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Research Starter - DIGM 200: Get to Know Your Topic

Programs

Context

Getting Acquainted

Understanding your research topic is your first challenge. Here are some tips:

  • 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 for your assignment.  Be sure to stay on track while you are researching.
  • 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 is this topic important?  Why is this program considered a classic?  Why is this program still pertinent to society?
    • 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?  Is 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 a historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

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.)

Not finding enough information?  Think of related ideas, or read some background information first.  You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:

  • Your topic is too specific.  Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written.  If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information.  Use our A-Z database listing to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent-searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic.  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.

Once you have a solid topic, formulate your research question or hypothesis, and begin finding information.

If you need guidance with topic formulation, Ask Us!  Library staff are happy to help you focus your ideas.

Courtesy of the MIT Libraries

Too much information?  Make your results list more manageable.  Less, but more relevant, information is key.  Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding the high rate of failures in animal cloning.
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950s versus the 1990s.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species, or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.   For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.