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Research Process: An Overview: Refining Your Topic

This guide outlines the steps in the research process from developing a topic to crediting sources.

TIP: Be Flexible

It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable.

Steps to Refining Your Topic

Once you have chosen a general topic idea the next step is to refine your topic and ulitmately to formulate a research question.

Consider the points below to keep your research focused and on track.  If you continue to have difficulties defining a topic talk to your instructor or a librarian.

The Research Question

Once you have the topic you would like to research, the next step is forming your research question. Your research question should be focused and specifc.  The result should also be a question for which there are two or more possible answers.  See some examples below:

Broad Topic > Narrowed Topic > Focused Topic > Research Question
Women's health Women & cancer Women smokers & breast cancer Is there a connection between cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk?
Computer games Computer game violence Computer game violence & children How does violence in computer games affect children?
Eating disorders Teens & eating disorders Teen peer pressure & bulimia What role, if any, does peer pressure play in the development of bulimia in teens?


Assignment Guidelines

Before selecting your topic, make sure you know what your final project should look like. Each instructor will probably have different assignment requirements so be sure to read your assignment thoroughly and check for specific guidelines concerning:

  • The number of sources you are required to use
  • The kinds of sources are you able to use - books vs. web sites vs. journal articles or a variety?
  • The type of research you are you being asked to conduct. - original research or review what research has been done?
  • The length of your final project - two-pages, ten pages, etc. or an informal, five minute presentation?
  • The depth of your project - Is your project an overview of the subject or in-depth and focused coverage of a specific aspect?
  • The scope you are required to cover - Is this an historical summary or a report of current developments?

You instructor will probably provide specific requirements for your assignment, if not the table below may provide a rough guide:

Assigned Length of Research Paper or Project Suggested Guidelines for Number & Types of Sources
1-2 page paper
2-3 magazine articles or Web sites
3-5 page paper
4-8 items, including book, articles (scholarly and/or popular) and Web sites
Annotated bibliography
6-15 items including books, scholarly articles, Web sites and other items
10-15 page research paper
12-20 items, including books, scholarly articles, web sites and other items

Assigning Limits to Your Topic

A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic is to assign limits to what you will cover. Some common ways to limit a topic are listed below using the broad topic, "the environment" as an example.

Limiter Example
geographical area What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States
culture How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?
time frame What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?
discipline How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?
population group What are the effects of air pollution on senior citizens?

Remember that a topic may be too difficult to research if it is too:

  • locally confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in these (local) newspapers, if at all.

Example: What sources of pollution affect the Genesee County water supply?

  • recent - If a topic is quite recent, books or journal articles may not be available, but newspaper or magazine articles may. Also, Web sites related to the topic may or may not be available.
  • broadly interdisciplinary - You could be overwhelmed with superficial information.

Example: How can the environment contribute to the culture, politics and society of the Western states?