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I walk through a hypothetical student project and explain how I, as an academic librarian, would assist throughout the whole process. This was originally written for my Academic Libraries class in the Spring of 2018.

Just as university students are encouraged to find creative solutions to research questions, librarians must also use creativity when aiding these students. In this report, we’ll examine the work of a hypothetical graduate student and how I, as an academic librarian, would be able to support their research process.

Our student in question is pursuing an advanced degree in linguistics and needs to complete a complex research project. This project will require extensive research, data collection, analysis, and project management skills. Although this student has had exposure to all of these elements through previous coursework, this upcoming project will take those skills to a new level. Feeling intimidated at the work looming ahead, this student chooses to seek guidance at the university library, which is where I enter the frame.

This report breaks down the student’s research process into several distinct steps, and I explain my role through each one. It covers topics that include database searches, reference management, data management, copyright, plagiarism, and ethics. In addition to descriptions of how I would help the student, this report also contains links to resources that I would use.

Step 1: Choosing a Topic

When I first meet this student, they would only have a general sense of what they want to research. They feel impassioned about English linguistics and want to study everything there is to know. But because good research is built on answering specific questions, we have to narrow the topic.


After bouncing around some ideas, I start to get the feeling that the student is especially interested in English pronoun use. They had read some literature on that topic earlier this semester, and they thought it raised some interesting ideas. I would suggest that they use that information to choose one specific problem or question. Here are a few possible research ideas based on the topic:

  1. How much are English-speakers using the singular “they” more or less than they were ten years ago?
  2. How much are English-speakers using gendered pronouns in gender-neutral situations more or less than they were ten years ago?
  3. How are inanimate objects, computer software, and abstract concepts gendered as masculine or feminine?

I would advise them that an ideal research problem is one that answers a real question that past researchers haven’t adequately covered. While the student should choose one that interests them personally, they may want to avoid any ones that they believe they can already answer. Finally, we will have to consider the requirements of their department, such as dissertation committees and chairs.

I would also provide the student guides and tools to identify a topic themselves. A couple of good ones include Mapping Your Research (Appling, 2016) which is a LibGuide at USC libraries, and How to Choose a Topic (Thomas Cooper Library: Tips & Tutorials, 2017) which is a video that explains the process in detail.

Making a Choice

With this in mind, the student would end up choosing a research problem which attempts to tackle these related topics: how are pronouns currently being used to indicate gender? To answer this question, the student wishes to analyze recent written American English newspapers and magazines and record their pronoun usage. This project will develop a table that records each pronoun in each work, and how it’s used to indicate gender. For example, it may indicate when a particular book uses “he” or “she” to refer to a genderless, anonymous subject. Or it may indicate when another book uses “they” to refer to a singular, gendered subject.

Since research can’t be performed in a vacuum, we need to find out what other researchers have found on the topic. This brings us to the next step.

Step 2: Gather Research


USC Libraries has access to a wealth of linguistics research. I would show the student our most recommended one, LLBA - Linguistics & Language Behavior Abstracts (ProQuest, n.d.). We have other sources as well, if LLBA doesn’t cover what they need. These are listed under the library’s linguistics articles and databases page (University of South Carolina, n.d.).

I have to make sure that the student understands how to find what they need on a database. I go over a few of the basic strategies, outlined in Table 1: LLBA search strategies.

Table 1: LLBA search strategies

Boolean operators
These search words use computer logic to refine results:
  • AND joins two or more search terms together.
  • OR will tell the system to retrieve results that contain either term.
  • NOT tells the system to exclude results containing a term.
This tool helps you use the database’s controlled vocabulary. The computer will have preferred words for specific terms or use different terms for ambiguous words. For example, LLBA prefers the term “Pronouns” versus “pronoun” or “pronominals.” It uses “Gender (Grammatical)” to classify articles about gendered words. It can also help you find terms related to these terms.
A question mark (?) can be a stand-in for any single character. For example, “wom?n” will search “women” or “woman.”An asterisk (\*) can be a stand-in for multiple characters, or no character. For example, “farm\*” retrieves “farmers” as well as “farming.”

