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How Do I Start My Research?

The Research Process

Background Information & Books

Before you can start any research on your topic, you must have a background knowledge of it. Books and websites can provide you with that knowledge.

This is important because:

  1. Background sources give you the language that people are using to discuss your topic. You will use this language when you start to search databases for scholarly articles and resources on the topic.
  2. This "pre-research" gives you a sense if your topic is focused enough. If your initial searches bring back so many results you can't even figure out what the language is, then you should consider narrowing your topic.

Remember, background information is always a starting point for research, not an ending point.

Why Brainstorming is a Necessary Step

This short video from Portland State University Library reminds us that library databases work differently from Google. Though both use keyword searching, you can use library databases more effectively and successfully if you have thought of lots of keywords related to your research topic.

Turning Concepts into Keywords (aka "Search Terms")

As you can see below in #2 on the infographic, this research question contains some nouns or noun phrases that are key to defining this topic. These key concepts will become powerful keywords or search terms when you begin your searching. Remember to avoid the "fluff words" or vague words that could appear anywhere; instead focus on those words that will appear in the articles or resources that you are targeting.

Now, think about your own topic, and pick out the main concepts. I've laid out space here for three, but you should typically have anywhere between two and five:

Concept A _______________________

Concept B _______________________

Concept C _______________________

When you've identified the key concepts in your topic, think of synonyms or related words for each concept. They don't have to be perfect synonyms, and, in fact, sometimes antonyms can be useful search terms. This idea is illustrated below with the "air quality" and pollution pairing. More later on why "air quality" appears in quotations...

Concept A _______________________ OR __synonym __ OR __narrower term__ OR __antonym__ OR __related word__

In my example below, I have listed some related words for climate change. As you know, greenhouse gas is not a synonym for climate change, but it is often cited as a contributing factor. It is a narrower term related to a subset of ideas within this topic that I can use when I begin to search.

Concept: "Climate Change"        OR "Global Warming"    OR "anthropogenic global warming"    OR "greenhouse gas"


The tool below will walk you through this same exercise as above and will email you the results.