Introduction to the Research Process

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How to Do Research: a Step-by-Step Guide

The research process is messy and is often one of trial and error. It requires flexibility and the courage to think outside the box. Before embarking on a research assignment, it's important to remember that your research process will probably not follow a straight line from beginning to end and that your thoughts and ideas about your topic may evolve and change as you work through each step.

The following guide is designed to take you through the steps of the research process. As you work through these steps​, keep in ​​​​​​mind that the members of the library staff are here to help and support you on your journey.  We are student-centered and our most important goal is to help you be successful in any way we can.  

Personalized research help is available at any stage of the research process – from narrowing down a topic to searching for appropriate and credible sources in the library databases to formatting citations throughout the text of your research papers and in your Works Cited lists.  Research help is available via email, in person, or through Zoom. To set up an appointment with a librarian or to ask general questions about library services, email jsm library or use the Ask a Librarian form, available at the top of every page on the library’s website. 





Where Do I Find? ... Quick Tour of the Library's Website

Helpful Links and Campus Resources

Before you get started with your research, it is good to know all of the resources available to you:


Tips From Your Library Staff

Before you begin working on a research assignment, it's important that you take the time to fully understand your assignment.  Knowing the requirements of the assignment will help you work out a successful research plan.  Carefully read over your syllabus, assignment guidelines, and grading rubric to find out:

  • Specific details about the assignment --
    • Is the topic assigned to you or can you choose your own?
    • What types of sources can you use and how many do you need? (scholarly journal articles, newspapers, magazines, books, websites, etc.)
    • Is the publication date of the sources you find important?
    • What citation style do you need to follow? (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.)
    • What are the formatting requirements and how long does the paper have to be?
  • Due dates --
    • When is the final version of your assignment due?
    • Are there steps that you need to complete along the way?
      • Do you need to choose a topic by a specific date?
      • Do you need to turn in a Works Cited list or an annotated bibliography ahead of time?
    • Do you need to hand in a rough draft? Even if a draft is not required, some
      professors will read a draft and provide feedback if you get it to them before the final copy is due.

Tips for Success!
Now that you have a better idea of what you need to complete your research assignments, check out the rest of the steps in this guide.  Even if your research assignments are not due until the end of the semester (as they often are), it is important that you start your research early.  You want to make sure to give yourself enough time to:

  • Explore your topic, find sources, and schedule an appointment with a librarian if you need help.
  • Book an appointment with a writing tutor for helpful feedback before you turn in your final draft.

***START YOUR RESEARCH EARLY and use the Research Scheduler tool to help you plan how to complete research assignments on time.***

Now it's time to start thinking about topic ideas. Make sure you complete Step 1 of the research process and read over your assignment guidelines first. You need to know if you can choose your own topic or if your professor has chosen a topic for you.  You also want to make sure you pick a topic that fits within the scope of your assignment.

How do you choose a topic? Here are some ideas: 

  • Scan your textbook or other course materials for topics that you might want to explore.
  • Think about topics that interest you, issues that you might want to learn more about, or topics that have personally impacted you, your family, or your community.
  • Check out the News tab in Google for ideas about current issues and topics in the news.
    Image of Google News Tab
  • Browse the comprehensive list of topics in the Points of View Reference Center database which can be found at
  • Discuss topic ideas with your instructor, a librarian, a writing lab tutor, or a classmate.

Tip for Success!

It's a good idea to choose a topic that captures your attention and sparks your curiousity.  Doing this will make your job a lot easier and will give you the motivation and encouragement you need to successfully complete the assignment and turn it in on time.

Exploring Your Topic

You have chosen your topic, now what? I know what you might be thinking – you want to jump in, find some sources, and get this research assignment done. But before you start looking for sources, you'll want to do some brainstorming to help you make sure you have a manageable topic that fits within the scope of your assignment. 

For example, let's say you want to write about cimate change.  This topic is obviously too broad.  You can't possibly address the topic of climate change in just one paper.

Here are some strategies that can help you generate ideas and identify a narrower topic related to climate change that you might want to explore.

1. Do some brainstorming on your topic.  Make a list or create a concept map like in the examples below on climate change. 
Brainstorming ListConcept Map


Developing Your Topic

As you go through the brainstorming process, keep this question in mind:

Can I fully address this topic within the word count or page length requirement of the assignment? 

