Getting Background Information
Before you start searching for resources on your topic, it’s a good idea to get some background information to get a rough outline of the debate around your topic. What are some of the different positions people take? Where is there consensus? Where do opinions tend to diverge? Are there subtopics that are new to you? People or groups whose perspective you hadn’t thought of? Particular vocabulary that people use to talk about that topic?
Getting background information will help you ask questions about your topic, narrow your focus, and articulate a strong topic or research question. Noticing particular language will help you form strong keyword searches.
You can find background information in general sources about your topic, like Wikipedia. Traditional encyclopedias like Britannica are also helpful. The library provides a database called Points of View Reference Center that can also be really helpful for many topics.
Remember that finding background information is different than finding sources that you plan to cite in your paper! Background information is more about getting an introduction to your topic, and you will generally not be citing sources of background information.
Choosing a Research Topic
Choosing a Research Topic
Research gives you an opportunity to learn a lot about a topic that interests you.
Select a topic that:
- You want to learn more about
- Fits the assignment
- Is focused enough to address thoroughly
- You can clearly articulate
Using the argument paper in students complete in EN101 as an example, let's look more closely at these elements.
Does my topic fit the assignment?
You will be researching and writing about a topic around which there is some controversy, disagreement, or difference of opinion. That does not mean that it has to be a two-sided debate, such as whether or not marijuana should be legalized. There is a spectrum of opinions around most issues. Focus on one that is important to you.
For instance, imagine that you are passionate about the environment, and you want to focus on water pollution in your town. This is not a two-sided debate; it’s unlikely that someone would say that they want your town’s river to be polluted. However, there are likely a range of perspectives around what to do and whose money, and how much of it, to spend to address the problem. If there’s debate around a topic, it could be appropriate for your assignment.
Is my topic focused enough to address thoroughly?
Extending that example, you would not be able to thoroughly cover a topic like water pollution in a five page paper. There is simply too much to discuss in so few pages. You would want to narrow the topic.
Asking generative questions like these is one strategy to help you refine your topic:
- Who participates? Who is affected?
- Where do we see examples of this?
- Is there a notable time period? A trend?
- What are some possible causes or contributing factors?
- What are some implications or consequences?
- What are some conflicts around this topic?
- Why should your audience care about this topic?
One way to ask yourself questions and keep track of your ideas to focus your topic is to use a concept map. Getting some background information about your topic - even if you are pretty familiar with it - can help you think systematically about it so you can ask good questions.
This short video from UCLA libraries (less than 3 minutes) illustrates how asking questions can help you generate a more focused topic that could be addressed adequately in a limited number of pages.
Iteration and Refining your Topic and Search Process
You may have noticed that we mentioned getting background information on the page about choosing a topic, and vice versa. This is because these processes work together! As you learn more about your topic, you are able to ask more refined and specific questions, which can point you in a direction to learn more about your topic!
As a result, you may find yourself toggling back and forth between the task of articulating your topic or research question and learning more about your topic. This is good.
Research is not a linear process! You do not progress neatly from idea to reading sources to writing your paper. Instead, research is iterative. You may change your initial question as you learn something about your topic that shapes your interest. You may begin writing and realize that there is an aspect of your topic that you do not have enough information about, and need to find new sources. Research can be messy. That’s okay! A librarian can help you if you get stuck!