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Research Guide

How to do research for an academic paper

Choose a Topic

- Taking notes during the research process is essential. You can print out and use the Research Worksheet to assist you.

- Choose a topic that interests you... something that you are curious about and want to learn more about. Sometimes your instructor will assign a topic, and your choices may be limited. Other times you will have the opportunity to choose your topic.

- The following list names some library databases that can help you identify a broad topic area, discover different aspects of that topic and learn some background information about it:

Below is a screenshot from the database Opposing Viewpoints in Context showing the range of broad topic areas that you can find infomation about.

Refine Your Topic

- Find some background information so that you can learn more about the topic. This is where Google searching, Wikipedia and the databases listed above can be helpful. (Wikipedia can be used to gather background information but should not be one of your cited sources.)

- Brainstorm for ideas about a few different aspects of the topic that interest you. The sources you use to find background information are also good places to find ideas for aspects of the topic. By doing a Google search on the broad topic of social media, you can discover that some aspects of this topic include addiction, body image, cyber bullying, effects on relationships, and privacy. Investigate some of the links you find to determine which aspect of the topic interests you most.

- Searching in a general database like Academic Search Complete can help you decide how to focus your topic (see the example with screenshots below). You'll need to determine if your topic idea is too broad (you're getting too many search results) or too narrow (you're not finding enough information). Revise your topic accordingly, seeking help from your instructor or a librarian if you want some guidance.

- The topic development phase can be the most challenging part of the process for many students, so asking a librarian for assistance is definitely the way to go. 

A good library database to use for this preliminary research is Academic Search Complete:

Example Search in Academic Search Complete

Below is an example using the database Academic Search Complete. The broad topic is social media and the aspect we are investigating is privacy. This simple search turns up over 900 results. 


Scrolling down the screen, you will see that the left column of the database contains many different ways of focusing the topic and narrowing down the search results. 


The Subject: Thesaurus Term section is particularly helpful in finding ideas on which to focus your topic. Here's an example of some of the options located in Subject: Thesaurus Term when you click on Show More. You can see that some possible areas to focus your research are medical ethicsright of privacycyber bullying, and data security.

At this point, you can get more information about these issues by selecting them from the Subject: Thesaurus Term list and scanning over some article titles. Google searching and Wikipedia can also help gather background information. The goal here is to learn enough about these issues to help you decide what interests you most, and thus what you will write your research paper about.