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Research Basics: Develop a Topic

Develop a topic, use the library catalog and databases, evaluate and cite sources.

Five Steps for a Well Defined Research Focus

  1. Select a topic that is narrow enough for your assignment, grounded in fact, and challenging enough to keep you interested. 
  2. Find background information about your topic in encyclopedias, textbooks, and online to help focus your research.
  3. Compare what you do know with what you still need to know, and develop research questions.
  4. Identify descriptive keywords in your research questions that you can use to search for information.
  5. Refine your topic as you become familiar with current research and trends. Topic development is ongoing.

Choosing a Topic

Is your topic assigned?
  • Topics that are assigned by your professor are often broad or somewhat general.
  • Focus in on a related topic  or subtopic  that is interesting to you.
Do you get to choose your own topic?
  • Choose something interesting because you will be working on it for quite some time!
  • Be sure your topic is focused enough to be covered thoroughly in a 5-10 page research paper.
In either case:
  • Carefully review the details of the research assignment.
  • Check with your professor to confirm the scope of the assignment.
    • How many pages does you paper need to have?
    • How many sources do you need to have?
    • What kinds of sources are required or allowed?

Preliminary Research (Pre-search)

Preliminary research gives you a better sense of the topic.
  • Basic concepts, principles, approaches
  • More focused aspects
  • Key terminology
Common sources for preliminary research:
  • Google/web browser
  • Encyclopedia articles or Wikipedia
  • Course textbooks

Narrow, Grounded, Challenging

Narrow: a good fit for the assignment parameters

A topic is too narrow if you can’t find enough information to answer your research question.
A topic is too broad if you are overwhelmed by the amount of information you find.
You can narrow or broaden a topic by adding or eliminating:
--a time period (year, decade, century)
--a specific population (male, female, child, adult, nationality)
--a geographic area (state, region, country)

Broad question: Why is physical education important in school?
Narrow question: What are the health benefits of physical education in elementary school?

Grounded: not speculative or biased

Research questions should be grounded in fact, able to be answered by means of evidence-based research, so avoid "what-if" questions. 
Unless specified by the assignment, research questions that center on philosophical, ethical, or religious issues are not appropriate, so avoid "could/should" questions.

Biased question: Why is music file-sharing harmful?
Grounded question: How has music file-sharing affected earning potential of professional musicians?

Challenging: intellectually interesting

A bland question is one that does not require much inquiry to answer. If your question can be answered by one source, it is too bland.
To answer an interesting question, you may need to answer several bland questions.

Bland questions: What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? What treatments are available for OCD? Which OCD treatments are best for kids/adults?
Challenging question: Which treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder are most effective throughout the lifespan?

Topic > Research Question > Keywords

What's Next?

Once you've narrowed your broad topic to one that fits your assignment parameters, turn it into a research question (or thesis). Then identify the most descriptive keywords in your question or thesis, and use these keywords to navigate information sources for books, articles, and websites.

Broad topic: Fad diets
Narrow topic: Negative health effects of low carbohydrate diets
Research question: What are the negative health effects of low carbohydrate diets?
Keywords: (negative) effects, "low carbohydrate" or low-carb, diet or diets

Broad topic: Teen suicide
Narrow topic: Use of anti-depressant drugs and teen suicide
Research question: How has the widespread use of antidepressant drugs affected teen suicide rates?
Keywords: "antidepressant drugs" "teen suicide"

Broad topic: Technology in schools
Narrow topic: Effects of technology on learning and cognition in early childhood education
Research question: How has the use of technology in early childhood education impacted learning and cognition?
Keywords: technology, "early childhood," education, learning, cognition
How to Select a Topic

How to Select a Topic video by Credo Reference

How to Select a Topic by Credo Reference

Using Pre-Research

Using Pre-Research Video

Using Pre-Research to Understand Your Topic by Credo Reference

Narrow Your Topic

Topic Too Broad Video

What to Do When Your Topic is Too Broad by Credo Reference

One Perfect Source? No Such Thing!

One Perfect Source? by NCSU Libraries on YouTube

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

Databases with Topic Browsing

CREDO Reference
Choose from an array of topics in the Humanities, Health & Medicine, and Environmental Sciences. Read encyclopedia articles to gain a better understanding of the topic and associated issues.

CQ Researcher
Use the Browse by Topic tab to find in-depth reports about many social issues.

Gale In Context: Global Issues
Use the Browse Issues tab for access to topic overviews on hundreds of current topics.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License