Chapter 3 Rhetorical Research

Serene Rock

Chapter Outline:

  1. Rhetorical Research
  2. Research as a Reiterative Process
  3. The Research Process
    1. Pre-search (Background)
    2. Research Questions
    3. Key Concepts & Keywords
    4. Search Statements
    5. Database Searching
  4. Source Evaluation
  5. Chapter Wrap Up & Sources

Learning Objectives and Course Competencies

In this chapter you will:

  • Explore issues and topics that reflect one’s values and voice.
  • Choose appropriate sources for gathering background information.
  • Formulate a research question based on information gathered form multiple sources.
  • Identify key concepts of a research question.
  • Identify keywords based on background research and current knowledge.
  • Create effective search statements for database searching.
  • Utilize database tools and search techniques to find sources.
  • Revise search strategies as needed.
  • Synthesize information from multiple sources.
  • Select appropriate information sources.
  • Apply the SIFT model to critically evaluate sources for ethos.
  • Apply the SIFT model to critically evaluate claims for ethos, pathos, and logos.
  • Apply search strategies to web searching.

Aligned English 102 Course Competencies:

  • Find, evaluate, select, and synthesize both online and print sources that examine a topic from multiple perspectives. (MCCCD #4)

3.1 What is “rhetorical research”? An overview

Rhetorical research is a thoughtful and strategic approach to seeking and evaluating information in order to solve problems, make decisions, and/or communicate effectively. Most likely, you have engaged in rhetorical research without even knowing it.  Consider a time when you needed to make an important decision. For example, think about how you decided to attend SCC or how you decided to buy your new phone.

Illustration by Freepik Storyset

Most likely, you sought out information to help you make the decision. You may have looked at reviews online, asked trusted friends or family about their experience with their phones, and compared cost and features online. Once you gathered the relevant information, you used it to make the best decision for yourself. In other words, you started out with a specific purpose for seeking out information (buying a new phone). Next, you thought about the best places or people to consult for information. Then you used that information to make a decision. This process is a form of rhetorical research.

Academic or professional rhetorical research follows a similar strategic process. You may have some experience with research assignments from other course work or from your job. However, research and information finding is a constantly evolving process due to the nature of how we find, evaluate, create, and share information in our mostly digital world. In this chapter, we will focus on how to develop a research strategy that you can apply to your academic, professional, and personal life.

3.2 Research as a Reiterative Process

As much as we would like research or information finding to be a “once and done” activity that always gives us an easy and straightforward answer, that just isn’t how it works. More often than not, the first “answer” you find is not always the best one (I’m looking at you, first entry listed in my Google results!).  Finding quality information that is credible and represents diverse views takes time and multiple sources. Additionally, finding information related to your initial question or topic can lead to more questions which can lead to even more questions–and  some dead ends — that require you to back up and redirect your research.  This is a normal part of research and can actually help your understanding of an issue, question, or topic.

“Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field.” ACRL Framework for Information Literacy

The more information you learn about what you are researching, the more you are able to engage with the topic. You’ll learn what terminology is used by people to discuss the topic; you will learn what some major debates or controversies surround the topic, etc. All of this information can help you ask the right questions and lead you to sources that are credible, authoritative, evidence-based, and reflect varying viewpoints.

Rhetorical Research Key Takeaways

  • Research is a process.
  • The search for information takes time because you are learning along the way.
  • Your research question should and will evolve as you learn more about the topic.
  • You want to actively seek out multiple sources and voices that will truly allow you to shape your understanding and opinion of the topic.
  • Breathe through it and enjoy the learning.

3.3 The Research Process

There are many ways to approach the research process, and your particular strategy will vary depending on the specific research need you have.  However, it is helpful to understand the common steps of the research process, so you can use it to guide you regardless of what it is you are searching for.  For the purpose of this section, we will focus on research strategies that relate to academic assignments or projects, although they can most certainly be applied to professional and personal research needs as well.

