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This is a general guide for students of English. Please contact the librarian if you have questions.

Reading Background Information to Help you Choose a Topic: Reference Databases

  • Find something that interests you
  • Write out your topic as a statement and select the main concepts
  • Use those main concepts to make a list of words to describe your topic
  • Read background information

Find something that interests you:
Selecting a topic is sometimes the most difficult part of doing research. Start by choosing a topic that you like or are curious about. If you are having trouble coming up with a topic, take a look at the CQ Researcher database, where you will find short, in-depth reports on contemporary topics.  It might give you some ideas.

Write out your topic as a statement and select the main concepts:
Write it out as a short sentence or question and look at the different components that make up your statement. For example, the research statement Can the 'occupy' protest movement influence politics and effect better distribution of wealth?" has three main concepts:
      1. occupy protest movement
      2. politics
      3. distribution of wealth

Make a list of works that describe your topic -- searchable key words:

Start making a list of the key words that you will use as you search for your topic. If you're having a hard time, ask me or another librarian to help you -- believe or not, often students and faculty need us to do just that -- help them find more key words to search with. 

Combine your key words using AND and OR to produce a final set that contains elements of all key concepts, which becomes your search strategy

("occupy movement" OR pro-

test) AND politics AND 

"distribution of wealth"

Read background information:
Taking some time to read about your topic in a specialized encyclopedia, dictionary or handbook may be one of the most effective and time saving research tips on this list. You will probably refine and refocus your topic several times before you finalize it.  Encyclopedia articles are often followed by bibliographies or lists of references to other works, which can help you begin looking for additional information. And again, I recommend CQ Researcher or Gale Opposing Viewpoints as a places to begin. 

Reference Databases

Consider the Scope of your Question

If your question has an easy "yes" or "no" answer, it's probably not a research question. Similarly, if your topic would require tremendous background knowledge, experience, or collection of lots of data, you may not have chosen a feasible question. Your research question should be narrow enough to work on in the time that you have during your semester and broad enough to to be able to locate supporting information ("sources").

Now is the time to talk with your instructor if you have doubts about the amount of work it will take to investigate your question. 

Topic Too Narrow or Too Broad

Your topic needs to be scalable to your paper. Make sure it isn’t too broad or too narrow. If you notice any of the following while searching for articles and books, you may need to refine your topic. 

Too Broad? Too Narrow?
can be summed up in one or two words difficult to figure out where you would locate information (e.g., data may not exist)
difficult to come up with a thesis statement hard to research because there is so little information (e.g., you only found 3 or 4 results in your searching)
hard to research because there is so much information (e.g., you found 1000s of hits in your searching)  


If your topic is too broad:

Apply journalistic question words to your topic to narrow your focus. (e.g., “Global Warming” > “Global Warming on reptiles in Australia” = what, where)

Who | What | Where | When | Why | How

If your topic is too narrow:

Remove one aspect of your topic and/or use the question words to back up a step.