Remember, a good topic is broad enough to give you lots of avenues to find information, yet narrow enough to be thoroughly addressed in your paper.  Students tend to choose broad topics because they are afraid of not having enough information to meet page requirements, but in reality, the topic needs to be much smaller than you think it needs to be.

Take a look at these examples: 

Examples of Too Broad and Too Narrow

A topic is that is too broad will generally feel overwhelming since you will most likely find more information than you actually need. You might end up writing a paper that is much longer than it has to be;  or a paper without a clear and concise purpose, that barely scratches the surface of a topic. Most researchers start out with a broad topic that will need to be focused and narrowed down along the way, like in the example above. 

Tips for Success!

Research is a process – as you go through each of the steps in this guide you may find yourself modifying, refining, or completely changing your topic, based on what you find as you are gathering sources.  This is to be expected and it is completely OKAY!  If you feel frustrated and overwhelmed, librarians are always here to help.

Finding Background Research

Once you come up with a topic idea that seems like it will work for your assignment, you'll want to start looking for some background information on that topic.  

Google is a great place to go for background research about your topic! Doing some initial searches on Google (before jumping into the library databases) will help you identify key issues, major dates and events, key players, and scholars and experts in the field.  Googling your topic helps to get your mind working and gives you a place to start gathering some preliminary thoughts and ideas about your topic.  Looking at different kinds of sources on the web can help you focus your topic, give you ideas for possible search terms to use in the library databases (which you will learn about later in this guide), and provide some direction for the purpose or argument of your research project. 

Tip for Success!
Wikipedia can be a helpful tool for background research.  Many entries even have bibliographies that can guide you towards some scholarly sources you can use to get started.  Do not cite Wikipedia entries in your paper; use it purely for background research and then move on to the library databases to start looking for scholarly sources.

Video Tutorial
Getting Started on a Research Assignment - Choosing a Topic, Identifying Search Terms, and Searching the Library Databases

Identifying Search Terms (Keywords)

Searching library databases is very different from searching the web. When searching Google, you can simply ask: “what TV shows are leaving Netflix at the end of the month?” and Google will usually respond with the appropriate answer to your question. Library databases, on the other hand, do not respond well to whole sentence queries. Finding the right search terms (also known as keywords) can be challenging and frustrating. The search terms you use will either help you find exactly what you need or stop you in your tracks.  Follow these tips and look at the example below to get an idea of how you might come up with right search terms to use in the library databases.

  • Take your topic and turn it into a sentence. Pick out the most important concepts, focusing primarily on the nouns and noun phrases in the sentence. Choosing 2-4 words to start gives you the best chance to find some good sources.
  • Go back and look at your brainstorming activity and check out what you found while searching for background information.  This information can lead you to additional search terms.
  • Make a list of related terms and synonyms that you can use to search. You will often see different terms used for similar concepts. For example, some authors may use the term films while others use the term movies. Similarly, some authors will use the word salt while scholars in the field would use sodium instead.  If you’re stuck, you can even try using something like for some more suggestions.
  • Think about broader or narrower terms that might also be relevant.  For example, k12 is a much broader concept than middle school and kindergarten is a much narrower concept than elementary school.    
  • Always use the whole word as well as the abbreviation in your search. For example, you should use CHF as well as congesive heart failure. For science related topics, you should use the scientific terms as well as the common names to describe your topic.

Let’s say you want to write about the use of social media and its effects on the self-esteem of teenagers. If we turned this topic into a question it might look like this:

Topic sentence
If you focused on the nouns in this sentence, the search terms would be social media, self-esteem, and teenagers.

After you pick out the best words to search for information on your topic, don't stop there! Be sure to work on gathering a list of addtional terms (synonyms and other related words) that you can use if your first set of terms don't quite work out the way you thought they would.  Check out the example below: 
Keyword search strategy table



Finding Additional Search Terms (Keywords)

Identifying appropriate search terms (keywords) is a continual process. The trick is to use your list of possible search terms to identify a few good sources in the library databases.  Once you have some good search results, you can use the information you find to help you identify more search terms. Here are just a few suggestions you can use to add more search terms to your list.