3.3.1  Start with a general question or topic of interest

Most of the time, our search for information stems from the need to answer a question, satisfy our curiosity, or solve a problem. Begin your research strategy with a general idea of what it is you want to know or find out without feeling too committed to the topic. It is important to keep an open mind and to be topic flexible during the early stages of research, especially concerning a subject that you don’t know much about. Need some topic ideas? Check out these tips and suggested resources.

  • Think about what is important to you. What issues affect your everyday life? What are you curious about? What issues do you feel strongly about?
  • Browse articles from news sites online or from your social media feeds. **Disclaimer** those articles may not necessarily be appropriate sources of information, but you can get an idea of what topics or issues are currently being discussed.
  • Browse “Hot Topic” library databases for ideas about widely discussed and debated issues.

Remember! You are not settling on a position, argument, or opinion of a topic yet. The first step is only to find a starting point based on what you want to know more about.

3.3.2 Pre-Research or Background Research

Background research is a crucial step in the research process as it will help you gain direction for your research. The pre-research stage is all about discovery and information gathering.

How to do background research:

  1. Read about your topic without worrying about exactly what your opinion is or what your argument will be. Instead, pay attention to issues that interest you.
  2. Look at multiple sources to get information from varied sources.
  3. Take note of important concepts, keywords, people, or events.
  4. Notice what details are sticking in your mind and interest you the most; those are elements you will want to research further and may be important parts of your essay.

Reference Sources for Background Research 

Often, the best types of sources for background information are reference sources.  Reference sources such as encyclopedias and handbooks contain fact-based information to help you gain an overview of a topic. Reference articles will broaden your understanding of a topic or issue by:

  • Providing context
  • Highlighting important subtopics, common arguments or debates, and people
  • Utilizing key terminology or jargon relevant to the discussion

Academic Reference Articles

You may be familiar with encyclopedias such as World Book and Britannica from your high school library. These types of reference sources are similar to academic reference sources that you can find through a college library.

  • Academic reference articles are usually structured, meaning they are separated into sections with labeled headings. These sections may read similar to a textbook or other informational source. The headings break up the large topic into smaller chunks that focus on the most important aspects.
  • Academic reference articles usually will include a bibliography or further reading at the end of the article. This is a great resource for finding more in-depth information about a specific aspect of the topic.

Most of the reference sources you will find through the library are considered subject specific.  These sources provide in-depth background information on a specific subject area and its subtopics. Here are some examples of subject specific reference sources.

Subject Specific Reference Sources

Take a look at the above sources and notice how each book has a Table of Contents that lists the individual topics. Usually when you search within a library reference database your search results will pull up these individual topic articles, however, here you can see that those articles are contained within an ebook that includes many articles that relate to the larger subject. 

Many academic reference articles are written by or in conjunction with subject experts. This gives the works great ethos. Read the Editor’s Note for Legal Issues Across the Globe to see the role that subject experts played in the writing of the book. 

The SCC library provides access to electronic reference books through several different databases.

3.3.3 From Background Research to Research Question

With a more robust understanding of your topic including subtopics and issues, you can use the background research to formulate a specific research question. Having a research question will give an outline to your search strategy as you focus in on finding sources that provide evidence and support to “answer” the question.

What makes a good research question?

  1. Questions that are focused on a specific issue or subtopic related to your initial background research inquiry. Notice the difference between the general topic and the focused research question below. Click on each topic or research question to read a relevant background article.
  2. Open ended questions. Start your question with Why or How. Notice the difference between the general question and the focused research question below. Click on each research question to read a relevant background article.
  3. Questions that focus on a solution to a problem. Notice the difference between the general question and the focused research question below. Click on each research question to read a relevant background article.

Now, practice identifying effective research questions.


Remember, your research question is NOT your thesis statement. You will use your research question to focus on finding information that will help you craft your thesis statement as well as information that can provide evidence or support for that thesis.


