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Answered By: Woodruff Library Reference Last Updated: Jan 04, 2022     Views: 524386

How do you decide what to write about when confronted with a research paper? You want a focused topic!

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. Ask your professor for feedback if you are unsure.
  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you.  It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you.
  • Consider the scope of your topic. If your topic is too broad it may be hard to find information that is focused and relevant; if your topic is too narrow it may be hard to find any information at all.

Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:

  • Background research will help you develop your topic and hone or change it in more appropriate ways.  Knowing more about your topic's background can only help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, research paper.
  • Brainstorm concepts.  Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can that might be related to that topic (and write them down!). For example, if your topic is "polar bears," you might think of the following words and topics in association: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, climate change, and environmental icon. 
  • Develop a research question . Once you have come up with a broad topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question, or a question you're going to answer in your paper by doing more, in-depth research.
  • What's your general approach to the topic?  Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: use a historical angle by focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.
  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research, like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper, you can and probably will modify or refine your topic based on what you find.
  • Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.

The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis , which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found, and find more sources in order to support that thesis, or to answer your research question.

Here's an example of how the topic development process above can lead you to a thesis:

Resources that can help you develop your topic:

  • Your instructor, course readings, class notes, Wikipedia, and Google can all be helpful in terms of getting ideas for broad topics.
  • A Research Guide for a particular subject created by a subject librarian is great for helping you choose where to begin your research. These online guides will identify encyclopedias, books, databases, and other materials to help you get started with research. You can also ask a librarian at the Library Service Desk.
  • Library resources like Credo Reference Unlimited , Gale Virtual Reference Library ,  CQ Researcher and subject-specific encyclopedias can help you come up with topic ideas because they provide great overviews and introductions to topics. You can find links to these kinds of resources in the  Research Guides mentioned above. These will probably not be scholarly sources you can use in your paper, but they may lead you to more in-depth, scholarly resources that you will want to use in your paper.

Check out this video from NCSU Libraries:

Thanks go to the Portland State University Library for sharing their Library DIY idea with us!

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San Antonio’s Chili Queens

Specht, Jack. Chili Stands, Haymarket Plaza . San Antonio Light Photograph Collection, CD# 010; L-1433-F.tif, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

Developing Research Questions & Narrowing Research Topics

Remember the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"? Goldilocks searched the bears' house looking for the chair, porridge, and bed that was "Juuust right." Well, think of Goldilocks when you are formulating your research topic: you want to create the perfect one, the one that is "Juuust right."

General Subject

Narrow Subject

Narrow Again

1. Start with the General Subject

Let's say that your professor has given you the general subject of food and says you need to write a paper that is 3 - 5 double-spaced pages. Well, "food" is a pretty big topic. If you were going to discuss everything about food, you would be writing a book, or nine. Think of all the history, cultures, diets, recipes, chemistry, etc. that are wrapped up in the idea of food. It is quite a lot!

2. Narrow the Subject Down

So, we need to narrow this subject down. Let's say that your major is in history. You might be tempted to say "history of food" and consider that topic a job well done. Before you pat yourself on the back, think about it: there are many aspects of food’s history to consider.

What will you discuss about the history of food?

The different cultural beliefs about beef?

The historic importance of rice in China?

The importance of food at a certain point in history?

3. Then Narrow this Topic Down Even Further

You can narrow down your topic of the history of food even further. Let's say that you decided to focus on the important foods at a certain point in history. This topic is certainly narrower than the giant topic of food, and narrower than history of food, but the topic is not narrow enough.

Here are some questions you could ask to help you narrow your topic down even further:

What specific point in history will you choose?

What geographic locale will the food be?

What is the food and the culture around that food?

4. Now You Have Your Topic

After asking a series of questions to help narrow down the subject and doing some initial searching in Library Quick Search, we have decided on the topic:

“How the Chili Queens Influenced San Antonio”

Just like the pyramid to the right, we started off broad and ended to a point.

Use this process to narrow your own topic!  At the final step, you can easily change your topic to a thesis, just like we successfully narrowed this topic from “Food” to "San Antonio’s Chili Queens spread the love of cowboy food and Texas hospitality to San Antonio visitors."

