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How to Do Research: Your Perfect Topic

How to use background sources, find books and articles and evaluate sources.

Tips for choosing a topic

Can't think of a topic to research?

  • Interest: choose a topic of interest to you and your reader(s); a boring topic translates into a boring paper.
  • Knowledge: you can be interested in a topic without knowing much about it at the beginning, but it's a good idea to learn a little about it before you begin your research. Read about the issue in a good encyclopedia or a short article to learn more, then go at it in depth. The research process mines new knowledge – you’ll learn as you go!
  • Breadth of Topic: jow broad is the scope of your topic? Too broad a topic is unmanageable -- for example, "The Education of Children" or "The History of Books" or "Computers in Business." A topic that is too narrow and/or trivial, such as "My Favorite Pastime," is uninteresting and extremely difficult to research.
  • Guidelines: carefully follow the instructor's guidelines. If none are provided in writing, ask your professor about his or her expectations. Tell your professor what you might write about and ask for feedback and advice. This should help prevent you from selecting an inappropriate topic.


Don't start with articles!

Articles chop up your topic into little, narrow questions. If you find 5 articles, each presenting a narrow study, it's often hard to see how they fit together and what question they are all trying to answer.

  • Give you overviews of your topic
  • Lead you to the important questions asked by researchers.
  • Contain articles written by experts in their fields.
  • Put your idea or question into a historical, research, or social context.
  • Lead you to further references.

Developing a Strong Research Topic

Getting Background Information

Handbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries and other reference sources are a good place to look for

  • A topic overview,
  • A definition,
  • Good search terms for a database search, or
  • A quick fact on a topic.

Sometimes the bibliography from an article in an encylopedia or handbook

  • Identifies some of the major authors on a topic or
  • The seminal or core articles for the topic (the article(s) that everyone reads)

Coming up with ideas for your topic?

  • First and foremost, your instructor is a great resource! He or she understands your assignment and can provide great advice about the topic you're considering and how to frame it.
  • Scan your textbook for broad topic ideas.
  • Read current magazines and newspapers to see what catches your eye.
  • If there are journals related to the general area you're studying, looking through recent tables of contents may give you ideas and background information on possible topics. View a list of journals by subject.
  • Browse electronic and print encyclopedias. They contain brief entries on a variety of topics.
  • Look at "hot topic" databases, such as Opposing Viewpoints in Context, CQ Researcher Plus Archive, and Issues & Controversies, which feature articles on current events and controversial issues.
  • Check our subject guides to explore key resources in different areas.
  • Discuss potential topics with a librarian, or a classmate.

Developing a Research Question