

University education is not concerned with fostering personal opinions or newspaper-type accounts. Rather than individual conjecture, the goal is formal studies that contribute to the world's body of knowledge within the context of a field of study. These rest on the Scientific Method. This set of approaches is rooted in the creation of explanatory "hypotheses" about a phenomenon.

1. Hypothesis: What are you trying to prove? Hypothesis formation is at once the simplest and most complicated element in your arsenal.  The focus is on establishing an argument—NOT RECAPITULATING SIMPLE FACTS.  Hypotheses are developed either by:

  - Deductive Reasoning: Top down, linear approach builds from established "facts."  One 
    develops a Theory about a phenomenon, posits a measurable Hypothesis, and employs field-
    specific methods to then test. The logic is that of proving a geometry problem or Aristotle's 
    classic analysis:
               a. All humans are mortal (major premise)
               b. Socrates was a human (minor premise)
               c. Socrates was mortal (conclusion)

  -  Inductive Reasoning:  Alternatively, employ ground up logic to generalize from a limited set of 
    observations. This starts from a raw and typically limited set of observations. The pattern leads to 
    an explanatory hypothesis. It is then tested and the results lead to a Theory.

Hint: College students should duck inductive logic and employ deductive reasoning.  Indeed, the best advise is to cite the hypothesis of an established scholar.(See also: Deductive/Inductive Discussion).

Scientific Method Made Easy: YouTube Video

2. Research Framework: Before it can rise to the level of a "theory," the hypothesis must be subject to testing  to prove (or more properly disprove) and the results reproduceable by others. Such research implies measurement, but also that not every question is suitable for scientific investigation. For example, it is extremely unlikely that one could either prove or disprove the existence of an after life; however valid the idea, it is not suitable for testing in terms of the Scientific Method. In general, collegiate research studies should involve a two-pronged strategy:

  • Secondary Research: Your normal starting point is to gain grounding as it applies to your hypothesis. You will be graded in large part on your ability to relate your studies to that body of knowledge. Professors are interested in how you deal with the established experts. College students are not expected to "reinvent the wheel"  or make new discoveries—but to share and build within the body of peer-reviewed information.  Such materials are most easily uncovered on the Deep or Invisible Web (or through the Open Access Movement). They take two main forms:  
       - Books from scholars—especially those from major Academic presses
       - Scholarly articles from refereed professional journals.
  • Primary Research: In addition to that literary framework, testing and the hunt for the "facts" in your field reflect the essence of professional research. Primary Research ranges from physically visiting archives, doing interviews, and running surveys to conducting laboratory experiments. Although occasionally difficult, online students can increasingly meet such requirements through Web resources. The Information Highway enables explorations in digitized versions of archival documents, historical accounts, literary publications, and current reports—especially Government Documents. The medium is even fostering virtual laboratories and engagement in remote experiments, as well as the employ of data sets from the experiments of others.

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Peer-Reviewed/Refereed/Scholarly Journals

Whenever you receive a research assignment in college, instructors normally assume that you will avoid citing “popular” websites, magazines and newspapers. While useful for context and anecdotes, such resources often lack the rigor needed for university studies. Similarly, you are advised to avoid citing Wikipedia. It can be an excellent launching pad; but, as an encyclopedia, is considered common knowledge and not to be formally cited. 

Instead, your professors expect you to reference and be party to an established professional literature. This typically includes monographic book-length studies, but especially focuses on articles from peer-reviewed or refereed scholarly journals.

What does “scholarly,” "refereed," or “peer-reviewed” really mean?  Essentially, it implies academic “quality control"—articles by scholars that meet the publications standards as vetted by other scholars in the field. The submission has been inspected by a publication panel or individual reviewers, who are experts on the topic (that is, the author’s professional peers; hence, “peer-reviewed”).  Reviewers or "referees" look for proper use of research methods, significance of the article’s contribution to the existing literature, and appropriate scholarly style.  As signified by their publication in a peer-reviewed journal, accepted materials have earned the expert stamp of approval. 

Peer Review in Five Minutes: YouTube Video

Richard G. Trefry Library Research: But, with so many articles out there, how do you know if an article has been peer-reviewed?  The Richard G. Trefry Library’s one-stop search, Summon, give you the option of limiting your searches to articles from scholarly journals (see how).  A simple click filters out popular sources that you can’t use from the appropriate literature. 

Of course, if you’ve already found an article that you’d like to use in a research paper but you’re not sure if it’s popular or scholarly, there are ways to tell.  The table below lists some of the most obvious clues (but your librarians will be happy to help you figure it out as well.  Contact us!).



Authors’ names are given, and occasionally some biographical information, but rarely credentials (degrees, professional status, expertise).  You may be left wondering if the author is really an expert on the topic he or she is writing about.

Authors’ names, credentials and even addresses are almost always included (so that interested researchers can correspond).  Authors will be experts in their fields.

Articles are written for a broad audience (written in an informal tone…people of all ages and/or levels of knowledge could read these).

Articles are written for experts (or college students!) in the field (lots of technical language and/or discipline specific jargon, statistical analyses, written in a formal tone).

Articles may have short summaries of research or news…or may even reflect the authors’ opinion (without support from data or literature).

Articles typically report, in great detail, the authors’ own research findings (and include support from other research)…these articles will be more than just 1 or 2 pages.

Authors don’t typically (or never) cite their sources, and don’t include a list of references at the end of the article.

Authors always cite their sources throughout the article, normally in conformance with a Style Manual, and include list of references at the end.

