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Library DIY Content: Get Started - My Topic

Choosing a good topic

Discover a Focused Topic

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. If you are unsure, ask your professor for feedback
  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you
  • Choose a topic that others have written about in order to find enough resources
  • Consider the scope of your topic. Is it too broad or too narrow?

Improve Your Keywords

If your search is not focused, you will not find good results. You do not need to write out a complete sentence. Searches work best if you connect keywords and short phrases. Link together related words with AND.

  • Not focused: Do university students in Portland, Oregon reflect the demographics of the surrounding area?
  • Better: Students AND diversity AND universities AND Portland

If your search is too broad, there will be too many unrelated results. More specific keywords will find better results. Try to think of a specific group, age, or industry.

  • Too broad: Diversity in education
  • Better: Diversity AND universities AND history

If your search is too narrow, there will not be enough results. Less specific keywords will find more results.

  • Too narrow: History of diversity in private universities in Portland, Oregon
  • Better: History AND diversity AND universities AND Oregon

Strategies for an Effective Research Question

  • Background research will help you learn more about your topic, find keywords, and refine your research question; 
  • Brainstorm related concepts and keywords. For example, if your topic is "polar bears,"  write down synonymous words or related topics: ice, cubs, global warming, hunting, diet, and "environmental icon;"
  • Limit your scope to manage your research. If you use a historical angle, then focus on a particular time period; for a geographical angle, focus on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focus on a particular group of people;
  • Start exploratory, in-depth research. As you start in-depth research, look for scholarly articles and books, then refine your topic based on what you find. Research is a dynamic process!

Develop Your Topic

The topic development process follows your research from the beginning of picking your topic through doing your research:

  1. Pick a topic: education, leadership, diversity, demographics
  2. Do some background research on your topic
  3. Improve your topic based on your early research: How have current trends shaped diversity in universities in the United States?
  4. Do in-depth research on your topic
  5. Create a thesis: Current trends in education and demographics have greatly influenced leadership diversity in universities in the United States. 

Resources that  help with topic development

  • Talk to your instructor or PSU librarians.
  • Read your course readings and class notes for ideas.
  • Wikipedia and Google provide background material, but not necessarily reliable information.
  • Subject Guidescreated by PSU subject librarians, identify subject encyclopedias, books, databases, and other scholarly materials.
  • Subject encyclopedias provide scholarly entries, overviews, and background information.

Tips for searching

General Tips that work in Most Searches

  • Quotation marks search for an exact phrase. For example, if you search with quotations, "medical error,"  your search finds results only with that exact phrase. A search for the phrase without quotations retrieves results that include those two words anywhere in the document.
  • An asterisk (*) searches for all endings to a word at the same time. For example, mexic*, searches for Mexico, Mexican, and Mexicans.

Web Search Tips

It may take several attempts to find the right keywords for your search. Be patient and persistent.

1. Keep it simple! Start by typing the name of a thing, place, or concept that you are looking for.
    puppies and  "training tips" 
    london and "dinner cruises"
    "pasta recipe"

2. Add relevant words if you do not retrieve pertinent results.
    First try: puppy 
    More precise: "puppy training"
    Even more precise: "dalmatian pupp*" AND "obedience training"

3. Use words that a professional would use to describe what you are looking for.
    Not ideal: "my head hurts"
    Not slang: "why is my head killing me"
    Better: headache 

4. Use only the important words rather than a full sentence or question.
    Not ideal: countries where bats are an omen of luck 
    Better: bats and omen and luck

All of the words that you include in your search will be used to find matching content. Too many words will limit your results.


Database Search Tips

What to do when you have too many results:

  • Start small! Begin with just one or a few search terms, then add additional terms if you find you have too many results.
  • Use good search terms - Use terms that are more specific than those you originally entered. Do not use OR between terms with different meanings; for example, women OR salary.
  • Too few search terms - Each time you put in another search term it will give you fewer results. If you choose one general term or keyword for the search box, consider what makes you interested in using it to define your topic. 
  • Use limiters - Limiters such as date and resource type can focus your results list.
  • Topic is too broad - Narrow the scope of your search. Think about the various aspects of your topic that you plan to cover in your paper and search for them separately, then synthesize the information. Or you may need to narrow your topic because it is too large a topic to cover in a short paper. 

What to do when you have too few results:

  • Is this the best database for your topic? If you are using a database for a specific subject (education, psychology, etc.), searching the PSU Library catalog, or a multidisciplinary database like Academic Search Premier. 
  • Subject-specific databases are recommended in the Subject Guides.
  • Use good search terms or keywords - Check your spelling and brainstorm synonyms or related terms for your topic. You can use OR between synonyms; for example, salary OR pay OR compensation.
  • Too many search terms - Each additional term in your search will retrieve fewer results. If you have three or more search terms, remove one to see if your results improve.
  • Too many limiters - Limiters such as date and resource type provide a targeted results list with fewer results. Use only those that are absolutely necessary.
  • Your topic is too narrow - What is the broader theme of your topic? Break your topic down and search for different parts separately, then synthesize the information you find.

Catalog Search Tips

  • What are you looking for? The PSU Library catalog is a great place to search for books and articles.
  • Can you use a limiter to focus your results? After you search, use the facets on the left side of the search results page to limit by subject, author, date, or language.
  • Are you looking for a specific article? Search the PSU Library catalog to find articles in most of the PSU databases. If you are assigned to use a specific database, use the list at Databases and Articles.
  • Are you looking for Course Reserves? Select the Course Reserves tab next to the PSU Library catalog search box at the PSU Library homepage, then search for your class (example: ENG 101 or BIO 201), your instructor's last name, or the title of the book.

