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Researching a Paper

Tips for Selecting a Research Topic

Choose a topic which interests you personally or one you are curious about.

Selecting a topic might be the most difficult part of doing research. Is it too big? Is it too narrow? Will there be enough information on it? Look at the CQ Researcher (INDEX H35 .E351) or Taking Sides (REFERENCE HN5 .T2) for ideas. By doing some quick background reading in your textbooks or some of the more specialized resources in the library, you can often get ideas for topics. Look at your own personal experience, news stories, or editorials. If you still can't come up with an idea, take a look at the Helping Handout on Topics for Term Papers for additional ideas or discuss your idea with your instructor or ask a reference librarian for assistance.


Define Your Topic

Ask Yourself Questions About Your Topic:

  • What aspects of the topic do I find interesting: historical, sociological, psychological, political, etc.?

  • What do I know about it? What don't I know?
  • When. What time period do I want to cover?
  • Where. On what geographic region do I want to focus?
  • What is the main idea of my paper?
  • What specific ideas am I trying to describe or prove?
  • What academic discipline does my topic fit into?

    For example, a paper on ancient China might focus on:

    a) an aspect: trade and commerce among the Chinese and Western Europeans

    b) period of time: China and its colonization by Great Britain

    c) event: the Opium Wars
  • What kind of information do I need?
    • a brief summary or a lengthy explanation?
    • periodical articles, books, essays, encyclopedia articles?
    • statistics?

For any information you need, you must recognize when it is needed and develop the skills to be able to locate, evaluate, and use the information effectively.


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You may want to state your topic as a question
Since most research involves finding the answer to a question or hypothesis, your topic could be written in the form of a question and then the key ideas or concepts could be isolated.
Consider questions that focus on how a particular discipline would intersect with your topic, as the environmental impact, social policy, economic, medical and psychological impacts, aesthetics, design, political considerations, as well as approaches from other fields of study.
Example: Does the violence which children see on television influence their behavior?

Select a topic with a moderate amount of published information.
Remember that if your topic is current, the best place to start may be an examination of the periodical literature. If your topic deals with a subject which has developed within the last couple of years, insufficient time may have elapsed for books to be published about it.

Be flexible! Unforeseen circumstances may require a shift of focus.
It is probable that in the course of a research project, you will have to modify your topic at least once.


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Identify the Main Concepts in Your Topic
Read your topic statement and try to identify the most essential concepts by circling them and make a list of them.
In this example: "Does the violence which children see on television influence their behavior?" the main concepts are:

1. Violence
2. Children
3. Television

Your topic may have just two main concepts, or perhaps more. The most important thing to remember is that each time you add another concept to your topic, you may be making it more specific, thereby reducing the amount of source material you are likely to find. For example, if the concept "at school" is added to the topic in the example given above, research on behavior which occurs at home, and in other social contexts, would be eliminated.


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Find Synonyms for Your Main Concepts
This step is very important because the tools which you will be using to locate information (reference books, catalogs, indexes, databases, etc.) have been published by different publishing companies which may use different words for the same idea. It is critical to have alternative vocabulary in mind, in case the first term you use for searching yields no results.

Here are some possible synonyms for the main concepts in the example given above:

1. Violence: aggression, conflict, combat, disorderly conduct
2. Children: child, juveniles, youth, young people, adolescents
3. Television: TV, television viewing, video

Sometimes the easiest way to find synonyms is to use a thesaurus. The Library owns several. Examples:

The Doubleday Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (REFERENCE PE1591 .D6 1987)
Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus (REFERENCE PE1591 .W38 )


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Test Your Topic
Test the main concepts or keywords of your topic by looking them up in the appropriate background sources or by using them as search terms in the library's catalog and in periodical databases or indices.


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Narrow Your Topic
You might discover that there is too much published information for your topic, it might be too broad. You will have to find a way to limit the scope of your search, or narrow the topic to something manageable. Look for relationships, parallels and opportunities for narrower associations. For example, if you chose the topic "Crime " you will find hundreds of sources. This is a clue that you should narrow the topic. What aspect interests you? Computer crimes? Education and crime? White collar crime?