3.3.4 Key Concepts & Keywords

Equipped which a focused research, you are almost ready to do a deep-dive into the literature and scholarly conversations to find evidence that will shape your thesis. Before you grab your scuba gear, you need to turn your research question into a database friendly search statement. Library databases, unlike Google, do not understand when we search with a question or a long string of words. Databases give the best results when we search using specific keywords and phrases. These keywords, or search terms, come from the key concepts or main ideas of your research question.

The key concepts are the most important words or phrases of your research question. You will use these as the basis for developing a list of keywords which will become your database search terms.

Identifying Key Concepts

In order to identify the best keywords to search with, start with the key concepts or the main idea from your research question. Take your research question and pick out the most important words or phrases that really capture the essence of your research question. Key concepts are usually nouns and may be a single word or a phrase.  For example, in this research question what do you think are the key concepts or main ideas?

How can we increase voter turnout within underserved communities?

In this question the two key concepts are voter turnout and underserved communities. Words like increase, benefits, causes, etc. are not considered key concepts. These words are very general and could be applied to many different topics.  Focusing on the key concepts when we search will naturally find information that talks about the importance of and the relationship between the two concepts, so we don’t need to include this word as a search term.

Key concepts can also be search terms (keywords), the words we put into the search box of the database. However, since the library databases will only show you results based on the exact words you type in the search box, it is helpful to brainstorm several different search terms that will yield different search results.

In other words, if I only search using the terms “voter turnout” and “underserved communities”, the database will only show me articles that use those exact phrases.  Most likely there are plenty more relevant articles that use different terminology to discuss those concepts. In order to see those articles in the list of results, I need to try multiple searches using different keywords.

In the next section, we’ll discuss how to brainstorm and develop a list of potential search terms.

3.3.5 Identifying & Brainstorming Keywords

We don’t always know what keywords will give us the best results until we try them out in the database, but having a robust list of keywords will give you options when searching.  Take some time to brainstorm before you begin searching, but also remember that you can and should add to your keywords as you find articles and learn more about the language used in the discourse around the topic.  Focus on your key concepts and your background research to get started brainstorming keywords.

Consider the following when brainstorming keywords:

  • Use single words or exact phrases. For example: “voter turnout” is an exact phrase.
  • Think about keywords from your background research and keywords that people who write about this topic would use.
  • Synonyms as well as related terms make great keywords.
  • Keyword selection is sometimes trial and error. You may not know what keywords will get the best results until you try.
  • As you research and learn more about the topic, you can add to the keyword list.

Look at the table for an example of alternative terms for each key concept.

Key Concept 1: “voter turnout” Key Concept 2: “underserved communities”
“voter suppression” “low-income”
“voter registration” “under-resourced communities”
election “African Americans”
“polling location” “communities of color”
redistricting “black Americans”
“voter identification” “underserved population”

Notice that “voter suppression” and “voter registration” represent different aspects of the same topic. Using these different terms will pull up different articles in a database search.

Also notice that the phrase “underserved communities” could apply to many different populations or groups.

Keywords are incredibly important to your search strategy, but we have one more step to go before we are ready for the databases. In the next section we’ will discuss how to put keywords together to create search statements and maximize our results list potential. 

3.3.6 Creating Search Statements

You may already have figured out that one of your keywords on its own is not enough to get you the results you need.  For example, if I only search with the phrase “underserved communities” I’ll likely get a large number of results but those results will be about many different topics most of which will be unrelated to voting. This is because the database is showing me every article and resource that includes the phrase “underserved communities”.  The fix?  I need to make sure that my search includes all the relevant concepts.  Joining together keywords is called a 

     The Power of AND

We use AND to join keywords because that’s part of the database language. Here are examples of :

  • “voter turnout” AND “African Americans”
  • “voter suppression” AND “African Americans”
  • “voter registration” AND “underserved communities”

It’s good to mix and match and try different combinations of keywords. However, not all of your keywords may mix well together.  Think about what information it is that you want to find. Read the search statement. Does it make sense for what you are looking for?

