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Criminal Justice Research Methodology : Research Guides | UTC Library

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This module should take you 30 minutes to complete. It will walk you through the process of using Criminal Justice Abstracts database for your research. Click the blue button above to begin.


Below is information about how to conduct a literature review. 

After submitting the Library Instruction Module, feel free to review:

What is Empirical Research?

Empirical research is based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief. 

How do you know if a study is empirical? Read the subheadings within the article, book, or report and look for a description of the research "methodology." Ask yourself: Could I recreate this study and test these results?

Key characteristics to look for:

  • Specific research questions to be answered
  • Definition of the population, behavior, or phenomena being studied
  • Description of the process used to study this population or phenomena, including selection criteria, controls, and testing instruments (such as surveys)

Another hint: some scholarly journals use a specific layout, called the "IMRaD" format, to communicate empirical research findings. Such articles typically have 4 components:

  • Introduction: sometimes called "literature review" -- what is currently known about the topic -- usually includes a theoretical framework and/or discussion of previous studies
  • Methodology: sometimes called "research design" -- how to recreate the study -- usually describes the population, research process, and analytical tools
  • Results: sometimes called "findings" -- what was learned through the study -- usually appears as statistical data or as substantial quotations from research participants
  • Discussion: sometimes called "conclusion" or "implications" -- why the study is important -- usually describes how the research results influence professional practices or future studies

You should also see an Abstract, or short summary, and a References section with all of the works cited in the article.

Where Should I Search?

Criminal Justice Abstracts

Criminal Justice Abstracts is the top recommended database for the field of Criminal Justice. Find it at the top of the Criminal Justice Research Guide, or follow these directions:

  1. Click Databases button on the library's homepage 
  2. Search for Criminal Justice Abstracts, or limit by subject to Criminal Justice and it will be in the top results.

Other places to search:

Choose the Best Keywords

Why are keywords important?

By this point in your college career, you have had a chance to search library databases. You understand that you need keywords (not sentences) when you search a database. However, using criminal justice related keywords might be new territory.

Natural Language vs. Database Language

Natural language refers to the common way that we speak in everyday life. Database language refers to how a database classifies a concept and is usually very technical and academic in nature. Though most databases are great at matching natural language entered with database terminology, it’s important for you to begin recognizing specialized terminology. Some examples include:

Natural Language Database Language
Teenager Adolescent
Opioid Addiction Opioid Use Disorder
Social Withdrawal Social Anhedonia
ADHD Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity 
Gender Identity Issues Gender Dysphoria


Where to Find Synonyms

  1. The Internet: Is your search term or concept called anything else? Look it up in an online encyclopedia to find out. For example, in the Wikipedia entry for "hypertension", the synonym high blood pressure is quickly identified in the opening sentence. This is true for most Wikipedia entries for social science and medical terminology. It is Wikipedia, so exercise caution when using this as a background reading source.
  2. Other background sources: You can also easily find synonyms in other background sources, including your lecture notes, textbooks, and print encyclopedias (yes, they still exist!).
  3. Use database subject headings: If you run a search and find a good article, look at the subject terms listed by the database. Use those terms in subsequent searches. 


  1. Start with your research question:
    Are there sentencing disparities for the same crime based on the gender of the perpetrator?
  1. Sort out the major terms. In this case:  
    sentencing AND disparities AND gender
  1. Make a list of synonyms and related terms for each of your major terms.

    Synonyms and related terms for the word sentencing:

    • Prison sentences

    • Criminal sentencing 

    • Punishment

  • Synonyms and related terms for gender might include:

    • Men

    • Women

    • Sex

Build a Search Strategy

Now that you've formulated a research question and developed some keywords, it's time to create a search strategy. Each of the following sections will help you build and properly conduct your search.

Search Operators (AND, OR, & NOT)

These operators can be used in Library databases, but also work really well in Google! They are important for creating efficient, effective searches.

Operator Purpose Example Search

Expands the search.

Used to string synonyms together.

Results include all articles with any of the terms used.





Narrows the search.

All retrieved results must include all terms connected with AND.

AND usually combines different concepts together in one search.

AND is assumed between words in Google.

United States




Excludes results with a specific term.

Really handy to eliminate unwanted search results.




​Phrase Searching

Use quotation marks to search for phrases. Phrase searching is excellent when the desired result is specificity.

Example: Searching for "United States" will retrieve results where both terms are used together in the specified order.


Google Site Searching

Google site searching can help search across various government websites or can help you better search poorly indexed websites. Site searches should be typed into the browser search bar (where the web address is located). 

Site Searching by URL

  • site:URL plus search terms
Example: Drug Incarceration will retrieve results from only the Bureau of Justice Statistics website that are related to drug incarcerations.

Site Searching by Domain

Example: Drug Incarceration will retrieve results from all websites ending in .gov with the term drug incarceration.


To keep organized while you research, you should start a spreadsheet for yourself. Add columns for the citation (including the URL of the article), and once you read it, track the authors' research question, methods, findings and themes. You will see themes or facts emerge as you read more and more articles. 

Here's an example Literature Review Matrix for you to view. Download a sample matrix as an Excel file and edit with your own sources.


Literature Review Matrix

A research question is the question around which you center your research. It should be:

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious and/or passionate about.

When deciding on a research question, follow these steps:

  1. Background research- use Google to find articles about the topic you are interested in.
  2. READ- read a few articles.
  3. Keep track- write down keywords, related phrases, synonyms that are used while reading up on your topic. Keep track of what keyword combinations you use.
  4. Explore perspectives- What viewpoints or angles surround your topic?

Example topic: United States incarceration rates

Example Perspective: United states incarceration rates due to drug convictions 

Example perspective: United states incarceration rates and juvenile offenders

You should be able to brainstorm several perspectives or angles for your topic. Is there a psychological issue? Legal issue? Policing issue? Identify whichever perspective interests you most and focus on that for your research question.

Example Research Question:

Are the current incarceration policies in line with public perception of incarceration for drug related crimes?

SAGE Research Methods

SAGE Research Methods is a how-to database. It is not where you go to find articles, instead, it's where you can find resources to help you become a better researcher. 

Some highlights:

  • Project Planner- provides articles on each step of the research process, from designing a research question to analyzing and presenting results
  • Methods- provides information about the most common research methods used, including surveys, interviews, and observational research
  • Which Stats Test?- provides a short quiz to help you select the write statistical tool for the research you are trying to conduct, and provides information about statistics.

SAGE Research Methods has relevant information about using SPSS, conducting interviews, best practices for creating survey questions, and tons of case studies that you could model your own work on.

A note about citations:


When using citations generated by the databases or a citation generating software always double check that the citation is accurate. The APA’s style site includes reference examples for the most commonly cited formats.

Criminal Justice Research Guide

Finding Data

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Data and Statistics Guide

Find data in library databases and freely available resources across disciplines, time periods, and geographies. This guide also provides strategies for searching for data beyond the linked resources.

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