Here are some possible ways to make the topic in the example given above more specific:

1. Violence: limit to murder, fighting, verbal abuse, or domestic violence
2. Children: narrow by age, gender, or ethnicity
3. Television: limit to cartoons, commercials, MTV, or sitcoms

One way to narrow your topic is to read an encyclopedia article. This will give you a good basic introduction to your subject and will break it down into smaller topics. This also gives you important terms and vocabulary as well as the names of important persons related to your topic. Encyclopedias are also useful for a quick summary of basic ideas. Bibliographies, or list of references to other books and articles, at the end of encyclopedia articles can lead you to other sources of information.

Check your topic in a periodical index such as the several InfoTrac databases available on the online catalog or Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. Viewing subject headings or descriptors will give you ideas on limiting your subject. For example, a search under "AIDS" leads you to subheadings such as "causes" or "demographic aspects." Checking the online computer catalog under the broad topic will also provide more specific subject headings.

The table of contents usually located near the beginning of a book on your topic is another good method for breaking a topic into smaller aspects. These are usually listed as chapter headings. Examining a book's index, located at the end of the book, is also helpful.


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Broaden Your Topic
If the amount of information published on your topic is insufficient you may be forced to broaden your topic. If your topic is too specific, specialized or new, it will be difficult finding enough information . For example, look for information on alcoholics instead of children of alcoholics. Use words with similar meanings, i.e. alcoholic beverages or beer or wine or liquor. Using truncation with your search terms also broadens the search and increases the number of items you find, i.e. wom* for women and woman.
Think of Ways to Broaden Your Main Concepts
Here are some possible ways to make the topic in the example given above more general:

  1. Violence: use anti-social behavior in general
  2. Children: include teenagers (synonyms = teens, adolescents, young adults)
  3. Television: use mass media in general

You will probably refine and refocus your topic several times before you finalize it.


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Determining if the Information Meets Your Needs

  • What is the scope and purpose of the work?
  • For what audiences is it intended: general public, students, professionals?
  • Is the information found or contained in the most appropriate format for your topic: print, slide, film, audio, electronic?
  • Can the data be transferred or manipulated electronically?
  • Is it presented clearly and objectively?
  • Is it suitable for your level of understanding of the subject, or is it too simple or too difficult?
  • Are you able to retrieve the information needed through tables of contents, indexes or other locators?
  • Does it have the features you need: graphs, charts, tables, glossaries, maps, illustrations?
  • Is the information current enough for your topic or do you need historical information?
  • What is the geographical coverage or orientation?

To summarize:

  • Select a manageable topic
  • Read through background information
  • Narrow or broaden and refine your topic based on initial research
  • Start making a list of key words

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Finding Background Information to Get an Overview of Your Topic
It helps to get a general overview of the subject when beginning a research project. Ask the librarian at the Reference Desk to direct you to reference books which include essays or survey articles on your topic. The reference sections at the Library contain specialized handbooks and encyclopedias for many academic disciplines.

Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
You can find encyclopedias and dictionaries for specific topics by using the online catalog and by adding the terms dictionaries or encyclopedias to your subject heading. Or by asking a reference librarian to suggest appropriate titles.

Subject dictionaries are useful to help define unfamiliar terms. The way terms are used in some fields can be very different from standard everyday usage and this is a quick way to build a useful list of key words to search on.

Find your topic in a specialized encyclopedia, dictionary, or handbook to read and look up your keywords. This will help give you the broader context for your research and tells you in general terms what is known about your topic. The most common background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries from the reference collection. Textbooks and lecture notes also provide additional background information. Note any useful sources in the bibliographies at the end of the encyclopedia article or at the end of the chapter or book. This is a good starting point for further research. You will also have a large list of books and articles compiled for your topic very quickly.

Using Bibliographies
A bibliography is a list of books, articles and sometimes other materials such as films and recordings.
They can be entire books, within books, or at the end of journal or encyclopedia articles. These are often overlooked resources that can be a large source of related materials. Some are even annotated, with short descriptions of each entry. A well-organized, carefully selected and annotated bibliography can lead you to the best and most relevant sources on your topic.


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To summarize:
Read about your topic in specialized encyclopedias or handbooks
Locate relevant online or print periodical indexes
Check dictionaries for terms
Use key words to search.
Use other bibliographies to expand your own bibliography of research materials


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