Choosing a Research Topic

The topic you choose plays a large role in the outcome of your research project. It is likely that your topic will change several times as you progress through the early stages of research, so don't worry if your first few ideas turn into dead ends. Where are you in the process right now?

Getting ideas for your topic

Understand the Assignment

  • Are there assigned topics or do you need to develop your own?
  • Has your instructor specified what type or how many sources you need?
  • What is the scope of the assignment?

Is it a 5-minute presentation or a 15-page paper? Do you need to find everything about the topic or just enough about one area to explain it to someone else? Asking yourself these kinds of questions can help you determine what types of sources you are looking for.

Do you need recent information? Do you need primary sources? Do you need data sources?

  • When is it due?

If the due date is less than a week away, you’ll need to focus on resources that our library has. If you have more time, you’ll be able to request articles and books through Interlibrary Loan.

A good topic is...

  • something you are interested in
  • appropriate to the requirements of the assignment
  • able to be supported by evidence

Ways to look for ideas when brainstorming a topic:

  • look over what you’ve read for the course
  • talk to your instructor
  • talk to your friends
  • pay attention to current events, or browse newspapers and magazines

Start looking for sources

Brainstorm search terms

Make a list of words that describe your topic. In addition to words for broad concepts (e.g. poverty, feminism) consider brainstorming more specific keywords, such as:

Event: an event within the context of your topic.
Time: a particular time period connected to your topic.
Person or group: an individual or group identified with the topic or particularly affected by it.
Place: a region, city or other geographical unit connected to your topic.

Read over background information on your topic using encyclopedias or a specialized dictionary… or Wikipedia, just don’t end your research there.

Use your list to do a few basic keyword searches in the library catalog and one or two databases relevant to your subject to see if your topic can be supported by the available information. Schedule a library lab or stop by the reference desk to ask a librarian where to start looking.

Narrowing your topic

If you’ve found numerous articles or books that are potentially related to your topic and you can’t decide which ones to focus on, it’s time to narrow your topic. Go back to your list of keywords — is there a particular person, place, time period, or event you could use as the focus of your paper?              

Too broad: postcolonial literature in India            
Better: postcolonial aspects of the work of Salman Rushdie            
Best: postcolonial dynamics of historical representation in Rushdie's Midnight's Children

Be flexible — it is normal to have your topic change as your research progresses. You can never predict what you’re going to find.

Broaden your topic

Before you give up on a topic that really interests you, it’s worth talking to a librarian or your professor to see if there are potential sources you are overlooking or that are hard to find. Sometimes, though, there's just no reliable data on the topic. You might need to broaden it or take a different angle.

Can you expand the concepts you’d like to study?            

Too narrow: women voting for Ross Perot in Poweshiek county
Better: success of third parties among Iowa voters

Can you expand the time period or groups of people that you hope to study?

Too narrow: women in Iowa voting for a third party in the 1992 or 1996 election
Better: Iowa voters response to Ross Perot in the 1992 or 1996 election

Turn your topic into a research question

After you’ve conducted background research on your topic, it can be helpful to begin expressing it as a specific question.

Idea = Frank Lloyd Wright or modern architecture

Research Question = How has Frank Lloyd Wright influenced modern architecture?

Focused Research Question = What design principles used by Frank Lloyd Wright are common in contemporary homes?

Tracking Down a Citation

Great! The next step is using the citations from your professor to track down the sources. Where are you in the process right now?   I need to:

To determine if your citations are for books, articles or other types of sources, refer to a chart of example citations or use these tools: 

Deciphering a citation

Before you can find a cited source, you need to understand what the citation is telling you to look for. Is it a book, chapter of a book, journal article, or another type of source like a dissertation or government document? All reliable citations include the same basic information. Different citation styles arrange it in different orders, but here are the things you should be able to find out about a source from its citation:

  • Name of the author or authoring organization
  • Title of the article or book chapter
  • Title of the book or journal in which an article is published
  • Date of publication
  • Name of the publisher, either a book press or a journal title
  • Page numbers of articles or book chapters

The citation might provide more information than this, such indicating whether a source was found in print or online, but these are the basic facts you'll need to track it down. Citations come in different forms depending on where you find them. This is a sample citation of a book as it is found in the bibliography of an article:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. New York: Verso, 1991.

This is a citation for the same book as found in a search in the MLA International Bibliography:  

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Benedict Anderson.

New York, NY: Verso, 1991. xv, 224 pp.

Although a database citation looks different from an article citation, it should provide you with the same basic information — and enough information for you to determine what type of source this is.

  • Author: Benedict Anderson
  • Title: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
  • Date of publication: 1991
  • Publisher: Verso

Type of source: Book

How do you know: Only has one title (no separate title for chapter or article), has no volume or issue number, lists a publisher and place of publication rather than a journal title 

Chart of example citations for different types of sources

Type of Citation

Distinguishing Features

Article citation (APA style)
  • has both an article title and a journal title
  • has a volume number
  • specifies page numbers
Wegener, D. T., & Petty, R. E. (1994). Mood management across affective states: The hedonic contingency hypothesis. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 66, 1034-1048.
Book citation (MLA style)
  • has only one title (in this style, capitalized and in italics)
  • lists a publisher and place of publication
  • does not specify page numbers, indicating it refers to the whole book
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Chapter of a book citation (Chicago style)
  • has a chapter title (in this style, set off by quotation marks
  • also has a book title (in this style, capitalized and in italics)
  • lists an editor in addition to the author of the chapter
  • specifies page numbers
  • lists a publisher and place of publication
Chilson, Peter. “The Border.” In The Best American Travel Writing 2008, edited by Anthony Bourdain, 44-51. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.
Web site citation (APA style)
  • has a url
  • lists date of retrieval in addition to date of publication
  • may list an authoring organization instead of an individual author
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2007). Mission could seek out Spock's home planet. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2009, from PlanetQuest: Exoplanet Exploration Web site:
Government document citation (MLA style)
  • publisher is the GPO (Government Printing Office)
  • place of publication is Washington, DC
  • may list a federal agency in addition or in place of an individual author
Spires, David N. Orbital Futures: Selected Documents in Air Force Space History. 2 vols. United States Air Force. Washington: GPO, 2004.
Dissertation or thesis citation (Chicago style)
  • lists the name of university rather than a press or publishing journal
  • in many styles, specifies if it is a master's thesis or PhD dissertation
Hostetler, Tara. “Bodies at War: Bacteriology and the Carrier Narratives of ‘Typhoid Mary.’” master’s thesis, Florida State University.

Reference Sources

Before you jump into looking for detailed sources on specific aspects of your topic, it can be very helpful to get a lay of the land by doing some background reading in reference sources. Reading an encyclopedia article or other reference source is a quick way to:

  • familiarize yourself with the basics of the topic: concepts, controversies, time, and place
  • find the names of people who are associated with the topic
  • decode some of the jargon associated with the topic
  • possibly find additional sources using the bibliography of an article or chapter

Here are three ways to find background sources:

And here's just a sampling of our electronic reference sources.

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