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Research Essentials

A General Guide to Research: how to research, where to look for sources, how to evaluate work, and where to get research help in the Iona University Libraries.


Research is a multifaceted process. In searching, you could find that your topic is too broad, pulling up too many irrelevant sources. Conversely, you could find that your topic is too narrow, resulting in too few sources or too many specifically irrelevant sources.

If your research isn't meeting your needs, take a moment to reflect on your research topic. How did you choose your topic? Did you have enough background knowledge before you started searching, or are you trying to make sense of your topic from highly academic journal articles? Use the prompts on this page to guide your reflection and refine your topic for more sustainable and inquiry-driven research.

Choosing a Topic

1. Brainstorm possible topic ideas

  • Consider your personal interests
  • Talk about topics and your personal interests with classmates and peers
  • Reflect on interesting social media content you've recently encountered. Most social media content is not scholarly but can be explored with scholarly research from academic sources
  • Review class readings
  • Read encyclopedia articles about potential topics
  • Browse recent issues of journals, magazines, or newspapers
  • Browse the library shelves for books on your subject

2. Review assignment requirements

  • What kind of assignment is it - a 5-minute oral presentation, 3-page, or 10-page paper?
  • How much information do you need?
  • What kind of sources does the assignment require - peer-review, books, journal or newspaper articles, multimedia?
  • How current does your information need to be - published in the last 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years?
  • What types of publications would further your research - newspaper articles, books, journal articles, primary sources, trade publications?
  • What formats do you need - visual, audio, printed, electronic?
  • Do you need opinion pieces?
  • How much time do you have?

3. List keywords to define your topic

  • State your research topic as a question. If you want to write about music festivals, you could ask "How have music festivals affected the prevalence local music venues?"
  • Think about the significant terms, concepts, and keywords that describe your topic. These terms will become the keywords for searching in library catalogs, online databases, and other resources.

4. Gather background information on your topic

Do some general reading in reference materials and other library resources to get an overview of your topic and develop your own working knowledge of your topic.

Adapted from Duke University Libraries (Thanks to Duke librarians)

Improving Your Search

Is your search producing too many irrelevant sources? Consider narrowing your topic to make your results list more manageable. Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Aspect or sub-area: Consider only one piece of the subject. For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning animals.
  • Time: Limit the time span you examine. If you are writing about genetic testing, contrast public attitudes about genetic testing in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group: Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group. Rather than writing about the job market for construction workers, narrow your topic to tunnel diggers.
  • Geographical location: A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. If you are writing about climate change, narrow your topic by focusing on the effects of climate change in Bangladesh or Iceland.
  • Theoretical approach: Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue. If you are writing about Greek goddesses, you can further limit your topic by researching feminist approaches to studying the Greek pantheon.

More Suggestions:

  • State your topic in the form of a research question or thesis statement.
  • Ask "how" or "why" questions rather than who, what, when, and where questions or yes/no questions.
  • Use specific words, i.e., use poetry instead of literature.
  • Add more than one keyword  to your search. Use the Boolean connector AND to narrow your search; AND retrieves documents which include both terms in the search such as "gun control"AND "second amendment.

One narrowing might not be enough to yield relevant results. Keep refocusing your keywords, and keep notes of each time you further narrow your topic. This information is important when writing your introduction, where you define the scope of your inquiry into a topic.

Adapted from MIT Libraries Selecting a Research Topic Overview, Licensed under the Creative Commons  Attribution Non-Commercial License

If you're finding too few resources, consider broadening your topic. Think of related ideas, returning to some of your initial research in reference materials. You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:​​

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for. If your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, broaden your topic by generalizing to ethnic groups in Ghana or West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new. If you're researching a breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news - or need scholarly sources for your paper - consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information. Find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective.
  • You are using normal, non-academic words to describe an academic topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is discussed, particularly how it is discussed in academic conversations. Keep note of these synonyms and start using them in your search.

Adapted from MIT Libraries Selecting a Research Topic Overview,, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License

More Suggestions:

  • Use broader or more general search terms to describe your topic. For example, use "bioethics" instead of a specific issue like "stem cell research.
  • Find alternative words. Search with synonyms. For example, instead of "teenagers" use "adolescents" or "teens" or "young adults."
  • Use fewer keywords in your search.
  • Use the Boolean connector OR to broaden your search. OR means more; it will search for either term in a search statement such as private OR public education.
  • Try truncating your terms to include all variant endings of your keyword, such as legal* gives you legal, legalize, legalizes, legality, and legalization.

Because research is iterative, one broadening might not be enough to yield relevant results. Keep rethinking your keywords and search terms, and keep notes of each time you further broaden your topic. This information is important when writing your introduction, where you define the scope of your inquiry into a topic.