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Getting Started: Using the Library for Research

Narrowing a Topic

If your topic is too broad or vague, you will find too much information and it will be hard to decide what sources you need - you will need to focus on a specific aspect of that topic.

Example: I'd like to do a paper on "higher education." This topic can be developed in many different ways.

Ask yourself questions about your topic:

  • What aspects of the topic interest you: historical, sociological, psychological, etc.?
  • What time period do you want to cover?
  • Do you want to focus on a particular geographical area?  
  • What kind of information do you need?
    • A brief summary or a lengthy explanation?
    • Information from articles, books, interviews, encyclopedia entries?
    • Statistics and data?

Example Topic Narrowing Chart

General topic higher education
Time span 2000-present (last 20 years)
Place United States
Person or group college students
Event or aspects equity, graduation rate gap among ethnicities; sociological


Broadening a Topic

If your topic is too specific, or even too new, it will be difficult to find enough information to write your paper. You may need to broaden your idea.

Example: I am thinking about doing a paper about "whether genetically altered soy beans are safe for consumers."

This topic is looking for an answer for which there may not be an answer yet -- more scientific and long-term research may need to be done. How can we broaden the topic to make it more manageable?

Look for related aspects of your topic, with broader associations to a similar question:

  • Could you examine other bioengineered foods, in addition to soybeans?
  • Could you think broadly about safetly concerns and issues? What might those be?
  • Who are the key players in this controversy? Consumer activists? The FDA? Scientists?
  • What other issues are involved in this topic? For example, could you look into food labeling?

Don't forget: asking your professor or a librarian is a great way to help get ideas!

Sample Topic Broadening Chart

Specific topic Are genetically altered soy beans safe for consumers?
Alternate focus bioengineered or genetically altered foods
Alternate place general; U.S., Europe

Possible focus on:

People or Groups

consumer advocates vs. FDA & scientists

Possible focus on:

Event or Aspect

labeling foods; regulation


Developing Keywords

Identify the Main Concepts

When searching for information, especially in academic databases, it helps to pull out the main concepts of your research question as the keywords for your search. 

Example: What are the effects of student clubs on the mental health of college students?

You would search a database with the keywords/phrases bolded above:

students clubs AND mental health AND college students


Think of Related Words & Synonyms

It is also useful to think about other words that may be used in the articles, books, etc. you are looking for. Think about related words and synonyms for your main concepts. A researcher could have conducted a study related to your topic, but they used the word "university" instead of "college." You don't want to miss that study!

Original Keyword/Phrase Related Words & Concepts
student clubs campus organizations, student activities
mental health wellness, mental disorder(s), anxiety, depression, ADHD
college students undergraduates, young adults, university students

HINT: Googling these phrases/concepts is a great way to come up with related terms and synonyms!


Use a Concept Map

image of concept map

Last Updated: Jan 22, 2024 3:09 PM