  • As you identify relevant sources, read the titles and abstracts to see if you can find more helpful search terms.
  • All of the sources you find should have subject terms attached to them. Look at the subject terms for the relevant sources you find and change or add them to your search strategy.  For example, a search on congestive heart failure and low sodium diet in the library databases led to several other terms that could be used, such as salt-free diet, dietary sodium, and diet, sodium restricted.

    Subject term search
  • Be sure to jot down any other possible search terms you come accross as you are skimming and taking notes on the sources you have already found.
  • Check out any Works Cited lists or bibliographies you might see as you are gathering sources.  This is such an easy way to find more search terms as well as identify additional sources you can use for your research. 

Tip for Success!
If you are struggling with search terms please see a librarian as soon as possible.  We hate to hear students tell us that they spent several hours trying to find sources only to come up empty.  We are here to help!


Searching for Sources

Now you're ready to start searching.  This page will show you how to find specific types of sources such as books, journal articles, and websites through the library's website.  Additionally, you will find information on searching for sources in subject-specific databases as well as tips for searching for sources for the more common assigments (under construction) you might receive during your college career.  Along the way, you will learn about a few more tips for making your searches more productive.  Remember - Google is great for some things, but it's important to go beyond Google and use the library databases to find resources for your college-level assignments

Now let's take a look at the different types of sources available to you as well as some tips you can use for finding these specific types of sources through the library's website.

Finding Scholarly Journal Articles

The library has many resources for finding scholarly journal articles on just about any topic you can imagine. There is a three-pronged approach to searching the scholarly journal articles; however, the number of steps you take and the order in which you take them can be different depending on topic, course level, and assignment guidelines.  For example, you may want to search all 3 places - OneSearch, individual databases, as well as Google Scholar if you are working on an assignment that requires a deeper dive into the research availble on a specific topic.  If you are doing a research paper for one of the course requirements for your major, you may want to start searching the individual databases that pertain to that discipline. It is likely that your professor in these classes will direct you towards the subject-specific databases.  If you are doing a smaller paper where you only need a few sources or if your topic spans several different disciplines (such as physical education or child development), sticking with OneSearch might be the way to go.  You can't really go wrong though as long as you start with the library databases and end with Google Scholar.  Using library databases makes your professors happy!  Here's more information about each of the ways you can find scholarly articles.

  • OneSearch. This is a tool that searches almost all of the databases that we have access to at the same time.  OneSearch is where you should begin for most research assignments, unless you are doing very specific research in a particular discipline and your professor has asked you to search a particular library database. You can find OneSearch on the library's home page.  It's best to use the Advanced Search tab to the right of the big search box, so that you can take advantage of all the search tips provided to you throughout this guide.
    Advanced Search
  • Subject specific databases.  These are individual databases that pertain to speciific majors and disciplines. You can find these databases either alphabetically on the databases page or through the Subject Specific Resources tab on the library's homepage, next to the Advanced Search box. On this page, you can find the databases organized by major and discipline.
    Subject Specific Resources
  • Google Scholar.  Google Scholar searches just like Google, but it limits your Google search to scholarly books and articles. If you are struggling to find the right search terms sometimes it helps to search Google Scholar first so that you can get a better feel for what the right search terms might be and then go back to the library's databases.  You can set your Google Scholar up to link directly to sources we have access to through our library using the instructions in this document: PDF iconLinking Wilson Library to Google Scholar.pdf

Types of Articles

It's important to know that there are many types of articles.  There are:

  • Magazine articles.  Magazine articles are written for the general public.  Magazines are the kind of thing you might find at the doctor's offices or at the check-out area in grocery stores.  Examples of these types of sources are Time magazine, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated.
  • Newspaper articles. Newspapers are good places to find facts and information about current events in the news.  There are large newspapers that cover U.S. and International news such as USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times as well as local papers from cities and towns such as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Baltimore Sun.
  • Scholarly journal articles. This is the most common source that professors will expect you to use at the college level.  Scholary journal articles are written by experts and scholars in the field and contain research and information on very specific aspects of your topic. Scholarly journal articles can be used for information on most topics; however, these articles are particularly good for science-related fields such as biology, nursing, and veterinary nursing.  Scholarly journal articles are much shorter than books and can be published more frequently in a much smaller length of time.  It's a great idea to use scholarly journal articles when researching current and timely topics.  By the time a book is published on a current issue or a specific research endeavor, the information may already be out of date and need to be updated.  This is why professors in certain fields will encourage you to stick to scholarly journal articles in your research.