Now you know how to transform a broad idea to a specific one that can be discussed within a set page limit. Remember the pyramid: your topic should get narrower with each question that you ask. If the topic is getting bigger, there may be a problem.

Use this activity to narrow the topic of “sports” to a topic that can be discussed in a 2-3 page paper to make it “juuust right.”

Think you have the hang of this? Test yourself with the following practice questions. There are five questions.

You might want to complete a Library Quick Search if you are unsure about how broad or narrow the topic is.

The more work that you do to get to a "Goldilocks research topic," the better equipped you will be for your research journey. Remember, it took Goldilocks a couple of tries before she found the porridge that was "Juuust right" and it might take you a couple of tries before you find which topic will be just right for you too!

Want some more help? These tutorials provide some different approaches to getting your topic juuust right.

Reynolds Community College Libraries - Refine a Topic

University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries - Topic Narrowing

Penn State University Libraries - Choosing a Topic

Virginia Tech University Libraries - Strategies for Narrowing a Topic

Designed and developed by UTSA Libraries Learning Technology Department at John Peace Library, University of Texas at San Antonio, 2019.

Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.

1-Research Questions

2. Narrowing a Topic

For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It’s a process of working from the outside in: you start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”

Process of Narrowing a Topic

A Venn diagram of concentric circles to show narrowing from all possible topics to a specific research question.

All Possible Topics -You’ll need to narrow your topic in order to do research effectively. Without specific areas of focus, it will be hard to even know where to begin.

Assigned Topics – When professors assign a topic you have to narrow, they have already started the narrowing process. Narrowing a topic means making some part of it more specific. Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. Often, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you. One way to get ideas is to read background information from a source like Wikipedia.

Topic Narrowed by Initial Exploration –  It’s wise to do some more reading about that narrower topic to a) learn more about it and b) learn specialized terms used by professionals and scholars who study it.

Topic Narrowed to Research Question(s) –  A research question defines exactly what you are trying to find out. It will influence most of the steps you take to conduct the research.

ACTIVITY: Which Topic Is Narrower?

When we talk about narrowing a topic, we’re talking about making it more specific. You can make it more specific by singling out at least one part or aspect of the original to decrease the scope of the original. Now here’s some practice for you to test your understanding.

Why Narrow a Topic?

Once you have a need for research—say, an assignment—you may need to prowl around a bit online to explore the topic and figure out what you actually want to find out and write about.

For instance, maybe your assignment is to develop a poster about the season “spring” for an introductory horticulture course. The instructor expects you to narrow that topic to something you are interested in and that is related to your class.

A pie chart with one small section labeled as A narrower topic is a slice of the larger one.

Ideas about a narrower topic can come from anywhere. In this case, a narrower topic boils down to deciding what’s interesting to you about “spring” that is related to what you’re learning in your horticulture class and small enough to manage in the time you have.

One way to get ideas would be to read about spring in Wikipedia, looking for things that seem interesting and relevant to your class, and then letting one thing lead to another as you keep reading and thinking about likely possibilities that are more narrow than the enormous “spring” topic. (Be sure to pay attention to the references at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages and pursue any that look interesting. Your instructor is not likely to let you cite Wikipedia, but those references may be citable scholarly sources that you could eventually decide to use.)

Or, instead, if it is spring at the time you could start by just looking around, admire the blooming trees on campus, and decide you’d like your poster to be about bud development on your favorites, the crabapple trees.

What you’re actually doing to narrow your topic is making at least one aspect of your topic more specific. For instance, assume your topic is the maintenance of the 130 miles of sidewalks on OSU’s Columbus campus. If you made maintenance more specific, your narrower topic might be snow removal on Columbus OSU’s sidewalks. If instead, you made the 130 miles of sidewalks more specific, your narrower topic might be maintenance of the sidewalks on all sides of Mirror Lake.

Anna Narrows Her Topic and Works on a Research Question

The Situation: Anna, an undergraduate, has been assigned a research paper on Antarctica. Her professor expects students to (1) narrow the topic on something more specific about Antarctica because they won’t have time to cover that whole topic. Then they are to (2) come up with a research question that their paper will answer.

The professor explained that the research question should be something they are interested in answering and that it must be more complicated than what they could answer with a quick Google search. He also said that research questions often, but not always, start with either the word “how” or “why.”

