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English 101 - Proposal Research Paper: Choosing a Topic and Search Tips

Choosing a Topic for Your Research Paper

Picking a topic for your research paper can be a stressful process. Begin by reading your instructor's requirements regarding your paper and choosing a topic. If possible, choose a topic that interests you! This will make the research process interesting and meaningful. So, where do you find a topic that interests you?

Brainstorm questions [adapted from: Golden Gate University]

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Did you read or see a news story recently that interested you?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem or interest that you would like to know more about?
  • Is there an aspect of one of your class discussions or textbook that caught your interest and you would like to learn more about?

There are also library databases and web resources that can help you find a topic or refine a topic you already have.

Databases for Topic Exploration

Browse the databases below if you aren't sure what topic you want to focus on. These databases cover current issues and may offer some topic ideas. They generally provide background information, as well as a pro/con look at different sides of an issue.

CQ Researcher - Explores a single "hot" issue in the news in depth each week. Topics range from social and teen issues to environment, health, education, and science and technology.

Issues & Controversies - Includes coverage of hot topics in business, politics, government, education, and popular culture.

Opposing Viewpoints - Provides information on today's hottest social and controversial issues.

Websites for Topic Exploration

Successful Searching Q & A

Question: How do I find keywords that will help me the most?

Answer: Get some background information about your topic first. Try using a few of the Popular Databases such as Opposing Viewpoints, Issues & Controversies or CQ Researcher which have A-Z topic lists you can browse. As you read through a broad overview of your topic, start making a list of the words that are used. Sometimes you'll run across other search terms that you may not have thought of otherwise.

An example:

  • hydrogen car*
  • hydrogen automobile*
  • fuel-cell technolog*
  • fuel-cell*
  • renewable fuel*
  • alternative energy and (car* or automobile*)

Hint! Did you notice the * at the end of each example? This is a search technique called truncation which uses an asterisk as a wild card character to get all possible variations of a root word. For example, child* will find results for child, children, childhood, childish, and so on.

Question: What is the best way to weed through results about your topic and narrow it down to the best options?

Answer: There are some standard ways to narrow down results. You can specify a time-frame (only the last few years, or a specific date range). You can narrow results to a specific location (United States, California, etc.). Sometimes the databases build in ways to narrow your results. For example, in EBSCO, you can look at the left-hand column for a variety of ways to refine your the type of publication, a subject area, etc. Often times, if you perform an advanced "Subject" search, you will get fewer, and more precise results as well.

Always keep in mind that the number of results is not the true measure of research success. You want to find the right mix of articles that address the key issues you are trying to write about. Also, the currency of the information you find is important.