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Preliminary Research

If you noticed, the first part of choosing a topic required you to do some background research.  Sometimes researchers select a topic, and then try to research it, often much later.

This can lead to a few problems:

  • The topic is too broad, or too narrow.
  • The researcher doesn’t know the specific vocabulary used to describe the topic.
  • Not enough has been written on the topic to complete an assignment.

As a result, finding information can to be frustrating, and may yield results that are less than ideal.

The simple step of researching as a topic is selected can often make the entire process much easier. This can be done if you follow these steps.

  1. Make certain to select a topic that interests you (librarians can help with this!).
  2. Read some background information on your topic.

And then....

  1. Create a research question.
  2. Do a test search on your topic, to see what is out there.
  3. Broaden or narrow your topic as necessary.

When you are doing background research on your topic you want to consult reference sources.  These can be encyclopedias found in the library or online; and yes, in this preliminary phase of research you can use Wikipedia.  Never cite Wikipedia in an academic paper, but if you are deciding if a topic interests you, go for it.  Just remember that Wikipedia is not consistent and while one entry might be accurate another one may not be.

 
 

 

Comedian Stephen Colbert illustrates the untrustworthiness of Wikipedia in this clip:

 

 

The guide linked to below includes more information about finding alternatives to Wikipedia:

Choose a Topic that Interests You

The topics available for you to select to research are often dictated by various factors, such as assignments, classes, professors, or research agendas. However, even within these constraints, it is important to find a topic that grab your interest.

If you have an open-ended assignment, browsing CQ Researcher can help you decide on a topic by giving you a jumping off point.

Create a Research Question

Now that you’ve done your background research, your topic should be shaping itself more clearly to you. It can help at this point to create a concept or mind map that demonstrates the interconnected aspects of the topic and how they relate to each other.

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It’s now that you need to take the aspects of the topic that are of most interest to you, and form them into a question that your research assignment will answer. This question will guide your research forward, helping you to stay focused and relevant.

Example questions might be:

  • How has the obesity epidemic affected Native communities in the United States?
  • How has the economy of North Dakota been affected by fracking?

As you can see, these questions take specific aspects of the broader topics of “obesity” and “fracking,” and narrows them both into focused queries that a thesis statement then begins to answer.

Finding Related Words and Phrases

Thinking about Your Question

We have a well-formed question to guide our research:

“Does prolonged exposure to violent video game lead to aggressive behavior in teenagers?”

Now, what should we do with it?

For now you can use it to create search queries for the various databases and resources you will be using during your research. It may be tempting just to type this question into a search box, but that won't yield the best results. You need to focus on the concepts at the heart of your question, and assess whether the results you receive contribute to answering the question you've designed.

Working backward from the question, our key terms are:

  • violent video games
  • aggressive behavior
  • & teenagers

We will definitely want to identify articles that contain all of these keywords, and a search query like "video games" AND "aggressive behavior" AND "teenagers" will definitely get us some of those. However, we will want to once again think of related terms and concepts to substitute into our queries to make sure that we're locating related articles that may use different terms for the same concepts. Some of the terms from the concept map we created earlier will likely be helpful here.

  • Video Games
    • Massively Multi-player Online Game
    • First-person shooter
    • console game
    • computer game
    • arcade game
  • Aggressive Behavior
    • Violence
    • Domestic violence
    • Bullying
    • Abusive
    • Cruel
  • Teenagers
    • High school students
    • College students
    • Young adults
    • Teens
    • Juvenile
    • Adolescent

Now we are ready to construct numerous search queries that will yield us results in a variety of databases and publications. As we search articles and read abstracts, it is likely that we'll identify additional synonyms and related concepts to add to this list. It's best to keep an active list of terms like this in case you're having little luck with searching— each database is a little different, and subtle changes to the language you use can often bring you very different results.

As you learn more about your topic through searching and reading articles, you may find that you can refine or adjust your research question even further.