What you should do:

  • Read what Anna is thinking below as she tries to do the assignment.
  • After the reading, answer the questions at the end of the monologue in your own mind.
  • Check your answers with ours at the end of Anna’s interior monologue.
  • Keep this demonstration in mind the next time you are in Anna’s spot, and you can mimic her actions and think about your own topic.

Anna’s Interior Monologue

Okay, I am going to have to write something—a research paper—about Antarctica. I don’t know anything about that place—I think it’s a continent. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever wanted to know about Antarctica. How will I come up with a research question about that place? Calls for Wikipedia, I guess.

Anna with thought bubble showing a desert

At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctica . Just skimming. Pretty boring stuff. Oh, look– Antarctica’s a desert! I guess “desert” doesn’t have to do with heat. That’s interesting. What else could it have to do with? Maybe lack of precipitation? But there’s lots of snow and ice there. Have to think about that—what makes a desert a desert?

It says one to five thousand people live there in research stations. Year-round. Definitely, the last thing I’d ever do. “…there is no evidence that it was seen by humans until the 19th century.” I never thought about whether anybody lived in Antarctica first, before the scientists and stuff.

Lots of names—explorer, explorer… boring. It says Amundson reached the South Pole first. Who’s Amundson? But wait. It says, “One month later, the doomed Scott Expedition reached the pole.” Doomed? Doomed is always interesting. Where’s more about the Scott Expedition? I’m going to use that Control-F technique and type in Scott to see if I can find more about him on this page. Nothing beyond that one sentence shows up. Why would they have just that one sentence? I’ll have to click on the Scott Expedition link.

Anna with thought bubble showing Terra Nova Expedition

But it gives me a page called Terra Nova Expedition. What does that have to do with Scott? And just who was Scott? And why was his expedition doomed? There he is in a photo before going to Antarctica. Guess he was English. Other photos show him and his team in the snow. Oh, the expedition was named Terra Nova after the ship they sailed this time—in 1911. Scott had been there earlier on another ship.

Lots of stuff about preparing for the trip. Then stuff about expedition journeys once they were in Antarctica. Not very exciting—nothing about being doomed. I don’t want to write about this stuff.

Wait. The last paragraph of the first section says “For many years after his death, Scott’s status as a tragic hero was unchallenged,” but then it says that in the 20th-century people looked closer at the expedition’s management and at whether Scott and some of his team could be personally blamed for the catastrophe. That “remains controversial,” it says. Catastrophe? Personally blamed? Hmm.

Back to skimming. It all seems horrible to me. They actually planned to kill their ponies for meat, so when they actually did it, it was no surprise. Everything was extremely difficult. And then when they arrived at the South Pole, they found that the explorer Amundsen had beaten them. Must have been a big disappointment.

The homeward march was even worse. The weather got worse. The dog sleds that were supposed to meet them periodically with supplies didn’t show up. Or maybe the Scott group was lost and didn’t go to the right meeting places. Maybe that’s what that earlier statement meant about whether the decisions that were made were good ones. Scott’s diary said the crystallized snow made it seem like they were pushing and pulling the sledges through dry sand .

Anna with thought bubble showing rocks

It says that before things turned really bad ( really bad? You’ve already had to eat your horses !), Scott allowed his men to put 30 pounds of rocks with fossils on the sledges they were pushing and dragging. Now was that sensible? The men had to push or pull those sledges themselves. What if it was those rocks that actually doomed those men?

But here it says that those rocks are the proof of continental drift. So how did they know those rocks were so important? Was that knowledge worth their lives? Could they have known?

Wow–there is drama on this page! Scott’s diary is quoted about their troubles on the expedition—the relentless cold, frostbite, and the deaths of their dogs. One entry tells of a guy on Scott’s team “now with hands as well as feet pretty well useless” voluntarily leaving the tent and walking to his death. The diary says that the team member’s last words were ”I am just going outside and may be some time.” Ha!

They all seem lost and desperate but still have those sledges. Why would you keep pulling and pushing those sledges containing an extra 30 pounds of rock when you are so desperate and every step is life or death?

Anna with thought bubble showing a diary

Then there’s Scott’s last diary entry, on March 29, 1912. “… It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.” Well.

