Tips for Deciding on a Research Topic
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Learn More About A Possible Topic
Before beginning more in-depth research, it's often helpful to get an overview of your topic through background research. This can help you develop a more effective research question and brainstorm better search terms.
Contact a librarian for help with finding, evaluating and managing information for your research, to recommend books, journals, videos and other additions to the library’s collection, or to integrate research skills into your course.
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Tips for coming up with a good research question
A research question is the fundamental core of a research project, study, or review of literature. It focuses the study, determines the methodology, and guides all stages of inquiry, analysis, and reporting.
A research topic leads to a hypothesis and/or a research question.
From Research Topic to Research Questions
Step 1. Draft a research question/hypothesis.
Step 2. Draft a purpose statement.
Step 3. Revise and rewrite the research question/hypothesis.
Step 4. Revise and rewrite the research question/hypothesis.
Focusing your topic
Sometimes a topic that seems like the right size for your paper can seem way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it. When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper. You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.Some of the ways you can limit your paper topic are by:
For 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 during the 1990s might be just right.
Sometimes you will find that your topic is too narrow - there is not enough published on your topic. When this happens, you can try to broaden your topic. There are a couple of strategies you can try when broadening your topic. One strategy is to choose less specific terms for your search, e.g., standardized tests instead of SATs or performance-enhancing drugs instead of anabolic steroids. Another strategy is to broaden your topic by changing or removing limits from your topic:
For example, a paper about alcohol use by college students at the University of Michigan in 1984 might be too narrow of a focus. But a paper about alcohol use by college students in the 1980s might be just right.
Copyright is defined as "a person's exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell his or her original work of authorship (as a literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or architectural work)" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). This means the owner of the work, either an individual or a group, has rights that only belong to them such as:
When you try to exercise one of these rights without being the work's owner, you are likely committing copyright infringement.
Plagirism is, simply put, passing off someone else's work as your own. The consequences of plagiarism include failing assignments, disciplinary action, damaging your reputation, and legal consequences.
How to avoid Copyright and Plagiarism
Paraphrasing - When you are using a piece of research in your project, you can restate what the author had said using your own words.
Quoting - If you want to include something the author had said the way he/she had said it, you can use quotation marks to show that the words are not your own. When doing this, be sure to use the quote exactly how it appears in the source material to avoid misquoting the author.
Citations - When you find a source that you want to paraphrase, quote, or use in anyway you need to include a citation for that source. Citations inlude item like the title, author, and publication date of a piece of work to show where you found it and how authentic the content is.
What is a citation?
A citation is how you can tell readers that ideas or material in your research project came from an outside source. It can also provide your audience with information about your sources so that they may find them. A citation can include:
Parts of a Citation
As you do your research, keep a list of your sources--books, periodicals, and the Web. Below is the type of information you need to write down from a citation with each of its important parts labeled:
|For a book:||
|For an article in a
|For sources on the Web:||
There are many different "styles" of citations that format the biblographical information differently. Some courses may require that you use a specific citation style such as MLA or APA. Below are guides provided by The OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab that outline 3 of the most popular citation styles.
If you are a student at Missouri Southern State University you have access to RefWorks, which is an online citation management tool. With Refworks you can:
Check out our guide on Refworks!
Other Free Citation Tools
What is an annotated bibliography?
An annotated bibliography is a list of citations for sources used in a research project followed by a brief evaluation of each source. The evaluation should provide information about the source and the source's relevance to the research project.
Information to identify about a source:
When writing an annotated bibliography it is important to keep it brief and not just restate the abstract of the source. Some sources may only require a few sentences for the annotated bibliography while others may require multiple paragraphs. You should try to keep each one under 150 words.
The following is an example of an annotated bibliography provided by Purdue OWL:
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1995.
Lamott's book offers honest advice on the nature of a writing life, complete with its insecurities and failures. Taking a humorous approach to the realities of being a writer, the chapters in Lamott's book are wry and anecdotal and offer advice on everything from plot development to jealousy, from perfectionism to struggling with one's own internal critic.
In the process, Lamott includes writing exercises designed to be both productive and fun. Lamott offers sane advice for those struggling with the anxieties of writing, but her main project seems to be offering the reader a reality check regarding writing, publishing, and struggling with one's own imperfect humanity in the process. Rather than a practical handbook to producing and/or publishing, this text is indispensable because of its honest perspective, its down-to-earth humor, and its encouraging approach.