You can find more information about the differences between popular (magazine and newspaper) articles and scholarly journal articles in Step 6: Evaluating Your Sources. In terms of searching for articles, we're going to focus our attention on scholarly articles, since they are the most commonly used source of information at the college-level.

    Finding Books

    We have both print and electronic books (eBooks) that cover a variety of topics.  Books can give you a much deeper and more comprehensive view of your topic and can be great resources for information on many of the topics you might be doing research on in college.  In our collection, you will find a collection of books and eBooks on:

    • Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
    • The American Civll War, the Salem Witch Trials, as well as the history of American presidents and various countries and regions throughout the world.
    • The analysis of many novels as well as the copies of the novels themselves and information about the life and writing styles of individual authors.
    • Artists, art history and different art movements and styles, and major world religions.
    • Books on underrepresented groups like the LGBTQ+ community, the African American population, history and movements involving women and so much more.

    Don't let the length of a book scare you away from using it for your research!  You do not need to read the whole book. You can scan the book for relevant information on your topic by looking at the table of contents for relevant chapters or by searching through the index for specific pages that relate to your topic.

    Primary Resources for Finding Books

    EBSCO eBook Collection - access to this database is available through the library's website.  Click on the Research tab at the top of the screen, then click on databases, and then on E in the alphabetical list.
    EBSCO eBook Collection

    If you want to find out what the library has in our print collection, check out the library's catalog.  You can find the link to the catalog on the front page of the library's website, to the right of the center search bar. 

    Link to Online Catalog

    If you have need help finding physical items on the shelf, please see a member of the library staff.


    Search Tips

    Here are some tips that can help you search for sources more effectively. 

    • OneSearch comes with search assist.  For many topics OneSearch will suggest similar terms and abbreviations you can add to the search to beef up your searching power. See this example below on congestive heart failure.  You can also add your own terms to the search and connect them with the word OR.
      Search Assist Help
    • One of the other ways to find more search terms is to check out the information you see on the search results screen after you do a search. When you find a good article, check out the subject terms and add them to your search strategy.  A search on congestive heart failure and low sodium diet in the library databases identified these terms you can add to your search: salt-free diet, diet, sodium-restricted, as well as dietary sodium. 

      Subject Term Search

    • Look at the title and full record for the relevant articles you find.  Click on the title of the article and you will usually find an abstract.  Continue to gather more search terms from the information provided in the database records.
    • As you read through your articles, keep track of other terms used by the authors that might be helpful.
    • Be sure to check out the references list attached to the articles.  This is an easy way to find more sources on your topic without much effort.


    LibKey's green symbol

    The library has purchased access to a product called LibKey. When you search the library databases you will see a Check for Full text via LibKey link for some of the sources you find. This link directly connects you to the full-text for open access content that is freely available on the web. With this service, you will experience less clicks and find fewer broken links.

    Check for Full text via LibKey Link

    LibKey also has a browser extension for most common browsers that you can download. This helps you to easily connect to subscribed content from the library. You will see PDF links as you explore publisher websites, Wikipedia, PubMed, Science Direct, and more.

    Sample Search from Wikipedia Showing LibKey Links

    Interlibrary Loan

    As you are searching for journal articles, you may notice that not every article is available in full-text, meaning you can't pull the whole article up on the screen and read it immediately.  We can get you access to most articles via a service called Interlibrary Loan.  If you find a good article in an EBSCO database but you see this Request Through Interlibrary Loan instead of a PDF link, click on the link and fill in your information.  A member of the library staff will request a copy of the article from another library.  If the request is granted you will receive an email in approximately 3-5 business days with directions on how to access your article.  If the request cannot be filled, you will receive an email about that as well.  For more information on Interlibrary Loan, click here Please note: some articles are made freely available by the publisher and/or the authors. I would recommend checking Google Scholar before you submit the Interlibrary Loan request.  Cut and paste the title of the article into Google Scholar and look for a full-text link on the right-hand side.  If no link is available, go ahead and submit the request.Interlibrary Loan Request

    Evaluating Sources

    Evaluating your sources is an essential step in the research process. After you find your sources, it is important that you take a step back and look at what you found. The first step in this process relates to Step 1:Understanding Your Assignment.  It's important to know:

    • What types of sources does your professor want you to find?
    • Do the sources you found satisfy your information needs and relate to your topic?
    • Can you use websites as sources of information on your topic?