Use the Rhetorical Research Tracking Sheet to keep track of your background research, keywords, and search statements. To utilize the tracking sheet, open the google document and select Make a Copy from the File menu in the upper left corner of the page. You will then be able to edit the document and save it as a Google Doc or download as a Word document.

Next up, database searching with the search statements! 

3.3.7 Database Searching

Up to now, we’ve been focused on developing a research strategy primarily for an academic purpose, but it is important to remember that all of these strategies can be applied to other research needs as well as other resources of information (i.e. Google searching).  Since we are focused on library databases, it may be helpful to note the differences between databases and Google.

Google Library Databases
Mostly free access to information, but many sites do require a subscription, fees, or paywalls. Free access for SCC students. Access is paid through tuition and other fees.
Most sites go unchecked/unverified (i.e. personal webpages, blogs, forums, social media, private organization/company sites) It is up to you to evaluate this information. The majority of information comes from reputable sources and publishers, however, not all information is without bias or represents all viewpoints. It is still up to you to evaluate this information.
Mostly information is unorganized and relies upon Google rankings and algorithms to give results. Information is organized by subject and indexed using subject terms and other meta data.
Provides some, but not very precise, search features and search options to refine results. Provides many search features and filters to refine results.  These options do vary by database.

The SCC Library provides access to general databases that include information on many different subjects and topics. The library also has access to subject specific databases which include information on a specific topical area such as nursing, psychology, history, or criminal justice. You can search each of these databases individually or you can use the OneSearch. OneSearch is a discovery tool which means that it pulls information from many of the library’s different resources and puts it into one list of results. Using the library’s OneSearch will help you find books, ebooks, articles from magazines, journals, and scholarly articles, streaming media, images, and more.

Ok, grab those search statements. We are ready for some database searching! Let’s take a look at using OneSearch to find information.

3.3.8 Expanding Keyword List and Refining Topic Focus

Your database search results should give you a much more in-depth understanding of your research topic and hopefully, you can begin to establish your own thoughts and opinions based on what you learned so far. This is the beginning of your thesis statement development. For example, through my research I learned that one way to increase voter turnout is through ride sharing to polling locations (potential solution). If I want this to be part of my thesis, I should include these keywords. This will help me to find information that talks specifically about this aspect.

Some new search statements would now look like this:

  • “ride share” AND “voter turnout” AND “underserved communities”
  • transportation AND “voter turnout” AND “underserved communities”
Note: If you find that your results include information about other countries, you can add the phrase “United States” to your search statement.  However, do not discount international sources or information. They could provide insight and valuable ideas.


Next Steps: Continue searching the databases, reading articles, refining keywords and search statements as needed, and keeping track of your research.

Research Tip: Use the 24/7 Ask a librarian chat service below for research assistance from a real live librarian.

3.4 Evaluating Sources 

An important part of rhetorical research is evaluating the sources and information that we find through our research and making a conscious, purposeful decision to include or exclude particular sources in our final research product. As rhetorical researchers, we should ask ourselves why we are choosing to use a particular source as evidence to support an argument, to make a decision, or to form an opinion.  There is so much information available through the library and through the web…why this source??

Questions to consider when selecting sources:

  • What ethos does this source/author have?
  • What perspective or viewpoint does this source represent? Does it provide a different voice than another source I have found?
  • What evidence is provided that supports my claim? Is this evidence convincing?

In order to best answer the above questions, you’ll need to analyze and evaluate each source. We will discuss a framework that you can use to evaluate your sources.

SIFT is an acronym for Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace it back to the original source

Mike Caufield, SIFT, CC by 4.0 

3.4.1 SIFT

SIFT is a 4 step process created by Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert, that we can use to analyze and evaluate our sources. Here, I have adapted Mr. Caulfield’s model but the spirit of SIFT is alive and based on his work. Grab the last article you read or social media news post you shared and let’s give SIFT a try!

First, STOP!