Articles & Books

Using these tools, I’m able to assist the student in finding appropriate materials for their literature review. We find a couple of articles with practical studies on gendered pronouns on LLBA. The LaScotte (2016) piece surveys participants on their opinion on different pronoun usage, and the Balhorn (2009) piece reviews pronoun usage in newspapers. Both were published within the past ten years, and can work as a starting point on which to build new research.

  1. LaScotte, D. K. (2016). Singular they: An empirical study of generic pronoun use. American Speech, 91(1), 62.
  2. Balhorn, M. (2009). The epicene pronoun in contemporary newspaper prose. American Speech, 84(4), 391-413.

I also review the books available through the University of South Carolina libraries. We find four books in particular that may be useful. They all deal with linguistics, and have at least one chapter dedicated to gendered language.

  1. Åfarli, T. A., & Maehlum, B. (2014). The Sociolinguistics of Grammar. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  2. Pfenninger, S. E., & Navracsics, J. (Eds.). (2017). Future research directions for applied linguistics. Bristol ; Tonawanda, NY ; North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters.
  3. Tracy, K., & Robles, J. S. (2013). Everyday talk: building and reflecting identities (Second Edition). New York: The Guilford Press.
  4. Trask, R. L., & Stockwell, P. (2007). Language and linguistics: the key concepts (Second edition). Abingdon [England] ; New York: Routledge.

Reference Management

I would introduce the student to reference managers during this step. Although there are a lot of reference managers in existence, I choose to focus on Zotero because of its free and open-source nature. Software like Zotero can be valuable because it stores all of your references in a database that you can synchronize across computers. It also exports properly formatted citations, the feature which most users appreciate the most. I would show them how to install the Zotero browser add-ons and Microsoft Word add-on that let them further integrate Zotero into their workflow. SC Libraries has a great series of videos that explain Zotero (Snediker, 2018a).

Step 3: Gather Data

Once the student has reviewed the literature and found their definitive topic, they’re going to need to begin collecting and analyzing data for their research. In this case, the student wants to analyze various written texts and create a database that indexes how they use pronouns in different contexts. They will use the Nexis Uni database to aggregate articles written in top newspapers and magazines over the past year. Then they will take a random sample of 100 different articles and process them for data.

The data itself will look like a table. There will be one column for the source of the data, e.g. the article citation. Then there will be columns for the different pronouns: he/him, she/her, they/them, and you. Then there will be columns for masculine, feminine, and neuter, then columns for singular or plural. Finally, there will be a column where the researcher will input a text snippet or explanation of the entry.

With the exception of the first and last columns, each other column will have a “1” or a checkmark to indicate which pronoun, gender, and number it refers to. Other columns will have a “0.” Naturally, one article may be included in the table several times, one for each instance of a pronoun. The student can then use filters to calculate exactly how many different instances appear for each possible combination. See Figure 1 for an example.

Screenshot of a spreadsheet
Figure 1: sample data entry.

A separate table would exist to track citations for each article. That table would keep track of the different publishers and author gender. That way, the tables can be cross-referenced for insights into how publications or authors may differ.

This process will involve collecting and storing a great deal of text, most of it under copyright. To properly handle this responsibility, the student will need a plan.

Data Management Plan (DMP)

A novice researcher may not realize the importance of data they collect, and the need to have a plan to preserve, and possibly share, the data. Who would be responsible for keeping it? How will it be shared? How will it be made accessible years after this project is complete? These are all questions the student will have to answer.

