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Research Help

Learn about the research process, choosing and defining a topic, searching for the best information from library resources and on the web, and more.

Choosing and Defining Your Topic

  1. What is your assignment? Are you writing a paper or making a speech?  Make sure you understand what your assignment requires and ask your instructor if any details are unclear. 
  2. Your topic - If you are free to choose, what topic interests you? What question would you like to answer? If your instructor assigns a topic making a personal connection will make your research more interesting and meaningful.
  3. What types of sources can you use? Be sure to understand whether or not you need books, articles, or websites. If you need articles, do they need to be peer-reviewed

Defining/Narrowing Your Topic

For many topics, you'll find a lot of information. You might need to narrow your focus to make your research manageable. 

1. Brainstorm concepts and terms connected to your topic and jot them down.  Consider these questions:               

     What: What is the nature of your topic? Is it a social problem? Is it an issue with various viewpoints?
     Who: Who are the groups or individuals involved in/affected by this topic?
     Where: Is the topic limited to or reflective of a specific region? Is it global?
     When: When did the topic become an issue? When did it start being addressed?
     Why: What caused the topic? Why is it an issue in society?
     How: How is this topic addressed/solved/treated? How is it viewed by different or competing groups?

2. Find some background. Reliable sources of background information include your textbook, reference books, or books. These can help you focus your topic and locate search words. You may also need background information for the "Introduction" section of your paper or project.

3. Don't get too narrow. If your topic is too specific, you may find that little research exists to support your ideas in a paper.

Remember: research takes time! You might change the focus of your research as you locate and filter information. This is totally fine! If you want to change your topic completely, however, check with your faculty member.

Keywords and Search Terms

Once you have a better-defined topic, forming a research question can help you start your search. From your research question, you can mine some search terms to plug into the library catalog and/or research databases.

Example: You have decided to write about poverty--specifically, homelessness in low-income neighborhoods. You have learned from your background reading that severe mental illness is much more common among the homeless than in the general population. You wonder if mental illness is a risk factor for homelessness. If so, why not provide better treatment for mental health problems to prevent people from becoming homeless? Your research question might look like this:

Does the availability of free or low-cost health care for mental illness in low-income communities reduce homelessness?

Take some keywords from your question and think of some other ways of stating them. Now you have several search terms you can try in various combinations.


Worksheet adapted from: Carter, T. M. (2008). Library instruction for freshmen: Avoiding repetition or the inevitable "we've done this before." Paper presented at the Georgia Conference on Information Literacy, Savannah, GA.

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