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Information Literacy

How to Develop a Research Question

How to Narrow a Topic

Ask Yourself Questions About Your Topic:

  1. What do you know about it? What don't you know?
  2. What aspects of your topic interest you: historical, sociological, psychological, etc.?
  3. What time period do you want to cover?
  4. On what geographic region do you want to focus?
  5. What kind of information do you need?
    1. A brief summary or a lengthy explanation?
    2. Periodical articles, books, essays, encyclopedia articles?
    3. Statistics?

Example: I'm thinking of doing a paper on an environmental subject. This topic could develop in many different ways.

General Topic: the environment
Time span: 1960s to the present
Place: oceans, Los Angeles
Person or group: organizations working on the issues
Event or Aspects: behavior; sociological; changes

How to Clarify a Topic

Before you begin a research project, you will need to clarify your search terms or concepts. Each project is completely different and will require critical thinking skills. Clarification is the first phase of a Search Strategy.

Suppose you are asked to write a paper about the semiotics of advertising. You think the Benetton ad campaigns are a possibility.

  • The term Benetton refers to a specific company.
  • The concept advertising can be searched using other terms, such as ads or advertisement. You could also narrow your topic by limiting your search to billboard, TV, or magazine ads.
  • The term semiotics is only used in very academic writing and you may not find it used in magazines or newspapers. You may choose not to use the term at all in your search, but use synonyms instead, like symbol or popular culture.

A first step might be to do some preliminary browsing in a periodical database in order to discover  how much has been published on the topic and what other terms have been used which related to your topic.

Study the following citations found in Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and Lexis-Nexis. They were found by simply entering one term, Benetton, as a keyword. Notice the other terms or related topics which could be good alternative ideas for a paper on semiotics of advertising. Notice especially which terms are used in the subject fields.

How to Broaden Your Topic

Example: I'm doing a paper about a particular artist who graduated from Otis

This topic as stated may not have many many articles yet written about it. How can this be turned into a more manageable topic?

Look for  broader associations:

  • Could you examine a movement or type of art the artist is associated with?
  • Could you think broadly about the success of art school graduates -- what might these be?
  • What other issues are involved in this topic? Such as, artists as teachers.
Specific Topic: Robert Glover, ceramics artist
Alternate focus: Ceramics artists

Alternate Place:

California, the U.S.

Focus on a Person or Group:

Post WWI art movement, ceramics programs in a specific college, California artists, ceramics in terms of crafts vs. fine arts
Focus on an Event or Aspect: Getty Pacific Standard Time initiative, an exhibition about "Clay in L.A."

How can you refine a search on the Web?

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." --Pablo Picasso

Since the Web is not organized in the same way a research database is, you usually cannot do field searching on the Web nor can you rely on the consistency of a controlled vocabulary.

Computerized search mechanisms are based on Boolean logic. When you use the enter code words known as boolean operators you are telling the computer exactly how to perform a search which will be tailored to your specific needs.

The most commonly used code words are: AND, OR, and NOT. The phrase you enter into a search box is called the search string (or syntax)

More on Boolean operators.

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