Module 2: Identifying a Topic

Copyright 2009- Copyright 2009-
Ryan Memorial Library
Information Literacy Portal

2.0 Objectives


  • Select suitable topic
  • Broaden and narrow
  • Identify key concepts and words

2.1 Definition of Research

The word "research" is used to describe a number of similar and often overlapping activities involving a search for information. For example, each of the following activities involves such a search; but the differences are significant and worth examining.

Research type
Essential characteristics
  1. Find the population of each country in Africa or the total (in dollars) of Japanese investment in the U.S. in 2002.
  A search for individual facts or data. May be part of the search for a solution to a larger problem or simply the answer to a friendly argument! Concerned with facts rather than knowledge or analysis and answers can normally be found in a single source.
  1. Find out what is known generally about a fairly specific topic. "What is the history of the Internet?"
  A report or review, not designed to create new information or insight but to collate and synthesize existing information. A summary of the past. Answers can typically be found in a selection of books, articles, and Web sites.
[Note: gathering this information may often include activities like #1 above.]
  1. Gather evidence to determine whether gang violence is directly related to playing violent video games.
  Gathering and analyzing a body of information or data and extracting new meaning from it or developing unique solutions to problems or cases. This is "real" research and requires an open-ended question for which there is no ready answer.
[Note: this will always include #2 above and usually #1. It may also involve gathering new data through experiments, surveys, or other techniques.]



2.1 Tip - Sources for Finding Topics


A textbook
Textbooks introduce a topic to non-specialists and generally include a bibliography of books and articles consulted. A good chapter can provide an overview and the bibliography can point to more information.

  Encyclopedias A general encyclopedia covers the entire range of human knowledge in brief. A search for a basic concept recalls every mention of that concept in the encyclopedia, indicating different contexts for it and some of the fields of study that have explored it.

Subject encyclopedias cover the knowledge base of a single discipline in brief. A search here can familiarize you with some of the different contexts within which your topic has been discussed in a discipline.

Hot topic Web sites
  UI Library Hot Topics



2.2 Using a Topic


Research requires a question for which no ready answer is available. What do you want to know about a topic? Asking a topic as a question (or series of related questions) has several advantages:

  1. Questions require answers.
    A topic is hard to cover completely because it typically encompasses too many related issues; but a question has an answer, even if it is ambiguous or controversial.
    Drugs and Crime   Could liberalization of drug laws reduce crime in the U.S.?
  2. Questions give you a way of evaluating answers.
    A clearly stated question helps you decide which information will be useful. A broad topic may tempt you to stash away information that may be helpful, but you're not sure how. A question also makes it easier to know when you have enough information to stop your research.
  3. A clear open-ended question calls for real research and thinking.
    Asking a question with no direct answer makes research and writing more meaningful. Assuming that your research may solve significant problems or expand the knowledge base of a discipline involves you in more meaningful activity of community and scholarship.

Developing a Question

Developing a question from a broad topic can be done in many ways. Two such effective ways are brainstorming and concept mapping.

Brain Storming

Brainstorming is a free-association technique of spontaneously listing all words, concepts, ideas, questions, and knowledge about a topic. After making a lengthy list, sort the ideas into categories. This allows you to inventory your current awareness of a topic, decide what perspectives are most interesting and/or relevant, and decide in which direction to steer your research.

Concept Mapping

You may create a concept map as a means of brainstorming; or, following your brainstorm, you may take the content you have generated and create your map from it . Concept maps may be elaborate or simple and are designed to help you organize your thinking about a topic, recognize where you have gaps in your knowledge, and help to generate specific questions that may guide your research.

Combining brainstorming and concept mapping (brainmapping, if you will) can be a productive way to begin your thinking about a topic area. Try to establish as your goal the drafting of a topic definition statement which outlines the area you will be researching and about which you will present your findings.



