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Smart Student Research Guide


Step 3: Choosing & Investigating a Topic
Skip to Step 4: Finding items in the library

3A: Choosing a Topic
Jump to 3B: Investigating a topic

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Trying to find and decide on a topic can often be complicated and frustrating. Your professor may provide a general topic on which to base your assignment but often you will be required to focus on some aspect of that topic.

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  • Course material: Refer to your assignment for general topic guidance; review course notes and textbooks.
  • Brainstorming: take the general topic and create a concept map. From there you may find some aspect of the topic you would like to explore.
  • If you start with a broad topic, you can then gradually narrow it down to a specific aspect of that topic that interests you.
  • Try to pick a topic that is broad enough to find plenty of research materials, but narrow enough to handle in the length of paper you have been assigned. Focus on a particular place, person(s), event, and/or time.
  • Consider discussing your specific topic ideas with your instructor or one of our librarians.
  • Choose an interesting topic. Youíll have more motivation to do a research assignment if there is genuine interest in the topic. If the research assignment is unrestricted, relate the topic to some personal experience or issue of personal relevance. If you have no personal interest in the assigned topic, pick an aspect of the topic you are curious to know more about.
Here are some examples of taking a broad topic and then narrowing it down to a specific aspect suitable for a paper topic:
Broad topic Narrower topics Example of specific issues or topics
Social justice fair trade
human rights monitoring
human trafficking and slavery
ethnic equality
poverty alleviation
gender equality
How do fair trade organic coffee cooperatives benefit coffee growers?
Destruction of the environmentglobal warming
endangered species
ozone layer
acid rain
toxic waste
renewable energy
Can increases in funding for mass transit help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

What role can hybrid and electric cars play in reducing global warming?
Economic inequalitymicrocredit
globalization impacts
worker health and safety
international debt
trade balance
How can small loans given through microcredit organizations help to reduce poverty in developing nations?

Need more help with choosing your topic? Try Choosing a Topic, a guide from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL).

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3B: Investigating a Topic
After choosing a topic, you will need to locate sources that give basic background information about the subject. Finding background information at the beginning of your research is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject area, or not sure from what angle to approach your topic. Some of the information that a background search can provide includes:

  • Broad overview of the subject
  • Definitions of the topic
  • Introduction to key issues
  • Names of people who are authorities in the subject field
  • Major dates and events
  • Keywords and subject-specific search terms
  • Bibliographies that lead to additional resources

owlSecondary resources can be used to find out more about a topic. Secondary source materials interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. Usually these secondary sources help you narrow your topic and provide context for further research.

Some types of secondary source materials include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Commentaries, criticisms
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedias
  • Journal articles
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
  • Books and textbooks (other than fiction and autobiography)

For help narrowing down or further investigating a topic, consider browsing in a subject encyclopedia such as Credo Reference (online) or Gale Virtual Reference (online). We also have many print encyclopedias-- general subject and topic-specific-- in the library. Some selected examples are listed below. Once you choose a topic that interests you, these types of books can also be a good resource to gather some basic facts and background information on your topic.

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International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics - Ebook available online
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A Handbook of Globalisation and Environmental Policy - Ebook available online
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Encyclopedia of Human Rights Issues since 1945 - Ebook available online
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Encyclopedia of Race and Racism -
Ebook available online
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Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare -
Ebook available online
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The Human Rights Encyclopedia-
Located in the Reference Collection on the 1st floor at call number JC571 .L523 2001
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Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues - Located in the Reference Collection on the 1st floor at call number GE10 .E52 2000
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Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice -
Ebook available online
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Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life -
Ebook available online


When you have chosen your topic and have a good understanding of the topic due to the help of your background materials, itís time to start your research which often includes primary sources. Primary sources are original materials from the time period or event you are researching.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study)
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
  • Letters
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document)
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)
  • Video recordings (e.g. television programs)
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems)

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point So how do I find these materials in the library?

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