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"After preliminary research, I zero in on an idea, and then I spend at least four months exploring the topic and in plot-building. I jot down every single detail of the plot as bullet points per chapter, and only when the skeleton is complete do I start writing."

- Ashwin Sanghi (Author)

Finding Background Info

Curiosity did not kill the cat; you have a topic. Learn as much about that topic as possible. You don't want to get mired in jargon language, but every field of study has it. Your goal is to not only learn the definition of the jargon word, but be able to explain and expand upon the ideas in general terms. This shows understanding.

Why are you doing this? This is a critical and often overlooked step, partly because some professors have a stigma of using references and partly because students focus on books and articles to obtain their information.

Subject encyclopedias (references) and books are great sources of background information. Let’s take a look at each:

Subject Encyclopedias or References:

In the first case, reference materials are easy to defend: colleges and universities spend significant money for you to gain access to this knowledge. Granted, it is common knowledge and therefore not typically cited in your academic paper. Students skip it because it looks like extra work on the surface. Using these sources helps you to establish a foundation of knowledge critical to your topic and the field of study. What you want to do is play an old game: The Encyclopedia Game. Read a reference and when you come to a name, key concept, or word you don’t know - look it up. Do not just define the topic and concept; look for how it relates to other key figures, concepts, time (when), and space (where). You are looking to build relationships and increase your foundation of knowledge. Why? When starting secondary scholarly research, students often feel overwhelmed by the thesis, evidence, and knowledge that scholars write. It’s difficult to find traction sometimes, we all become intimidated. Rather than entering into a conversation with scholars, students often will easily side with the arguments they are reading because they have no foundation in the topic matter. Referencing empowers you to enter in a conversation with a scholar.

Mind-mapping the relationships between key figures, concepts, and significant events within a field can be a productive way for students to see how the pieces of information relate to one other. Gaining a foundation of knowledge within a topic may cause you to revisit and develop your topic; that’s perfectly acceptable. When we have more information at our disposal, we often times develop a new perspective.


Not all books are equal; you want to make sure that the book you reference has been written by a qualified author. Some scholars use books to further a thesis-driven argument, meaning that they will use evidence, case studies, statistics, and examples in the field to further their argument. How do you know if this is the case? You will find the author’s perspective or argument in either the preface or the introduction, and the author may use discourse to signal the argumentation presented in the book: “In this book, it will be argued…” You can obtain common knowledge, but this isn’t the primary focus of the author’s work.

Some books, however, are focused as an introduction to the field; these works are better for referencing. A scholar either writes these works for the “layperson” or as an intro to a newcomer. The author will not be able to include the depth of information you will find in a subject reference, rather these works are more often written in a way to present the topic's ideas in simple terms.

You will find that after reading references and books on general topics that you will be more prepared to read scholarly materials, and do what is called a literary review. Books and articles take significant time to read and you want to narrow your topic and settle on a question before fully exploring the literature. Using subject encyclopedias and references will expand your common knowledge; they are shorter. At this stage of the game, why read a 300-page book when you can improve your knowledge of a field through several 1500-word entries? Reading takes time and focus, so make sure you give yourself a quiet space to mindmap and take notes.

Reasons Why Background Info is Crucial:

  1. This step will help you refine your topic.
  2. You will answer your basic question, gaining more knowledge, allowing you to ask deeper questions.
  3. You will test your own assumptions about a topic. Expanding knowledge means verifying your own knowledge and closing gaps between what you don’t know and what is known.
  4. You will find key words to use when searching the literature.
  5. Subject encyclopedias often make references to scholarly works in the field, helping you to do secondary and primary research.

Video Tutorial

Why should you use reference sources?

This video covers the 5 reasons that you should use reference sources. 

Pro Tip:

It's difficult to determine what information in our world is valid. Again, this is where your professors and reference librarians are your friends. Below are a couple of resources to help you differentiate from sources are popular or scholarly. Part of developing a scholarly mindset is to be selective of the source material you reference while you are researching, even when you are searching for background information. Besides, you don't want crap to stink up your research or your paper: it will affect your grade!

Don't Forget to Cite Your Site!

Make sure you authenticate authorship when using website sources. You want to make sure that the scholar or profession is an expert in their field.


"Modern medical advances have helped millions of people live longer, healthier lives. We owe these improvements to decades of investment in research."

- Ike Skelton




Reference librarians are your friends!