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Research Basics

University level research is different from high-school research. This guide is a great starting point for learning about how to successfully conduct literature-based research, such as secondary research or a literature review.

Browse Popular Sources for Ideas

If you are allowed to choose your own topic, it can helpful to first browse some "popular" or non-academic sources for inspiration and background information. This technique is useful even in cases where you can't ultimately use them as sources in your paper. Good sources of general information in specific subject areas or areas of professional practice are the websites of the various professional associations or societies, for example the APA, IEEE, or AIA. Other generalist popular sources include:

Use Research Databases to Explore a Topic

Most of the research databases in our A-Z list have features to help filter results by topic or subject, usually located to the left of the search results. These filters can also be used to explore different facets of a broader topic. Expanding the list (usually by clicking "show all" or "show more") provides a list of all sub-topics related to your original search. This technique can also be very helpful in narrowing an overly broad topic to specific areas of interest to you.

Develop a Topic or Research Question

A good topic (sometimes called a "research question") is neither too broad nor too narrow, and it shouldn't be a straightforward factual question. Below are some poor topics/research questions and how to improve them.

  • Climate change. This is far too broad - no assignment or dissertation could cover such a broad topic well. A more narrow topic could be "impacts of mosquito-borne illness due to warmer temperatures."
  • Where did hip hop music originate? This is a type of factual question - there's not much to discuss here (unless there's sizable debate over the answer). A better topic/research question to discuss would be: "How have hip hop music and fashion co-evolved"?
  • Why do people like wearing Birkenstock sandals? Consider whether there is likely to be any scholarly material about a topic like this - chances are, there hasn't been academic research on such a topic. A better topic might be "cultural changes in footwear over the past 100 years."
  • Success of Six-Sigma training opportunities in a veteran population working in supply-chain management. This topic is too specific. A broader topic would be "Six Sigma training's effect on women's health."

Don't worry too much about nailing down the perfect topic or research question right away. Chances are, once you start searching, you'll need to modify your topic or research question.