2.2 - Brainmapping Exercise


  1. Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to complete this activity.
  2. Get several clean sheets of paper and several markers of different colors.
  3. In the center of a page, draw a small picture of your topic. This can be either abstract or representational and the purpose is to jump-start creative thinking.
  4. To generate ideas about your topic, start writing key words on spokes radiating out from the central picture. Write only single words (not phrases), and keep the lines connected to the central picture.
  5. Free-associate rapidly and DO NOT CENSOR any idea. Keep writing constantly, and try to fill the page as quickly as possible. (Start another page if necessary.)
  6. Use different colors whenever possible.
  7. When you run out of ideas about your central picture, start associating ideas from the words you've generated.
  8. After you run out of words, look at the results and try to find patterns and associations between ideas. Draw arrows and use colors and pictures to connect related ideas.
  9. Redraw your map. Eliminate any extraneous ideas and group related ideas into some kind of organization. You should now have several important concepts related to your topic. You might also have a rudimentary structure for how to present these ideas. You may be able to generate a series of questions that will need to be answered during your investigations.

If your results don't provide a suitable topic, then walk away for a while. Return later and select one of your new ideas/concepts and repeat the exercise.



2.3 Broadening Your Research


A question that is too narrow or specific may not retrieve enough information. If this happens, broaden the question. Most questions have multiple contexts and varying levels of specificity.

The underlined terms below represent broader ways of asking without changing the basic meaning. If you find sources that treat a subject broadly, use the index or table of contents to locate useful sections or chapters. Or ask yourself, "How might the arguments made here support my argument?"


Should Makah whaling rituals be permitted despite endangered species laws?


Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?


What are the economic impacts of sweat shops on development in South Asia?


What are the impacts of U.S. labor practices on developing countries?


2.4 Narrowing the Topic

A question that is too broad may retrieve too much information. Here are some strategies for narrowing the scope of a question. They may be used individually or in combinations.





"Internet Security"




Since 1990? This year? In the future?



Current Internet security initiatives.




Local social norms & values, economic & political systems, or languages.


Internet security initiatives in the U.S


man and woman


Gender, age, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, educational attainment, species, etc.


Filtering software and childrens' access to Internet pornography




Social, legal, medical, ethical, biological, psychological, economic, political, philosophical? A viewpoint allows you to focus on a single aspect.


The constitutionality of Internet filtering technology


2.5 Choosing Keywords


Prepare for searching by identifying the central concepts in your research question.

Computers are programmed to match strings of characters and spaces and do not often understand the natural language we use with each other. They can't guess what you mean, don't "read" subtexts, and are easily confused by ambiguity, so clarify for them what you will be looking for. Focus only on essential concepts.

example   explanation
"media coverage of 9/11"   Media cover events. Unless the media caused the event, this term is unnecessary.
advantages of home schooling over public schools   Value words like "favorite," "advantage," or "better" are not useful if you need to gather evidence to help you make a decision or develop a solution. Don't just grab an opinion or the "right" answer off someone else's shelf.
dissertations about bioethics   Many databases and search engines are programmed to ignore common words that don't impact a search. These are called "stopwords" and typically include terms like "the," "from," "about," "when," etc.


Earlier we discussed narrowing and broadening a research question. Vocabulary can also be broadened or narrowed to find different types of sources. This chart suggests some alternative vocabulary for the following research question:

"Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?"

Key words   Broader   Related   Narrower
Native Americans   Indigenous peoples, North American history   Indians, Amerinds, North American Indians   Makah, Nez Perce, Cherokee, Kwakiutl, etc.
Customs   Social systems, anthropology,   Marriage, social relations, spirituality, rites and ceremonies,
religion, culture
  Lodge house(s), hunting, whaling, potlatch, etc.
Law   Criminal justice,
U.S. Constitution,
constitutional law
  Legislation, crimes, treaty rights   Bureau of Indian Affairs,
NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ),
cases (e.g. Kennewick Man, Neah Bay whaling)