Chapters in this text could easily be included in the curriculum for a writing class. Several of the chapters in Part 1 address the writing process and would serve to generate discussion on students' own drafting and revising processes. Some of the writing exercises would also be appropriate for generating classroom writing exercises. Students should find Lamott's style both engaging and enjoyable.
Scholar vs Non-scholary Sources
When using a book, article, report, or web site for your research, it is important to gauge how reliable the source is.
There are many different types of information sources. Each is characterized by different elements and target audiences.
You can use the following checklist, adapted from “Evaluating Internet Resources” (UMUC, 1998), to evaluate any of your sources, but especially those on the web. Ask yourself these questions about your sources. The higher the number of questions answered yes, the more likely it is that the source is of high quality.
|Checklist for Evaluating Research Sources|
Is the authority in this material clear and legitimate? Is the writer qualified?
Can the factual information be verified by legitimate authority? Can one opinion be verified against another?
Is the material objective and free of advertising, bias, and hidden agendas? Is the language impartial? Is the statistical evidence credible?
Is the material updated frequently to ensure currency? Does the material reflect the most up-to-date research?
Is the material complete, partial, or out of context? If the material is out of context, is there a path to find the source? If the material is out of copyright, has it been updated to make it more current?
Authority and Reliability
Results and Relevance
Stability and Permanence
Google Scholar is a search engine that provides links to full-text articles to which Spiva Library subscribes or to articles made freely available by the publisher. It also provides citations along with abstracts of the article if it is protected by copyright.
This is a complete list of all electronic databases that Spiva Library currently subscribes to. Any student or faculty member has full access to each database on this list.
Here, you can find all of the dirrerent search tools that Spiva Library has access to along with information about each tool.
What are keywords?
Keywords are words and phrases that researchers enter into search engines. They are important words or concepts about your resarch question or topic.
How to Identify Keywords
Before you begin searching for information, you must identify keywords related to your topic. Find keywords:
How many keywords should you use?
Using only 1 keyword may give you too many results, but using too many keywords will give you few results. To research effectively, you should use multiple keywords in your search queries but limit the amount to 2 - 4.
Check out our guide on keywords!
How to use those keywords in your searches
Once you have a list of keywords to use in your search, you can put your keywords and synonyms together to find the articles you need. Keyword searching offers several means of expanding and focusing searches. These methods apply to most databases although the specific form they take can vary. Databases normally offer a link to a Help section that explains the specifics.
Search term connectors especially AND, OR, and NOT allow you to combine terms.
To focus your search, and combine different aspects of your topic, use AND:
To expand your search and find different word variations, use OR:
Sometimes when you search, you might find some results that are irrelevent. To tell a database to discard certain keywords from your search results, use the word NOT. In some cases certain databases use the phrase AND NOT, but the result is the same.
Another way of expanding your search is to use truncation. You can search for variations of a word like this:
The best way to do a keyword search is to combine all of these search techniques:
You will notice that when combining synonyms using or, those words are grouped together using parenthesis. Experimentation to see what works never hurts! For example, you might need to change the term “vehicle” to “motor vehicle*" if a lot of sources concerning very irrelevant types of vehicles turn up!
Check out our guide on search strategies!
Primary sources are documents, letters, or accounts of events created as close to the event as possible. They tend to be less affected by retrospection and expert opinion. They are "as it happened," "what I experienced" or eyewitness accounts that tend to be untainted by historical analysis.
Primary sources allow you to interpret information found through research instead of relying on the interpertations of another individual. Because primary sources reflect the true meanings and ideas put forth by authors, the information itself may not be completely objective, well-reasoned, or accurate.
Secondary sources were created by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. These sources are generally scholarly books and articles.
Secondary sources are best for uncovering background or historical information about a topic and broadening your understanding of a topic by exposing you to others’ perspectives, interpretations, and conclusions.
Comparison of Similar Sources
Statistical table of public school teachers' salaries in Minnesota
Article describing trends in Minnesota teachers' salaries
A reproduction of the Declaration of Independence
Book exploring the history and political thought behind the Declaration of Independence
Speech by well-known business leader
Biography of business leader
Physical evidence in a court trial
Lawyer’s closing remarks/argument
Results of a treatment trial testing a new antidepressant on elderly men
Book about treating depression with changes in diet and exercise
Blockbuster movie filmed in 198
Biography of the lead actor
Original artwork, perhaps a sculpture
Critique of that sculpture
Notes taken by clinical psychologist
Magazine article about the psychological condition
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