Managing data properly will take a group effort. Not only will the student rely on university IT infrastructure to store and process it, they will also need to abide by the standards set by their department. For this, I would need to coordinate with a representative from the linguistics department to ensure that I am able to direct the student on how to store and manage data properly. Their policies will also help determine who is ultimately responsible for the data. I would then walk the student through the basics of data management, and show them USC’s comprehensive LibGuide that explains it (Winchester, 2018). We’ll go over how to make a data management plan, metadata, copyright, regulation, and security. I would also walk them through how to create a DMP using a tool like DMPTool (University of California Curation Center, n.d.).

After working with the student to teach them about using DMPTool, we’ll be able to create an effective DMP. You can view this plan here.


Another topic that will come up is copyright licensing. Because this student’s project involves analyzing text that will most likely be copyrighted, the student will have to be aware of those implications. They will have to be sure to obtain and use any copyrighted information only within its license. Any copyrighted material will not be able to be shared with the research or the data, except in fair use cases. Understanding copyright, and having a plan to deal with it, is critical to a successful project.

The student will only download texts on university workstations, and only for the purpose of the data analysis. Once the analysis is complete, the copyrighted text will not be stored. The only users with access to the text will be people involved with the data collection. Any snippets of data kept in the data will fall under fair use.

As long as all of these steps are followed, then there should be no risk of copyright violations during the course of this project.

Step 4: Developing a Sketch

Once the student has collected and analyzed the data, it is time to begin planning the research paper itself. At this point, my main focus is to ensure that the student understands the technicalities of writing a paper. Most of that should be covered in undergraduate courses, but it never hurts to refresh.

Plagiarism, Copyright, and Ethical Considerations

Plagiarism is always a looming danger, even unintentional plagiarism. I’ll make sure the student understands how to properly cite other research. Basically, any time the student uses ideas from someone else, even if they are rephrased in used in conjunction with original ideas, then that other researcher must be cited.

In addition, copyright will still be a concern. If any excerpts of copyrighted text are used in the student’s final report, will they fall under fair use? Copyright is not a simple subject, and sometimes it may be easier to not include problematic material, unless it would be impossible to convey the research results without it. Any potentially copyrighted material will have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in order to make the soundest judgement.

There are always ethical concerns as well. If the research data uses any personal text, will any private information be disclosed through the paper? What about any personally identifiable information? These are major issues that the student researcher must avoid.

Step 5: Writing a Draft

Finally, as the student begins writing the words of the final product, I’m almost through helping them. My responsibility now is to ensure the student has access to, and understands, proper paper formatting. This is another instance where I will need to refer to the linguistics department’s guidelines, since each group has different style standards. I can provide them access to the USC Citation Basics LibGuide (Snediker, 2018b), and guides such as OWL MLA Guide (“The Purdue OWL: MLA Style,” n.d.), for example, as well as the library’s reference books on style. Zotero has different settings for the different citation formats, so understanding those will also be important. Although software like Zotero makes citations easy, it’s always best to manually verify that they’re formatted correctly.


Anyone who’s done research knows that it’s not a linear process. Even though writing the draft is nominally the final step, plans inevitably change. New data necessitates reading new literature, and reading can open new avenues of research to pursue. I’m sure that I will see this student again as they cycle through the process, further refining their project. Naturally, I will be prepared to continue assisting the student, even when the steps repeat themselves.


  1. Appling, B. (2016, October 14). Library Guides: Mapping Your Research: Home. Retrieved from
  2. ProQuest. (n.d.). Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts. Retrieved from
  3. Snediker, K. (2018a, January 11). Library Guides: Zotero Tutorials: Zotero Tutorials. Retrieved from
  4. Snediker, K. (2018b, March 12). Library Guides: Citation Formats: Citation Basics. Retrieved from
  5. The Purdue OWL: MLA Style. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  6. Thomas Cooper Library: Tips & Tutorials. (2017). How to Choose a Topic. Retrieved from
  7. University of California Curation Center. (n.d.). DMPTool. Retrieved from
  8. University of South Carolina. (n.d.). Linguistics Article Databases. Retrieved from
  9. Winchester, S. (2018, March 26). Library Guides: Data Management: Data Management Basics. Retrieved from