Counterintuitive maybe, but taking a step back from articles or social media posts to really reflect on the information and the source can set you up for evaluation success. It is easy to get swept up in clickbait or emotionally charged headlines. Pause and remind yourself that as a rhetorical researcher, you are seeking truth with an open and curious mind.

When you are ready, ask yourself:

  • What/who is the source/website?
  • Is it a source/website I am familiar with?
  • If not, what information do I need to help me analyze the information or claim and evaluate the credibility of this source?

The last question above leads into the second step of SIFT, which is to…

Investigate the Source

Here is where you want to find out about the source as well as the author. For example, if an article is posted on a website, you’ll want to know what that website (the source) is all about. You will also want to know about the person who wrote that article (the author). To find this information out, employ a strategy called lateral reading.

Lateral reading is a strategy developed by Sam Wineburg’s Stanford research team that you can use to compare several websites side by side at once. We have all been guilty of having a couple (ok, more like 20 for me) web browser tabs open at once. Now, you can utilize tabs to read laterally and compare information.

How to read laterally:

  1. Open up a tab next to your original webpage.
  2. Google the website, author’s, or organization’s name and read what other websites not affiliated with the original source has to say. This can give you insight into the source and their reputation on the web.
  3. Look at a few sources to confirm (use more tabs to really maximize that lateral comparison).

This technique works well for evaluating specific information within an article or website too, since you can look at multiple sources and compare. We will discuss this in more detail further along.

Lateral reading is important because it helps us put an individual source, author, or claim in perspective among the larger body of information around that topic. In other words, we do not want to take any given source at face value. People, organizations, and websites that have underlying agendas or are less than straightforward with their purpose will not directly state this in their About Us section. We need to see how that source stands up outside of itself. Lateral reading is one technique that can help us do that.

During your lateral reading, you will gain insight and information into the original source. You will use that insight to determine whether the original source has merit and is appropriate for your research purpose.  Here are two specific elements that you can look for to help make that determination.

  1. Authority or ethos of the source or individual author: What expertise, credentials, work experience, life experience, or other significant subject knowledge does this person or organization possess that qualifies them to provide credible information?
  2. Bias of the source or the content of the information: Is there a known bias, political leaning, or social agenda related to the source? Lateral reading is especially helpful for uncovering bias since most sources will not openly detail this on their website.

The next two steps in the SIFT process can be combined into one: Find Other Coverage and Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the original source. These steps involve determining the credibility of a specific claim or piece of evidence from the source and (if possible) tracing back to the primary source. Primary, also meaning first, are sources where information originated. Primary sources can be:

  • Data from research studies or experiments (helpful for determining if claims using statistics are accurate).
  • Government documents (also helpful for finding data, statistics, laws, legislation, etc).
  • Quotes, tweets, or posts from famous people or politicians (helpful for verifying if that screenshot of someone’s Twitter account is real or fabricated).

In your preliminary evaluation, you may have determined that the author’s ethos is appropriate and that the source is representing a balanced point of view (or at least you are aware of the source’s stand if not completely balanced). Now you need to determine if individual claims or evidence are accurate and contextually appropriate. Lateral reading is still helpful with these steps. Here are three specific elements to look for to do this:

  1. Credibility of the content: Does the source provide citations or attribute information to a particular source or person? If so, follow that citation back to the original source to verify the claim. If not, Google the quote or claim to find more about it. In many cases you’ll come up with websites that are either discrediting or supporting the information as accurate.  Fact checking websites and hoax busting websites are also good sources to consult. Below are 3 fact checking websites.
    • PolitiFact“…is a factchecking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others”
    • “…is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”
    • Snopes “The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”
  2. Website domain endings. Domain endings are part of the URL of a web address. Review the table to learn about common domain endings
    Domain ending Description
    .gov Websites with this domain are from U.S. government agencies. For example:,  Government websites can be excellent sources of information for finding statistics, laws, etc. For example, to find demographic information check out
    .edu Websites with this domain are from U.S. educational institutions. For example:, Many universities are research institutions and make their research available on their websites. These are great sources to consult. For example if you are researching poverty issues check out UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.
    .com Websites with this domain can be published by anyone, anywhere in the world. Com traditionally stands for commercial, but these websites can have many purposes.
    .org Websites with this domain can be published by anyone, anywhere in the world. Org traditionally stands for organization and many non-profits and other groups do tend to use this domain, however, non-profit or group status does NOT indicate a bias-free, fact-based provider of information. In fact, many non-profit groups have explicit or underlying agendas that influence the information they share or produce.
  3. Date of Information: This element is a small but significant detail when determining the accuracy of claims or information because information changes over time. If someone’s claim is using out of date information as evidence, their claim can be weakened, if not completely deflated.

Source Evaluation Key Takeaways

  • Stop
  • Investigate the source.  Read laterally to find:
    • Authority and ethos
    • Bias
  • Find other coverage and trace claims back to the original source
    • Credibility of claims (use references/citations if possible)
    • Consult websites but take note of the domain ending.
    • Date of information


3.5 Government Documents

As we mentioned above, government websites can be helpful for finding and verifying data and statistics.  Using these sources as evidence can help you build a powerful argument.  To find a government agency’s website related to your research topic, you can browse or search.

Another option for finding government information is to do an Advanced Google Search and limit your results to websites with a .gov domain ending.

3.5.1 Laws and Legislation

Federal and state laws are another type of primary source and can be helpful for fact checking as well as building a case for your argument. To find federal laws (laws that govern the country) check out federal laws and regulations. If you are researching a topic that is in the news, you can keep up with current legislation.

To find state laws, google the state and keywords such as laws, legislature, statutes, or bills). You can find the Arizona Revised Statutes on the AZ legislature’s website.

3.6 Putting it all Together

Rhetorical research is all about the intentional search for meaningful information to apply to decision making, problem solving, or personal growth. True exploration of an issue can lead you down many different paths, but ultimately will provide you with a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the topic. Rhetorical research focuses on the process of finding, questioning, evaluating, (and repeating) information which gives us time to really delve into the complexity of the topic as opposed to a quick “answer”. As rhetorical researchers we are responsible for the information we create and share which is why we take such care in evaluating the information we consume.  As you gather your sources for your research assignment, revisit the source evaluation questions from earlier in the chapter:

  • What ethos does this source/author have? Additionally, what ethos do you want to have as a creator of information?
  • What perspective or viewpoint does this source represent? Does it provide a different voice than another source I have found?
  • What evidence is provided that supports my claim? Is this evidence convincing?
  • Most importantly, why are you choosing THIS particular source?

Utilizing the principles and strategies of rhetorical research will set you up for a lifetime of learning, growth, and success in your academic, professional, and personal life.


Caulfield, Mike. SIFT (The Four Moves). 19 June 2019.

“Compensation for College Athletes.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints.

Doak, Melissa J. “Political Participation.” Minorities: Race and Ethnicity in America, 2012 ed., Gale, 2013. Information Plus Reference Series. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints.

Gray, Kathleen. “Democrats Blitzing Detroit To Increase Voter Turnout.” New York Times, 3 Oct. 2020, p. A20(L). Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints.

Harris, Jasmine. “What if college athletes got paid? 3 questions answered.” The Conversation: An Independent Source of Analysis from Academic Researchers, edited by Conversation, The Conversa
tion, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference.

Spector, Carrie. “Stanford scholars observe ‘experts’ to see how they evaluate the credibility of information online.” Standford News Service,  24 Oct. 2017.

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Pandemic strengthens the case for universal basic income.” Washington Post, 10 Apr. 2020. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints.

“Universal Basic Income.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2020. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints.

Image Credits

Caulfield, Mike. SIFT (The Four Moves). 19 June 2019.

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Rhetorical Research by Serene Rock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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