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Research Toolkit

Answers for common research questions.

Topics & Search Strategies

The tabs below cover topics useful for getting started with research: choosing a topic, narrowing that topic, identifying key words to use in a database search, and more.

Choosing a Topic

This section will help you consider a topic for your research paper that is interesting to you, and that is researchable using library resources. When you select a topic and focused research question, you’ll want to consider a few things:

  • Does your assignment specify an area you'll need to write about? If not, does your class have a theme? Does your professor want your research topic to correspond to that theme?
  • What do YOU find interesting? You are going to spend hours reading information, thinking about how the information fits together, and then writing pages of critical analysis about your topic. This will be a more pleasant experience for you if you are genuinely interested in the topic you choose.
  • Keep in mind that when you are searching for information about your topic, you can only find information that has been published. This means you’re looking for a topic that other people are talking about, thinking about, and writing about. So, it needs to be interesting to you, but also to others.
  • Don’t forget that you already know things! Many research papers start from the spark of an idea from something we hear or witness in the world around us.

Remember, your research question is NOT your thesis statement; it’s exploratory. If you start doing research and discover that people are writing articles about a more interesting (or easier to research) question, you can always adjust your question as you collect information.

Ideally you will find a topic that genuinely interests you, and develop a clear, concise, and researchable question based on that topic.


Narrowing Your Topic

Sometimes, we start with a topic in mind that is too broad or general. It might seem like the right size for your paper in the beginning, but is way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it. When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper. You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.

There are many ways to narrow the focus of your paper. Here are just a few:

  • Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
  • What – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
  • Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
  • When – time period or era (19th century; Renaissance; Vietnam War)
  • Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

For example, a paper about alcohol use would be very broad. But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by women college students in the United States during the 1990s might be just right.

concentric circles with textThis image visualizes narrowing a topic as starting with all possible topics and choosing narrower and narrower subsets until you have a specific enough topic to form a research question.

Further reading on narrowing a topic can be found in the section Narrowing A Topic from this ebook, Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, from Ohio State University.

Identifying Key Words

Key words are the search terms you use to find materials in databases, search engines, OneSearch or elsewhere. Key words work by matching the words you entered with words that appear either:

  • in the text of the articles you find
  • in the materials used to describe the materials you're searching.

If you aren't sure what search words to use, think about what words other people might use to describe your topic!

Some things to consider:

  • Specificity
    • "Vampire" is a better search term than "monster" because it is more specific; you will often get more useful results with a more specific search.
  • Concreteness
    • Intangible concepts can OFTEN be good search terms, but only if they are frequently used in a specific context:
    • "Colonialism" is a good search term. "Cruelty" is not.
  • Ideological bias
    • "Law enforcement" and "police brutality" will return a very different list of results.

Here is a worksheet you can download and use to brainstorm ideas and key words on your topic.

Revising Your Search

When you search, take a look at your search results! You can pull words that come up in your results to search again, or try different combinations of words from your brainstormed list. It might take a few searches to find the search results you want. Don't give up too quickly!

Search Strategies

Start by doing a simple search on your topic in a database. See what kinds of results come back. Are the relevant? Are they what you were expecting to find? If they are relevant, great! If not, why not? Are your search terms too broad? Too narrow? Is there a better way to describe your topic? Try searching using different search terms. Or, explore your results using database filters. Here are some specific search strategies.

  • Build searches using your keywords instead of full sentences or questions
    • Instead of typing your research question or thesis into the database, create short search strings using your brainstormed search terms. Think about different ways to combine the parts of your topic to get different results. For example
      • Octavia Butler AND realism
      • science fiction AND black women AND young adult literature
      • science fiction OR afrofuturism AND young adult literature
  • Use multiple search boxesmultiple search boxes
    • You can build the above searches in a single search box or use one box per search term. This can help you easily change out a single term to narrow or broaden your results.
  • Use quotation marks around phrases or names
    • If you use a term that has multiple words in it, use quotation marks around the phrase to ensure that the database searches for the words together as a phrase, instead of wherever they happen to appear. For example
      • "Octavia Butler"
      • science fiction"
      • "young adult literature"
  • Use the language the database uses
    • You can also use key words or search terms you find in the subject terms or subject headings the database uses. This is sort of like talking to the database in it’s own language and how it tags or groups articles on similar topics. Often, this will increase the amount of relevant and specific results.

Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators are words that connect search terms or key words together to broaden or narrow the results retrieved. In library research they are often used with the library's research databases or the library catalog.

The three Boolean operators are AND, OR, and NOT.

  • AND narrows your search results by limiting your results to those that contain both words connected with AND.
  • OR expands your search results by including results that contain one word, the other word, or both words.
  • NOT narrows your search results by limiting your results to those that contain the word you designate before NOT, but not the word after NOT.

One way to visualize Boolean Operators is to use a Venn diagram. In a database, your Boolean searches would look like this

  • Peanut butter AND jelly
  • Peanut butter OR jelly
  • Peanut butter NOT jelly

3 venn diagrams