    The accuracy, relevancy, and credibility of your sources plays a big role in the quality of the final product that you turn in for a grade. In addition to assessing your writing style and your thoughts and ideas about your topic, professors will check your sources and consider where the information you provided came from in their grading process.  Most importantly, learning the process of evaluating sources will serve you well throughout your career and in life as you prepare work-related documents, look for information on candidates running for office, make decisions about where to live and what car to buy, and so much more. Here are some things to think about as you evaluate the sources you found:

    • Currency/Date: For some topics (such as the Salem Witch Trials), it doesn't really matter when your sources were published. On the other hand, if you are researching current topics for administering chemotherapy, the sources you find can become outdated very quickly. Depending on yor topic you may want to consider:
      • When was the information published?
      • Are there more current sources available? 
      • Is your topic in a field where the most current information you can find is important?
    • Relevance: It is very important that the sources you find meet your information needs and satisfy the requirements of your assignment. Consider:
      • Does the source relate to your topic?
      • Does the source fit the scope of the assignment?
    • Authority: It is important to determine if the imformation in your sources is credible and that the author is qualified. You should consider:
      • What are the author's credentials?
      • Is the author prominently known in the field?
      • Are they affiliated with a university or an organization related to your topic?
      • Does the author provide citations and evidence to back up their claims?
    • Accuracy: It is important that you try to verify that the information you are using is up-to-date and accurate.  Be surer to consider:
      • Is the document peer reviewed by experts or others scholars in the field?
      • Are there lots of spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors?
      • Can you find other sources that include similar information, facts, or statistics?
    • Purpose/Bias: Every source has a purpose and authors often express their ideas and opinions about the topic through their writing. Consider these questions: 
      • Why did the author write this information?
      • Who is the intended audience? 
      • Is the language used appropriate?
      • Is the author trying to inform, entertain, persuade, or sell you something?
      • Can you determine if the author or the organization exhibits any personal or institutional biases in the way the information is presented.

    Evaluating Websites (Infographic created by Grace Liu of West Chester University)

    Evaluating Websites Infographic



    Differences Between Scholarly Journal Articles and Magazines

    Most professors will expect you to scholarly journal articles (also known as peer-reviewed articles) in your college-level research assignments.  They may tell you to stay away from magazine articles (also known as popular sources). This table explains the differences between popular and scholarly sources.

    Differences Between Scholarly Journal Articles and Magazine Articles

    Scholarly Journal Articles

    Magazine Articles

    Articles are usually long and focused on in-depth analysis of topics.

    Articles are generally shorter and provide broader coverage of topics.

    Articles are usually reviewed by experts in the field before publication. This process ensures the information contributes to the growth of knowledge in the field.

    Articles are generally not evaluated by experts. Articles are included based on reader interest.

    Authors are researchers, scholars, and experts. They are often affiliated with educational institutions.

    Authors are usually journalists or freelance writers. They are employed by publishers.

    Articles usually contain an abstract and follow a specific format. Articles include very few pictures and more specialized vocabulary.

    Articles usually contain pictures, photographs, and advertisements. Articles use vocabulary that the general public can understand. Articles do not follow a set format. They're the kind of sources you might find on the table at doctors' offices.

    Articles report on original research and results of current experiments.

    Articles provide general information on various topics.

    The intended audience is scholars, researchers, experts, and students.

    The intended audience is the general reader.

    A works cited list is almost always present.

    There is generally no works cited list.

    Journals are usually published by university presses, educational institutions, or professional associations.

    Magazines are generally published by commercial publishers.

    Evaluating Sources Video Tutorial

    Evaluating Sources: Scholarly vs Popular Sources

    Organizing Your Sources and Creating an Outline

    Create an Outline

    An outline is a roadmap that you can use to write your paper or create your presentation. You don't have to spend a lot of time on this - it can be as simple or as complex as you like.  Even the most basic online can help you find your way far better than just winging it.

