Crash Course in Research Terms

A well-researched paper is one way to impress your teacher and hopefully earn a good grade So seeking out a variety of reliable sources is something worth investing your time in. However, when embarking on your research for a college paper or essay, you may come across some terms that are unfamiliar. We’ve put together a quick cheat sheet of common research terms, to help make your library or database research sessions that bit easier.

Remember, whatever type of research you’re using to write your academic papers, it’s essential that you cite those sources. Your tutor will be able to advise you which style of citation you need to use—whether that’s Harvard referencing, MLA, APA or Chicago style citation. If you’re unsure how to do in-text citations or full citations on a works cited page, reference page, or bibliography, then Cite This For Me can help.

Case study:

Generally, it is a method of research and analysis and often results in an in-depth study on a particular topic or problem. The definition may vary depending on your context and field of study.


Citations are used to attribute the sources that you’ve used during the writing of your paper or essay. They are your best tool at preventing accidental plagiarism in your papers. MLA style, APA, and Chicago are three popular styles of academic citation.


Refers to the demonstration of trustworthiness. It can include many factors such as the purpose, accuracy, currency, relevance, and authority of a publishers, author, or article.


Factual information collected for the purpose of a study/research.


Refers to an organized collection of digitized information; often it’s online. In academic research, this usually refers to collections comprised of written articles, video, photography, and other resources. Databases offered by your library are highly credible, making it a very useful tool when researching a paper.

Empirical research:

A way of gaining knowledge by data collection, observation, or experience.

Field study:

A study that takes place in a natural setting (rather than in a laboratory, for example).


More specific than a theory, a hypothesis is a guess or assumption that attempts to predict or explain a causal relationship.


An explanation of how the research will be or was conducted.

Non-empirical research:

The development of a theory that isn’t based on data collection, observation, or experience. Essentially a theory based on opinion rather than fact.


Paraphrasing refers to the expression of someone else’s idea in your own words. It’s important to remember to still cite where the original ideas is from using the correct style (such as MLA or APA format) when paraphrasing.

Peer review:

When the author of a study submits their work to other experts in the field for review (often before publication).

Primary source:

A primary source is an original work or source of information. It is first hand information that has not been interpreted. Examples include photographs, raw data, speeches, original newspaper articles by reporters who witnessed an event, and interviews.


The chance of an occurrence happening at random.

Quantitative research:

Empirical research using numerical data.

Qualitative research:

Empirical research using non-numerical data (such as observation or opinion).


When you repeat someone else’s words, work, or idea exactly as it appears in your source. Don’t forget to use an in-text citation with quotes.


Refers to the objects studied. Often the sample is selected to be representative of the overall population.

Secondary source:

A secondary source is an interpretation or evaluation of a primary source, such as a biographical work, a commentary, or a criticism.

Source type:

This term refers to the type of source that you have used within your research and academic work. Common source types include books, websites, videos, and articles, but could be anything from a political speech to a movie.


Summarizing refers to the condensing, or summing up, of a more in-depth idea. If you’re summarizing someone else’s work or ideas then it’s important to remember to still cite your source.

Tertiary source:

A tertiary source is a collection or interpretation of primary and secondary sources, such as a textbook, manual, or directory.


More general than a hypothesis, a theory is a proposed explanation or prediction for the outcome of a study.


Refers to the differing characteristics between the objects of a study. An example of variables within a human sample could be age or gender.

White paper:

A paper or report that holds authority in its field or on its topic.