Articles typically include many photographs or illustrations (often pretty to look at).

Articles seldom include photographs, but may include tables or graphs of data (may seem bland at a glance).

The journal has an editor, but no strict guidelines for submission of articles, or peer review process.

The journal has very specific guidelines for articles to be published (often this information can be found on the journal’s website), and a rigorous peer-review process (each article will list when it was submitted to the reviewers, and when it was accepted for publication…often several months apart!).

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Disciplinary Frame

The scientific method is further tailored to methods for individual fields of study.  The college student's job is to learn the specific types of question, tools, and "grammar" for their discipline. This essay cannot probe in any depth, but the Richard G. Trefry Library's Research Methods Information Guide, various course and program guides and style manuals will help. Your real initiation awaits advanced methods classes, higher-level courses, and research projects. 

Research Methods Expect to encounter a mix of approaches that may include:

  • Documentary Research: Using published and unpublished materials—especially those found through formal repositories or other "trusted" resources. These approaches may involve both primary and secondary research.
  • Field Studies: Including interviewing, oral histories, sampling, surveys, and testing among the people and in the natural environment.
  • Laboratory Experiments: Featuring formal testing in a controlled environment.
  • Invisible College: Involving the crucial, yet often informal contacts with fellow scholars. This area is expanding with the drive for a Social Web and ease in creating new virtual communities.

Online Student Context:  Again, as students at an online university, the research mandate takes a virtual slant. Opportunities for field studies and laboratory investigations may be somewhat limited. You are encouraged to build an Invisible College. Look to expand informal social networks through discussions with fellow classmates and professors, as well as external discussion boards or "listservs."  Your main research venue, however, likely lies with the traditional library research along with related options from the World Wide Web and search engines.

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Repository Skills

All college students should pay special attention to academic libraries and archives. Such repositories are the traditional locus for documentary research. They come with their own rules and practices. You should learn how to use: 

  • Reference Materials include encyclopedias, indexes, abstracts, and bibliographic studies. These are convenient jumping off spots to simplify your subsequent research, but are not cited in your papers.
  • Catalogs (OPACs) as the traditional tool for locating books and other materials within a repository, but also assist with bibliographic citations. 
  • Stacks for the physical storage of materials that are normally organized by the Dewey or Library of Congress classification systems.  Resources are also often arrayed by genre or type of document—e.g., academic journals, archives, books, government documents, popular press (magazines and newspapers)
  • Librarians and archivists are dedicated information specialists. They can assist with access, training in research skills, and the research question itself
  • Informal discussion and study venues that can contribute to building one's Invisible College (and social life).

Online Repositories: The joys of wandering the stacks, physical encounters, and coffee-breaks diminish with the Web. Yet, libraries and archives continue play a special role in their virtual guise. Their Websites feature portals or accumulations of "trusted" materials for primary and secondary research, but also professional librarians and tutorials to ease your research burdens.


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Online Researching

As suggested above, the Web is dramatically altering repository research. Print genre mutate, and new interactive formats appear. Distinctions between published and unpublished or archival materials vanish—anything on the Web is in effect published. Even the prior need to physically travel to the library or archives is disappearing. Instead, the magic of search engines and Internet connections is giving scholars unprecedented and instantaneous access to vast amounts of digitized content around the world. The modern scholar thus become involved with a new array of automated searching tools on both sides of the Web:

  • Open (Visible) Web Searching: The normal and free area that is covered by Google and inhabitant by major repository collections and government documents—as well as an immense range of less-trustworthy resources.
  • Deep (Hidden or Invisible) Web Searching: The larger and controlled access environment that includes the secondary research materials for scholarly context.


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Note Taking/Citations

Finally, you must systematically record your research findings—including formal citations on their origins. The latter is vital to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.  See: Style Manuals page.

Although the introduction of photocopying in the 1960s helped immensely, researchers were long forced to take notes by hand and copy quotation.  The notecard was king and remains a useful device. Cards can be color coded, notched, readily shuffled and rearranged to account for changing needs. You, however, will likely make use of the computer. Software adds flexibility for bookmarking, cut-and-pasting findings, searching, and sorting.

  • Web-Based Reference Management Tools: Try Mendeley or Zotero to manage your sources and easily export citations directly from APUS Library databases. See this FAQ for more information: Are there any good citation management tools that I can use?
  • Specialized Software: Notebook software is rapidly developing for downloading to your computer or Thin-Client Web applications—for example, Microsoft's OneNote, the Mac StickyBrain, or freeware—like Evernote.  These and related software—such as Mindmanger's idea-mapping software and Inspiration's outlining tools for schools—assist both recording materials and organizing your thoughts. They may include automatic citations, bookshelf storage, hyperlinking, and supplemental search.
  • Word Processing Work-Arounds: Familiar word processors offer powerful options for research writers. Your own Web pages with HTML code and hyperlinks can be authored with the flip of a switch (See: Research Writing & the Web). Directories/Folders and file naming enable crucial organizational patterns. The Outline function allows one to directly flesh out a study. In addition, you can use the Tables function for a limitless note-taking resource—one that can be automatically sorted, searched, and the parts related to an outline or topical classification.

PLAGIARISM WARNING: The Web and automation have made it so easy to copy that sources can become lost or mixed with one's thoughts. Such results are still plagiarism!  Remember that you are being evaluated as scholars. Don't forget to show how you did your work and display scholarly citations for quotations and paraphrases.   When in doubt, cite!

For plagarism prevention tips, click here.

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