Skip to main content

Topic Guide - Lee Online Research

An overview of best practices for making the most out of your research project.

Select a topic

Choosing an interesting research topic is your first challenge. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a topic that you are interested in! The research process is more relevant if you care about your topic.
  • Narrow your topic to something manageable.
    • If your topic is too broad, you will find too much information and not be able to focus.
    • Background reading can help you choose and limit the scope of your topic. 
  • Review the guidelines on topic selection outlined in your assignment.  Ask your professor or TA for suggestions.
  • Refer to lecture notes and required texts to refresh your knowledge of the course and assignment.
  • Talk about research ideas with a friend.  S/he may be able to help focus your topic by discussing issues that didn't occur to you at first.
  • Think of the who, what, when, where and why questions:
    • WHY did you choose the topic?  What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
    • WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic?  Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
    • WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
    • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?
    • WHEN is/was your topic important?  Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

What to look for

Background information can help you prepare for further research by explaining all the issues related to your topic, especially when you're investigating a field that's unfamiliar to you. Tips:

  • Check for background information in: dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopedias.
  •  

  • Look for facts in: statistical guides, almanacs, biographical sources, or handbooks.
  •  

  • Collect keywords or important terms, concepts and author names to use when searching databases.
  •  

  • Start thinking in broad terms, then narrow down your topic. 
  •  

  • Look at bibliographies to guide you to other sources of information (books, articles, etc.)
  •  

 See also:

A Note About Wikipedia

You're probably already familiar with Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia.  The reference sources listed on this page are similar to Wikipedia, with some differences that you should be aware of, including:

  • Wikipedia is part of the free web, so anyone with an Internet connection can access it seamlessly.
  • Reference sources are generally part of the fee-based web, which means they require a subscription to access the content, making the information in them very valuable.  The fee-based sources listed here are paid for by the MIT Libraries.
  • "Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world.  Anyone with Internet access can make changes to Wikipedia articles."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
  • Reference sources are written collectively by experts in the fields they cover - some are researchers, some are professors, but all have qualifications of a professional nature.
  • Wikipedia contains encyclopedia-like articles on almost anything, making it a general or multidisciplinary source of information.
  • Reference sources are sometimes general in nature, but often cover one subject area in depth, so you can choose a source that focuses on the discipline you're researching more extensively.
  • Wikipedia has a set of editing policies and guidelines that authors should follow when writing or editing articles.
  • Reference sources are edited and vetted for accuracy, currency, and authority by the source's editorial board (often a group of researchers in the field).  

Wikipedia can be a good source to begin with.  However, you should balance what you find there with information from other reference sources as well.  And make sure you evaluate information you find from the Wikipedia or any other source.

If you have questions about the kind of information you find, please Ask Us. Library staff are happy to help you find quality information on any topic you're researching.

Courtesy of the MIT Libraries