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Get Started with Research

Overview

Choosing your topic is the first step in the research process. Be aware that selecting a good topic may not be easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information. 

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#1 Research tip: Pick a topic that interests you!  You are going to live with this topic for weeks while you research, read, and write your assignment. Choose something that will hold your interest and that you might even be excited about. Your attitude towards your topic will come across in your writing or presentation!

 

 

 

Brainstorming is a technique you can use to help you generate ideas. Below are brainstorming exercises and resources to help you come up with research topic ideas. 

Ask yourself the following questions to help you generate topic ideas:

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Did you read or see a news story recently that has interested you?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem or interest that you would like to know more about?
  • Is there an aspect of one of your classes that you would like to learn more about?

 

Try these mind mapping tools!

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Background information can help you prepare for further research by explaining all the issues related to your topic, especially when you're investigating a field that's unfamiliar to you. 

Tips:

  • Check for background information in: dictionaries, handbooks, and encyclopedias.
  • Look for facts in: statistical guides, almanacs, biographical sources, or handbooks.
  • Collect keywords or important terms, concepts, and author names to use when searching databases.
  • Start thinking in broad terms, then narrow down your topic. 
  • Look at bibliographies to guide you to other sources of information (books, articles, etc.)

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Keywords are the main terms that describe your research question or topic.  

  1. Identify the main concepts in your research question. Typically there should only be two or three main concepts.
  2. Look for keywords that best describe these concepts.
  3. You can look for keywords when reading background information or encyclopedia articles on your topic.
  4. Use a thesaurus, your textbook and subject headings in databases to find different keywords.

It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable.

If you are finding too much information, your research topic may be too BROAD.  

Broad Topic:  Global warming

Narrower Topic:  How will climate change impact the sea levels of the coastal United States?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too NARROW.

Narrow Topic:  Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age seven?

Broader:  What are the negative effects of TV on children?

Once you have refined your topic, the next step is to formulate a research question.  

Your research question should be focused and specific.  The question should allow for two or more possible answers.  See examples below:

There are many different types of information sources that can be useful for your research.  See the different types available at the LETU Library.

The chart below lists some common sources with example to help you evaluate and select the best sources for your research project.

Generating Search Terms

To retrieve the most relevant search results, you will need to construct a search string

A search string is a combination of keywords, truncation symbols, and boolean operators you enter into the search box of a library database or search engine.

When trying to find information, it is best to try several different search strings in the library databases or search engine.  Try out the keyword generator to create search strings!

 

A critical step in the research process is evaluating the information you found.  It is important to select information that comes from a reputable source.   Scholarly resources should be used in academic writing.

Below are questions to ask yourself when evaluating books, magazines and websites.

Publisher — who published or sponsored this work? Are they reputable?

Credentials — who is the author (or authors)? Are qualifications or degrees listed?

Accuracy — can the information be verified in other respected sources?

Currency — is the information’s publishing date current enough for the topic of the research paper? For subject areas that change frequently, like medicine, politics or finance, use the most up-to-date information.

Bias — does the author or publisher express an opinion (example: newspaper editorial) or is the information factual (like statistics). Does bias affect the information’s accuracy?

Audience — who is the information written for — a specific readership, level of expertise or age/grade level? Is the audience focus appropriate for a research paper?

Website Evaluation

Because the web is self-published, it requires the most critical analysis before use in a research paper. 

Beyond the basic criteria mentioned for all resources look for additional proof of value in websites. Some hoax sites look very credible until viewed with a critical eye.

Look for: 

  • Mission/Vision/Purpose Statement — reveals purpose of the website and point of view. 
  • Credentials — a well-regarded sponsoring organization or an expert author. (Webpage content may not list an individual author.) 
  • Date of last revision — this reveals how recently the content of a website has been reviewed. 
  • Contact information — is there a physical address and telephone number the researcher can use to contact a real person with questions? 
  • Loaded language — words that assign emotional value can be used to manipulate attitude. “Patriot” sounds better than “vigilante,” “insurgency” less scary than “civil war.” 
  • Links — do other reputable websites link to the website and does it link to other reputable sites. 

Style Guides to Consult

Academic organizations and some disciplines outline their own styles of how to cite sources and format research papers.  You may have heard of or used some of the styles before.   

Consult these print and online style guides for examples of citing sources in the text of your paper and in a bibliography or reference list.  See also information about citation software supported by LETU Library.

MLA: Modern Language Association [Humanities]

APA: American Psychological Association [Social Sciences] 

CMS: Chicago Manual of Style [Theology and Various Subjects]

ACS: American Chemical Society

IEEE: Institute of Electronics & Electrical Engineers 

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Finding Topic Ideas

Try the resources below to help you generate ideas for possible research topics:

  • Scan your textbook.
  • Use the Library's Articles and News databases to browse contents of current journals, magazines, and newspapers.  If you do not know how to browse current issues ask a librarian for help.
  • Browse encylopedias.
  • Discuss topics with instructor, librarian, or classmate.