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Researching at the Library: Choose a Topic

Research tips, resources, basics, and links to course-specific research guides.

Select a Paper Topic

Researching is a process. You may find that your original idea doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t work as you intended. You may need to re-brainstorm and re-reseach several times.

Picking a topic and outlining your paper is the most important step in writing a research paper! You cannot produce a good paper if you don’t know what you are trying to say.

Focus your topic on a narrow, specific issue, theme, or argument. Which questions do you want to answer? Which aspect of your topic do you want to focus on?

  • Brainstorm ideas.
  • Check assignment requirements.
  • List terms, concepts, and keywords. You will need these terms in searching.

Read more at Choosing a Topic by Duke University Libraries.

Help for Finding a Topic

The books below may be especially useful:

  • Pro/Con (REF 170 PRO) – 24 books, each one a different subject containing arguments pro and con.
  • Taking Sides (REF 170 TAK) – 20 books divided into issues with arguments on both sides of an issue.

In addition, take a look at the following online resources:

Brainstorm Your Topic

Find a way that works for YOU. Examples include the following:

Inquiry Model: Connect – Wonder – Investigate – Construct – Express – Reflect. (Accessing this example requires a Govs Moodle login.)

Mind maps: draw a tree diagram or an image using connected bubbles. The Inspiration mind mapping program can be found in the school computer Start menus. (Go to: All Programs > Govs > Inspiration). Online tools include Mindomo (browse their mind map gallery for examples).

Notetaking grids: fill in a form to aid your thinking process. (Accessing this example requires a Govs Moodle login.)

Find Background Information

Start with an overview. Look at encyclopedias found in the reference (REF) section on the 1st floor, or Encyclopedia Britannica Online, for example.

In Wikipedia, the best sources of further information are listed on the bottom of the page, either in the References section or in External Links.

REMEMBER: Wikipedia is a good place to start your search, but it is a bad place to end it.

Add words onto your list of terms from the brainstorming step. If you are finding too much information, your topic is too wide; if you are not getting enough information, it is too narrow. Revise your list of terms and questions.

You may need to narrow or broaden your initial idea for a topic.

An example of narrowing down:
   >> attitudes to fashion in the urban U.S. among college age youth in the 1920s (added aspect, location, age group, and time span)

Examples of broadening:
Are genetically altered soybeans safe for consumers?
   >> bioengineered or genetically altered foods [alternate focus], OR
   >> bioengineered foods in US, Europe [alternate locations], OR
   >> labeling foods; food regulations [alternate aspect]

Read more at How to Narrow or Broaden Your Topic by UCLA College Library.

Remember: research cannot always be planned, as research and writing are closely connected. As you read and learn more, you may realize gaps in your thinking which require rethinking and re-researching. Give yourself enough time to think and do preliminary reading.

Find Search Terms & Vocabulary

Keywords are terms (words and phrases) used to search electronic databases, online library catalogs, and the Internet for information. Keywords allow you to create an effective search phrase. The first keywords to try should represent the key concepts of your topic.

Think of as many synonyms and alternate phrases as you can, for example death penaltycapital punishment. Write all of them down. When searching, keep track of which words or phrases give you the best results.

Find synonyms with a thesaurus or dictionary. Use built-in thesauri in word processing programs,, or Visual Thesaurus.

Wordle can be useful in finding the most important terms in a digital text (an article summary, for instance). Copy&paste the text into Wordle and let the program work its magic.

As you learn more about your topic, you may discover gaps in your arguments that require re-researching and re-thinking your viewpoint. You must answer your research questions. If your paper does not make reference to and provide answers for them, go back and revise.

Researching is a repetitive process. Some breakthroughs are not based on diligent research but chance. Repetitive researching helps you recognize the value of something when you stumble across it.

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