Choose a Research Topic & Establish a Research Plan


Choosing an appropriate topic is a critical step in the success of your research project. For personal assistance, schedule a research consultation through Steely Library's myLibrarian service or go to Ask Steely Library!  

Developing Topic Ideas

Steely Library has several databases, including Facts on File: Issues and Controversies and CQ Researcher, which provide information on possible research topics. Many websites offer lists of popular research topics. Review your textbook or class notes, or talk with your instructor or a librarian (Ask Steely Library!).

Keep in mind how important it is to have a clear idea of the parameters of the assignment. A topic that may be appropriate for a 5 page paper may not work for a 20 page paper, and vice versa. Your instructor may also have requirements for the types of topics and sources that are appropriate for the project.  

Additional resources that may be of use:

Refining a Topic

Once you have a general subject in mind, you will usually need to narrow your topic. Concentrating on a specific aspect of your broader topic will make for a more focused research project.

To refine your topic, do some background research. Do not look for specific sources, but for aspects of the topic that you find interesting. Some options for refining a topic include:

  • Focusing on a specific time period and/or geographic region
  • Limiting to one particular person, population, organization, or event
  • Concentrating on the most recent developments, or a controversial aspect of the topic

Formulating a Research Question

As you are refining your topic, you need to begin shaping it into a research question--what you want to find out or prove. Research should always be guided by a question.

However, keep in mind that not all questions work as research questions. Your question should be something that it is possible to answer, but not something that can be answered with a single fact or source. Avoid questions with a clear yes/no answer or questions that try to determine whether something is "good" or "bad." 

For more information see:

Establishing a Research Plan

After you have your research question, think carefully about where you should search. Consider the following:

  • Should my sources be scholarly, popular, or a mix?
  • How current do my sources have to be?
  • Should I use primary or secondary sources?

Your answers to these questions can help you determine where to search. For some types of information needs, it is acceptable to use the internet. For example:

  • The most up-to date information
  • Information on a local or regional topic
  • "Popular" sources such as blogs or news articles

However, if you need sources that are more professional or academic, you will want to use one of Steely Library's catalogs or databases.

You also need to consider the words you are going to use when you search. Instead of typing in full sentences, identify the keywords in your research question.  

Research Question: Was the lockdown following the Boston Marathon Bombings a violation of civil liberties?

Keywords: lockdown, Boston Marathon bombings, civil liberties

Because not everyone uses the same words to identify the same concept, be sure to think of synonyms and related terms. For "civil liberties" you could also use "constitutional rights."

Additional Research Tips

  • Research is rarely a straightforward process, so you may need to refine your topic or search strategy multiple times.
  • Even the best researchers may struggle at times--patience and persistence are key traits of good researchers.
  • The same search strategy will not work for all topics--just because JSTOR works for one assignment does not mean it will work for every assignment.
  • "Perfect" sources rarely exist; in most cases, you will need to combine information from multiple sources to create your own answer.

Steely Library phone number:  859.572.5457