    An outline helps you stay on topic and gives you a chance to organize all the points you want to make to support your argument, purpose, or thesis statement.  One helpful idea is to list each point and then place all the sources that support that point hierarchically beneath it. This makes it easy to see if you have enough sources to support each of your points and what you might be missing.  

    For help organizing your sources and creating an outline, check out PowerNotes.


    PowerNotes is a tool that helps you save, annotate, organize, and cite the sources you find in library databases and on the web.  Additionally, PowerNotes offers you the opportunity to create paper outlines, avoid accidental plagiarism, and keep track of the sources you plan to use in your research projects. 

    Go to PowerNotes to create your account and get started. Remember to use when creating your account. Here you will also find links to available PowerNotes browser extensions.  Information on getting started with PowerNotes can be found here: Getting Started with PowerNotes.

    Want to learn more about the functionality of PowerNotes, visit their library of video tutorials here: PowerNotes Video Tutorials Blog.

    Writing and Presenting Your Information

    It's time to start writing.  Here are some basic tips to keep in mind as you get started:

    • Make sure you have enough information to support your ideas.
    • Take the information you have found in the sources you gathered and integrate it in with your own thoughts and ideas.
    • Knowing the arguments that can be made against your own thoughts and ideas can help you argue them more effectively.

    There are a couple of different ways you can integrate the information from your sources into your paper.

    1. Paraphrasing - a restatement of a small part of another writer’s text in your own words. Be careful to avoid making a couple simple word changes. Instead, you need to focus on putting the ideas and thoughts into your own words to better help your audience understand what the author is saying. Examples: ​

      According to Jones (1998), APA style is a difficult citation format for first-time learners.​ APA style is a difficult citation format for first-time learners (Jones, 1998, p. 199).​

    2. Quoting - use the exact words of another writer in the text of your paper. Don’t forget the quotation marks​. Examples: According to Jones (1998), "Students often had difficulty using APA style, especially when it was their first time" (p. 199).​ She stated, "Students often had difficulty using APA style" (Jones, 1998, p. 199), but she did not offer an explanation as to why. (Examples from Purdue OWL)


    Please Note:  Certain disciplines as well as the APA citation style prefer the use of paraphrasing instead of directly quoting source material.

    Tips for Success: Please don't forget to proofread your paper before you turn it in.  You can often catch more errors if you print out your papers and read them aloud to youself instead of attempting to proofread on the screen. If you need help refining your thesis statement, organizing your paper, developing transitions between paragraphs, integrating information from outside sources into your paper, or addressing grammar and mechanics, you should consider making an appointment with a writing tutor. Please visit for more information about Academic Success Center Services and their appointment calendar.


    APA Help

    Resources for the latest (7th) edition of APA:

    Chicago Manual of Style Help

    Resources for the Chicago Manual of Style:

    Citation Generators

    You can easily Google citation generators and find a bunch of them online. You may have even used them in high school. The most important thing to know about citation generators is that you always need to proofread the citations they give you. These citations are generated by computers, and computers are imperfect. Double-check that all the information is there: author, title, date, etc. Is the title capitalized properly? Is the author's name spelled correctly? Does the link work?

    Many of the library databases have a "Cite" button on the source's information page that will generate citations for you. Use this help carefully!  Don't just copy and paste this information without checking to make sure all the pieces of the citation are correct!

    Plagiarism and Citing Sources

    Citing is an extremely important part of the writing process.  Citing your sources: 

    • Makes your points stronger​.
    • Provides you with credibility as a scholar/researcher in the field​.
    • Gives credit to those whose information you are using.
    • Lets your readers know where to find more information on your topic​.

    Generally, common knowledge does not need to be cited, but we encourage students to follow the rule of when in doubt, cite!

    Speaking of citing, failing to do so can result in plagiarism. Plagiarism consists of using other people’s thoughts, words, and ideas as your own without giving credit or listing the source of your information. To avoid plagiarizing the words of others, it helps to:​

    • Avoid procrastination​.
    • Take lots of notes and keep track of your sources. Note: take the notes in your own words, so that you already have your paraphrased thoughts for later.​
    • Include both in-text citations throughout the paper and a Works Cited/References page at the end of your paper.​

    Tip for Success!
    Librarians can help you with both your in-text and end-of-paper citations.