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Get Background and Overview of a topic

Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:

  • Background research will help you develop your topic and hone or change it in more appropriate ways. Knowing more about your topic's background can only help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, research paper.
  • Brainstorm concepts. Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can that might be related to that topic (and write them down!). For example, if your topic is "polar bears," you might think of the following words and topics in association: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, climate change, and environmental icon. 
  • Develop a research question. Once you have come up with a broad topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question, or a question you're going to answer in your paper by doing more, in-depth research.
  • What's your general approach to the topic? Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: use a historical angle by focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.
  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research, like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper, you can and probably will modify or refine your topic based on what you find.
  • Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.

The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis, which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found, and find more sources in order to support that thesis, or to answer your research question.

Subject Encyclopedias

Imagine the universe of information available on a given topic as water escaping from a firehose. You can use the 5W Criteria to help make the flow more manageable.

What is my question? Your research question is different than your topic.

For example, your topic might be racial profiling in law enforcement and its impact on racism. However, your research question might be something like: how do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

So think about what is your main argument? Does racial profiling affect racism or not? In what ways do racial profiling and law enforcement influence racism?

You may want to think about the topic in terms of the personal, or ideological, the religious, or spiritual, social, or political, rhetorical, and vocational influences on racism.

You may want to start with a pro or con statement then move to more specifics. Then how does your research prove your argument? Are more questions raised during this questioning process? It's important to narrow your topic from general to specific.

Racism is a very broad topic and racial profiling narrows the topic to a more specific form of racism. Finally, law enforcement in the United States provides context.

Next, you'll need to investigate the topic by searching for articles in the library databases.

These are great places to gather your 5Ws!

The library has subject encyclopedias on a multitude of topics (e.g., The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture)

Subject authorities who write articles in these encyclopedias have included important references at the end of the articles. You may use these references to jump start your research.

Ask a librarian for help in locating a relevant encyclopedia. You also can search the library catalog using your topic as one keyword and encyclopedia as your second keyword (e.g., encyclopedia AND music).

Subject encyclopedias are one- or multi-volume sets on specific subjects. When your teacher says "No encyclopedias!" s/he does NOT mean these! It's well worth it to browse the reference shelves in the Library of Congress call number areas related to your topic for subject encyclopedias and other reference books.

Tip--If that reference book is just the thing, look in the circulating collection under the same call number and find more information! Sometimes older reference materials have been re-classified to circulating status. The call number for a subject is the same regardless of the medium/format!

The research process is a process of inquiry that is asking questions that reflect your thinking process. In other words, what am I thinking?

For more information on background information check out our Reference Sources page.

Adapted from and thanks to the New Literacies Alliance.

Where to find subject encyclopedias

Subject encyclopedias from Credo Reference can be a great place to begin your research by gathering your 5Ws. They include topic overviews that can help you narrow down your topic and identify keywords and concepts.