That diary apparently gave lots of locations of where he thought they were but maybe they were lost. It says they ended up only 11 miles from one of their supply stations. I wonder if anybody knows how close they were to where Scott thought they were.

I’d love to see that diary. Wouldn’t that be cool? Online? I’ll Google it.

Yes! At the British museum. Look at that! I can see Scott’s last entry IN HIS OWN HANDWRITING!

Anna with thought bubble showing a web page

Actually, if I decide to write about something that requires reading the diary, it would be easier to not have to decipher his handwriting. Wonder whether there is a typed version of it online somewhere?

Maybe I should pay attention to the early paragraph on the Terra Nova Expedition page in Wikipedia—about it being controversial whether Scott and his team made bad decisions so that they brought most of their troubles on themselves. Can I narrow my topic to just the controversy over whether bad decisions of Scott and his crew doomed them? Maybe it’s too big a topic if I consider the decisions of all team members. Maybe I should just consider Scott’s decisions.

So what research question could come from that? Maybe: how did Scott’s decisions contribute to his team’s deaths in Antarctica? But am I talking about his decisions before or after they left for Antarctica? Or the whole time they were a team? Probably too many decisions involved. More focused: How did Scott’s decisions after reaching the South Pole help or hurt the chances of his team getting back safely? That’s not bad—maybe. If people have written about that. There are several of his decisions discussed on the Wikipedia page, and I know there are sources at the bottom of that page.

Anna with thought bubble showing a dessert

Let me think—what else did I see that was interesting or puzzling about all this? I remember being surprised that Antarctica is a desert. So maybe I could make Antarctica as a desert my topic. My research question could be something like: Why is Antarctica considered a desert? But there has to be a definition of deserts somewhere online, so that doesn’t sound complicated enough. Once you know the definition of desert, you’d know the answer to the question. Professor Sanders says research questions are more complicated than regular questions.

What’s a topic I could care about? A question I really wonder about? Maybe those rocks with the fossils in them. It’s just so hard to imagine desperate explorers continuing to push those sledges with an extra 30 pounds of rocks on them. Did they somehow know how important they would be? Or were they just curious about them? Why didn’t they ditch them? Or maybe they just didn’t realize how close to death they were. Maybe I could narrow my Antarctica topic to those rocks.

Maybe my narrowed topic could be something like: The rocks that Scott and his crew found in Antarctica that prove continental drift. Maybe my research question could be: How did Scott’s explorers choose the rocks they kept?

Well, now all I have is questions about my questions. Like, is my professor going to think the question about the rocks is still about Antarctica? Or is it all about continental drift or geology or even the psychology of desperate people? And what has been written about the finding of those rocks? Will I be able to find enough sources? I’m also wondering whether my question about Scott’s decisions is too big—do I have enough time for it?

Anna with thought bubble showing people talking

I think my professor is the only one who can tell me whether my question about the rocks has enough to do with Antarctica. Since he’s the one who will be grading my paper. But a librarian can help me figure out the other things.

So Dr. Sanders and a librarian are next.

  • Was Anna’s choice to start with Wikipedia a good choice? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever used that Control-F technique?
  • At what points does Anna think about where to look for information?
  • At the end of this session, Anna hasn’t yet settled on a research question. So what did she accomplish? What good was all this searching and thinking?

Here are our answers below.

Our Answers:

  • Was Anna’s choice to start with Wikipedia a good choice? Why or why not? Wikipedia is a great place to start a research project. Just make sure you move on from there, because it’s a not a good place to end up with your project. One place to move on to is the sources at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages.
  • Have you ever used that Control-F technique? If you haven’t used the Control-F technique, we hope you will. It can save you a lot of time and effort reading online material.
  • At what points does Anna think about where to look for information ? When she began; when she wanted to know more about the Scott expedition; when she wonders whether she could read Scott’s diary online; when she thinks about what people could answer her questions.
  • At the end of this session, Anna hasn’t yet settled on a research question. So what did she accomplish? What good was all this reading and thinking? There are probably many answers to this question. Ours includes that Anna learned more about Antarctica, the subject of her research project. She focused her thinking (even if she doesn’t end up using the possible research questions she’s considering) and practiced critical thinking skills, such as when she thought about what she could be interested in, when she worked to make her potential research questions more specific, and when she figured out what questions still needed answering at the end. She also practiced her skills at making meaning from what she read, investigating a story that she didn’t expect to be there and didn’t know had the potential of being one that she is interested in. She also now knows what questions she needs answered and whom to ask. These thinking skills are what college is all about. Anna is way beyond where she was when she started.

Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research Copyright © 2015 by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Exercise 2: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?

The exercises below are designed to improve your ability to select a good research question.

For each exercise choose what you think is the best research question out of the three (neither too broad nor too narrow). 

Exercise 2A

Question a: what marketing strategies does the coca-cola company currently apply, question a is the best research question..

Your research to answer this question may include observation of print, television and radio advertisements, as well as research into various, current marketing theories and strategies. Both types of research are "do-able," and the question is focused enough to yield a fully-developed research paper.

Question B: What is the Coca-Cola company's future marketing plan?

Question b is very broad as well as being unresearchable.

It's unlikely that Coca-Cola personnel will reveal their marketing plan.

Question C: What marketing strategies has the Coca-Cola company used in the past?

Question c may be too broad as well..

"The past" covers a lot of time, especially since the Coca-Cola company was incorporated in 1919.

Exercise 2B

Question a: what impact has deregulation had on the airline industry, question a is too broad once you get into the research..

Because deregulation may have had impact on safety, costs, passenger fees, ability to comply with government regulations, and many other areas of the airline industry, there are too many facets of the question to deal with in depth in one research paper.

Question B: What percentage of commercial airline crashes was traced to negligent maintenance during the ten years immediately preceding and following deregulation?

Question b is too narrow..

It can be answered with simple percentages and cannot be developed into a full research paper.

Question C: What impact has deregulation had on commercial airline safety?

Question c is the best research question..

You may use statistics such as question B would uncover as you answer question C, which is focused enough to allow you to research the question in some depth, yet broad enough to allow you to consider the various effects of deregulation on airline safety.

Exercise 2C

Question a: do children sent to day care or preschool start kindergarten with more-developed skills, question a is too broad..

Because it focuses on all skills (language, social, small motor, large motor, etc.), you'd have to gather too much diverse information to answer question A.

Question B: Do children sent to day care or preschool start kindergarten with more highly-developed language skills?

The best research question is b..

The topic is broad enough to find more than just one or two sources, but it's limited to one focus--the development of preschool language skills.

Question C: Do children sent to day care or preschool start kindergarten with larger vocabularies?

There may or may not be enough information to answer question c..

You'd need to find more than just one or two studies if you chose to answer question C. If you find that there are enough sources dealing with vocabulary only, then you could choose to pursue question C.

Exercise 2D

Question a: what are the 14 different disease-causing genes that were discovered in 1994, question a is far too narrow to develop into a research paper..

You could answer this question in one sentence, and the question does not allow you to develop your own thoughts about the topic.

Question B: What is the importance of genetic research in our lives?

Question b is too broad..

You could write a book to discuss the importance of genetic research in our lives.

Question C: How might the discovery of a genetic basis for obesity change the way in which we treat obese persons, both medically and socially?

Question c is the best choice..

You might be asking, "How can I research something whose effect hasn't been felt yet?" You can posit what "might happen logically" in the future based on what "has happened" in the past. For example, your research may bring you to the major things thought to have caused obesity in the recent last two to three decades in order to establish a direct relationship between cause and treatment. Once you establish that direct cause-and-effect relationship, you can project similar types of relationships based on the new genetic research.

Exercise 2E

Question a: how can adult children of alcoholics interact most positively with their alcoholic parents, question a is the best choice..

It narrows the scope by focusing on only the most positive ways of interaction. It also asks you to use the research to support your own informed judgment, which you provide eventually in the final research paper, thus creating interest as well as focus.

Question B: How do adult children of alcoholics interact with their alcoholic parents?

Question b may be too broad..

At first glance, there is not much difference between questions A and B, but there is one major difference:  Question B asks for the variety of ways in which adult children of alcoholics interact with their alcoholic parents. Substantial research has identified many patterns of interaction, so this question may be too broad to deal with in the scope of one research paper.

Question C: What is the major emotional reaction of adult children of alcoholics to their alcoholic parents?

Question c may be too narrow..

It asks the researcher to identify just one major emotional reaction.

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