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Ideas for Research Papers

Read Background Information about Your Topic

Once you have a topic you are excited about, it is a good idea to read some background information about your topic. Why? Especially if you have chosen a topic that you are completely unfamiliar with, reading background material can provide you with the following:

  • A broad overview of the topic
  • Definitions of the topic
  • Important dates and events
  • Important individuals
  • Vocabulary/keywords that you can use to search library resources

Background Information Sources

  • Credo Reference. Credo Reference contains content from hundreds of reference books covering every major subject. There are over 2 million entries, and 65,000+ images (art, diagrams, interactive maps and photos).
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Academic version of the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Gale eBooks. Gale eBooks offers an online collection of premier reference eBooks including encyclopedias and specialized reference sources for multidisciplinary research.
  • Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia is an anonymous encyclopedia, you should not cite it as a source in your paper. However, you can use it to get background information about your topic such as important individuals, dates and events. 

Narrowing Your Topic

If your topic is too broad, you will find too much information and not have a focus for your paper. Here are some tips for narrowing your topic:

  • Use the five "Ws"
    • Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
    • Where  – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
    • What  – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
    • When  time period or era (19th century or Vietnam War)
    • Why   why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

Example: A paper about alcohol use would be very broad.  But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by female college students in the United States might be just right.

Technique Ask Yourself Example Narrowed
When Can my topic focus on a specific time or date range? In the past decade or specific year? In the future? Ethanol fuel production Ethanol fuel production in the past five years.
Where Does my topic have a local focus? Can I focus on a specific geographic region or area? Wetlands restoration Wetlands restoration in Southern California
Who Can I limit the topic to a specific gender, age group, income level, ethnicity, nationality, education level, etc.? Public smoking bans Public smoking bans and their impact on children's health
What Can I focus on a political, philosophical, ethical, social, legal, or economic aspect or viewpoint? Economic impacts of drug testing Economic impacts of drug testing on welfare recipients

*Adapted from: 
Narrowing and Broadening Your Topic (University or Michigan) and Refine Your Topic (Seminole State Univeristy)

Broadening Your Topic

If you are not finding enough information about your topic, you may need to broaden your topic. Here are some tips for broadening your topic:

  • Is your topic too new/recent? If you topic is too recent, there may not be a variety of sources available (books, journal articles).  
  • Find alternative words. You can use a thesaurus to find synonyms for your keywords.   
  • Use fewer keywords in your search.


Technique Ask Yourself Example Broadened
Generalize Is my topic too specific? Can I use more general terms to describe the topic? Are genetically altered soybeans safe for consumers? The safety of bioengineered or genetically altered foods
Synonyms Is there another way to say my topic? Are there any related terms? Road safety in California Vehicle safety in California
Eliminate Concepts Am I trying to research too many concepts at a time? Can I eliminate one or more? Traffic regulation effects on light truck crashes in people under 30 Traffic regulations and truck crashes
Currency Is my topic so new that there is not much research on it yet? Can I look at a larger issue instead? Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age five? What are the negative effects of TV on children and adolescents?

*Adapted from 
Refine Your Topic (Seminole State University)