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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. Choose a topic that is interesting to you. If you are unsure, ask your professor for feedback.

Develop an Effective Research Question

  • Read scholarly subject encyclopedias for background research to learn more about your topic and find keywords;
  • Brainstorm related concepts and keywords. For example, if your topic is "vegetarianism," write down synonyms or related terms: vegans, whole grains, vitamins supplements, animal rights.

Concept maps are another way to approach your topic. Watch this video by Appalachian State University to learn about using concept maps to help with research.

Discover Keywords

Searches work best if you connect keywords and short phrases that are linked together with the Boolean operator AND:

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

If your search is too broad there will be too many results. More specific keywords will narrow the results:

  • Too broad: Diversity AND 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 AND diversity AND private universities AND Portland, Oregon
  • Better: History AND diversity AND universities AND Oregon

Find More Information

  • Read your course readings and class notes for ideas.
  • Check out the Subject Guides for subject encyclopedias, books, databases, and other scholarly materials.
  • Read Subject Encyclopedias for scholarly background information.
  • Talk to your instructor or Ask a Librarian.

Tips for searching

General Tips that work in Most Searches

  • Quotation marks search for an exact phrase. If you search with quotations like the phrase, "medical error," then your search retrieves only 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, educat*, searches for education, educator, educated, and educational.

Web Search Tips

1. Keep it simple! Start by typing the name of a thing, place, or concept that you are looking for.

london and transportation
"ocean pollution"

2. Use scholarly words without jargon or abbreviations to describe what you are looking for.

"User experience", not UX
"Motion pictures" or cinema, not movies

3. Use only the keywords rather than your research question.

Research question: Why are bats considered bad luck?
Key words: bats AND "bad luck"


Database Search Tips

What to do when you have too many results:

  • Use one or two keywords, then add additional terms if you need to narrow down your results;
  • Use specific keywords;
  • Do not use OR between keywords;
  • Use limiters, such as date and resource type, to focus your results list;
  • If your topic is too broad, then think about the various aspects of your topic and search for them separately.

What to do when you have too few results:

  • Check your spelling;
  • You can use OR between synonyms; for example, salary OR pay OR compensation;
  • If you use AND to combine terms, each additional keyword in your search will retrieve fewer results;
  • Use keywords about the broader theme of your topic, such as plastics AND pollution instead of BPA-free plastic.

PSU Library Catalog Search Tips

  • The PSU Library catalog is a great place to start your search for books and articles;
  • Limit by Resource Type to the type of content that you are interested in, like print books or articles;
  • For Course Reserves, select the tab next to the PSU Library catalog search box, then search for your class, such as ENG 101 or BIO 201, your instructor's last name, or the title of the item.

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. Brainstorm questions about your topic. Think about the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why. These questions are important because they cannot have a simple "yes" or "no" answer. This is how you begin to think about keywords for your topic. For example, if you think about "when," are you referring to the past, the present, or the future?

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

  • Who are vegetarians in the United States? 
  • What foods are vegetarians more or less likely to buy or grow?
  • When did vegetarianism become popular in the United States? 
  • Where do vegetarians tend to grocery shop? 
  • Why are people vegetarians in the United States?

Concept maps are another way to approach your topic. Watch this video by Appalachian State University to learn about using concept maps to help with research.

Another strategy for approaching your topic is to use reference sources. By using reference sources, you will learn the scholarly language about your topic in order to identify an interesting question and keywords. 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 scholarly subject encyclopedias.

Refine your search

Refine Your Search

When You Have 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 search terms - Start with a small number of keywords, then add more specific keywords;
  • Use limiters - Limiters such as date and resource type retrieve a targeted results list. For example, you can search for articles, or search for articles within the past 2 years;
  • Do not use the Boolean operator OR - This search tool looks for either word rather than both and should be used sparingly;
  • Narrow your topic - Think about a more focused aspect of your topic. If you are researching plastics in oceans, then perhaps choose a specific ocean and focus on nanoplastics.

When You Do Not Have Enough Search Results...

  • Try a database on your topic - Search in a database that specializes in a certain subject. For subject-specific database suggestions, try the Subject Guides.
  • Broaden your topic - You may need to think more broadly about your topic. For example, if you are researching the impact of hybrid cars and CO2 emissions, you might broaden your search to hybrid cars and air pollution;
  • Change your keywords - Replace your keywords with similar or related terms. Discover new keywords by reading background information on your topic in scholarly subject encyclopedias;
  • Use fewer keywords - Each time you put in another search term you will get fewer results;
  • Use fewer limiters - Use limiters sparingly. For instance, if your professor requires only scholarly articles from the past 5 years, then use the limiter for scholarly articles and the date range.

Choosing keywords

Choose Keywords

When searching in PSU Library research databases, use keywords that capture key concepts in your topic. A search phrase  like impact of gender on salary will retrieve fewer results than if you searched with keywords and use AND, like gender AND salary. In order to retrieve more results, use keywords that are synonyms and use OR, like salary OR wages OR income.

Scholarly Encyclopedias provide background information, as well as scholarly language and keywords, people's names, or place names.

Watch this 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. Some assignments have multiple due dates;
  • Check the length of the assignment, which could be listed in pages, word count, or even minutes for a presentation;
  • Review style and formatting information, such as font size, spacing, and citation style. See the PSU Library guide, Cite your Sources;
  • Note how many resources that your instructor requires to support your research;
  • Check for specific information that the instructor wants you to address in your assignment;
  • Highlight or underline the elements that are key to understanding your assignment.

If 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 provides context for your topic:

  • Your instructor is a great resource who can give advice about the topic and how to frame it;
  • Ask a Librarian
  • Scholarly subject encyclopedias contain brief entries related to a discipline that provide context and potential keywords.
  • Subject Guides list reference books and scholarly subject encyclopedias about specific disciplines.