Getting from a topic to a research question

Strategies for Generating a Research Question

Create a Concept Map 

A concept map consists of aspects and angles of your topic and helps you organize your research. Think about what questions you have or that currently exist about your topic. Think about the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why – to brainstorm different ways to narrow your question. These questions are important because they cannot have a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Notice if you use general words in a brainstorm and try to make your words more specific. For example, if you think about "when," are you brainstorming about the past, the present, or the future?

When researching vegetarian food culture in the United States, you could ask:

  • Who is the largest demographic of vegetarian in the United States? Who else is affected in the community?
  • What specific food items are vegetarians more or less likely to buy?
  • When did vegetarianism become popular in the United States? 
  • Where is there large populations of vegetarian people in the United States? 
  • Why are people vegetarians in the United States?

The video above by Appalachian State University shows shows how to create and use a concept map to develop your research.

Reference sources help you find an angle on your topic, learn the language of the subject, and identify an interesting question. If you are focusing on a particular academic discipline like psychology, education, or business, then it is worth taking time to read background entries in subject encyclopedias. These encyclopedias provide background information and have the correct subject terms and keywords. You can also check Subject Guides in your discipline for more resources.

Refine your search

Refine Your Search

Too Many Search Results

  • Find better search terms or keywords. Think of terms that are more specific and try changing the keywords or terms.
  • Use more and more search terms. Start with a small number of keywords and then add more terms or try different terms based on your results.
  • Use limiters. Limiters such as date and resource type retrieve a targeted, results list. For example, you may need to only search for scholarly peer-reviewed articles, or search for articles within the past 2 years.
  • Do not use ORMake sure you are not using OR between terms that mean different things; for example, women OR salaries. This search tool broadens your search by looking for either word rather than both, and should be used sparingly.
  • Notice the default search options. By default, most databases search in the title, author field, abstract, and subject terms associated with the article. Experiment with searching in just the title or subject field in order to get more targeted results.
  • Narrow down your topic. Think about a more focused aspect of your topic or various angles of your topic. If you are looking at homosexual soldiers in the US military, then examine changing attitudes towards sexuality, military culture, arguments against or for inclusion of homosexual soldiers in combat units.

Too Few Search Results

  • Try a database on your topic. Search in a database that specializes in a certain subject. If you need a subject-specific database suggestion, try the Subject Guides created by PSU subject librarians. You may have to try several different databases; be flexible and persistent.
  • Broaden your topic. You may need to think more broadly about your topic. For example, if you are researching the impact of "Basque terrorism" and a specific town in Spain, you might broaden your search. Break your topic into different parts and search them separately (the Basque separatist movement then the demographics of the Spanish town), then interpret and combine the information yourself.
  • Change your search terms. Replace the terms you use in your search with similar or related terms. Brainstorming keywords will be helpful for this.
  • Use fewer search terms. Each time you put in another search term you will get fewer results. Start with a small number of keywords and then increase the number, or try different terms based on your results.
  • Use fewer limiters. Try using only limiters that are absolutely necessary. For instance, if your professor requires only scholarly peer-reviewed articles, only use the limiter for peer-reviewed articles.

Choosing keywords

Choose Keywords

When searching in library research databases, it is important to search with keywords that capture the essential key concepts that make up your topic because the more terms that you use in your search, the fewer results. A search like impact of gender on people's salary expectations will retrieve fewer results than if you searched for gender AND salary AND expectations.

Brainstorm all of the keywords or terms with the meaning of your key concepts. For the word salary, authors might use terms such as wages, pay, income, or earnings. Searching for all of those terms together with OR between them (for example: pay OR wages OR income OR earnings) tells the search engine to find at all of these terms in your search results, and it retrieves all of the possible works on your topic at once. 

Reference Resources at the PSU Library provide basic information as well as the scholarly language used for your topic including keywords, people's names, or place names.

Once you have your keywords for searching, try them in various combinations in the library's research databases or in the PSU Library catalog. Here is a video about brainstorming for keywords.

Understand your assignment requirements

Understand Your Assignment Requirements

Read your assignment carefully and look for these key components in your assignment:

  • Check for the due date. This will help you with time management to determine when you need to search for sources, make time to read them as well as write your paper or create your project or presentation. Some assignments have different parts due at different times. Make sure that you check all of the due dates!
  • The length of the assignment, which could be listed in pages, word count, or even minutes for a presentation. The length of the assignment will help you determine the scope of your  topic.
  • Style and formatting information, such as font size, spacing, and citation style. See the PSU Library guide, Cite your Sources.
  • The number of and type(s) of outside sources that your instructor requires to support your research.  Think about where you might need to look for the different types of sources defined;the PSU Library catalog for books and articles, or the library databases.
  • Topic guidance and suggestions. Some instructors will offer specific suggestions while others will just provide basic guidelines to help you choose a topic. Check for points and questions that the instructor wants you to address in your assignment.

Highlight or underline the elements that are key to understanding your assignment. If you find that you can not describe what your assignment is about to someone else, you should re-read the assignment or ask your instructor for clarification.​

Finding background information on a topic

Find Background Information on your Topic

Background research helps develop a more effective topic as well as brainstorm for better search terms or keywords.

  • Your instructor is a great resource! They understand your assignment and can provide great advice about the topic and how to frame it. 
  • Talk to a librarian at the PSU library Reference Desk on the 2nd floor, or chat with a librarian at Ask a Librarian!
  • Journals related to the general area you are studying can be useful to look through for ideas and background information on possible topics. Browse Journals by Subject and search for your subject or discipline with keywords like "social work" or linguistics.
  • Reference materials like subject encyclopedias are useful for developing your topic and discovering keywords because they contain brief scholarly entries related to a discipline. 
  • Check the Subject Guides for reference books and scholarly subject encyclopedias about specific disciplines.