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Research Process: From Topic to Search

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Topic statement --> Keywords

Defining your topic is not a linear process. You may need to reword or change directions to accommodate information that is or is not found.

TIP: Use a print-out of the Developing Effective Search Strategies worksheet along with this guide to help you define your topic and plan your search.

1. Choose your topic

Once you know your general research topic, ask yourself:

  • Do I know much about this topic?
  • Do I know what angle I want to approach this topic from?

The first step in your research process is to learn some basic information about your topic and to refine and narrow your topic to a maneageable size by consulting a reference source such as a subject-specfic encyclopedia or handbook. They are more in-depth than general encyclopedias such as World Book Encyclopedia and more authoritative than Wikipedia. They often provide a list of recommended books and articles on your topic to help you get started.

These subject-specific reference sources are designed to give you a general overview of your topic, which will help you:

  • formulate a topic statement
  • identify which terms to use in your searches
  • evaluate sources of information quickly and efficiently because you have a general knowledge about your topic

For example:
The topic "Marijuana" is too broad for a research paper. By reading a reference book, I have decided that I'm interested in researching teenage marijuana use in Canada.

Not sure which reference source to consult? Check out the library's research guide in your discipline for suggested reference sources or contact the library for assistance.

2. Write a clear topic statement

Now that you know a little bit more about your topic, it is time to write you topic statement. Putting your topic into sentence form will help you further focus your search. You may need to rewrite this statement as your research takes shape, but writing it down provides a good starting point.

For example:
This paper will discuss the prevalence and use of marijuana by teenagers in Canada.

TIP: Having trouble thinking of other keywords? Take a look at a thesaurus, subject-specific dictionary, or encyclopedia. These sources may help you identify other terms for your search.

3. Select the keywords from your topic statement

Read over your topic statement and think about what the key ideas are associated with it. These "keywords" should be the who, what, where, and when of your question. Identifying 2-3 keywords that represent your topic's major concepts usually provide the best results.

TIP: To help you identify the keyword, cross out all the little "stopwords." Computer search tools (the catalogue, article databases, and Internet search engines) automatically ignore these words. Look at the words that are left over and select your keywords.

Example:
This paper will discuss the prevalence and use of marijuana by teenagers in Canada

Keyword A: teenagers
Keyword B: marijuana
Keyword C: Canada


4. Select synonyms and related terms

Based on the keywords you identified above, select synonyms, related terms, and alternate forms for each of these keywords. This step is very important because computers are very literal. They will only look for exactly the words that you tell it to look for. They will not connect a similar way to say something with the word you entered. For example, if you type in marijuana, the computer will only look for marijuana. It will not look for any synonyms or related ways of saying that idea, such as cannabis, pot, weed, etc.

If you take the time to identify all of these possible terms before you begin your search, you'll be ready to create many different searches using the list you prepared. So if one of your searches doesn't get the results you want, you can just move on to the next search. Write down anything that comes to mind. You may not use all of these terms in your searches, but they're listed just in case you need them.

For example:

Keyword A
teenagers teens, adolescents, adolescence, youth, young people
Keyword B
marijuana cannabis, pot, weed, reefer, dope, doobie, ganja, drugs, sticky icky, marihuana
Keyword C
Canada Canadians, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, etc.

TIP:
Having trouble thinking of other keywords? Take a look at a thesaurus, subject-specific dictionary, or encyclopedia. These sources may help you identify other terms for your search.

Now that your topic is clearly defined, it's time to plan a search.