This page will help guide you through the process of choosing a topic and identifying resources that may be useful in your research.
Choosing a Topic
Brainstorm for topic ideas, tips
Encyclopedias, general news articles, bibliographies
Identify important concepts, choose subject area, recent or historical, choose database or index, search, evaluate search results
Finding Materials at University of Illinois Libraries
Necessary citation information, finding and requesting journals, tutorial
Evaluating web-based resources
- Citing Sources
If you know you are interested in doing research in a broad subject area, try to think of ways you can make your subject more specific.
Example: writing a paper about global warming
Brainstorm for topic ideas
What aspects of your topic are you interested in?
- Environmental-- The impact of global warming on the sea level.
- Economic-- The impact of global warming on the agricultural industry.
- Political-- Frequently representatives of countries gather together to address pollution problems that may contribute to global warming. Has this process been effective?
What time period or geographic area are you interested in?
- Geographic Area-- How will global warming affect developing countries?
- Time Period-- Have reports of global warming increased over the past 10 years?
What do you already know about the topic?
- I've heard that there is disagreement in the scientific community about the existence of global warming. What are the arguments on both sides of this issue?
Some tips to consider when choosing a topic:
- When selecting a topic, be sure to choose a subject area that is of genuine interest to you.
- Consult your instructor, as he or she may be able to give advice concerning paper topics.
- In order to articulate your ideas, it helps to express your topic idea as a question.
Example: Global Warming > The effect of global warming on the agriculture industry > Will global warming cause the grain belt to move north? Will farmers have to change their crops as a result of global warming?
- What if you don't have enough information to express your topic idea as a specific question? If this is the case, doing some background reading can help you to articulate your research topic.
Finding background information about a topic is an important step of the research process. If you are interested in pursuing a topic which is unfamiliar to you, reading an encyclopedia or a general article about the subject can allow you to articulate your topic idea and assist in pointing out areas for further research.
Sources to consult for background information include:
Encyclopedias are available in both general and subject specific formats. If you are just beginning your research and need general background information, sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana can be good starting points. Subject specific encyclopedias can give you background information about a particular discipline or subject area. Examples of subject specific encyclopedias include The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology and the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. There are many encyclopedias available covering different subject areas. If you are having trouble finding an encyclopedia to use for background information in your research, be sure to Ask a Librarian.
General news articles
News articles in a newspaper or general magazine can give you a starting point for your research. Article databases that you can use to find general articles include Readers' Guide, and InfoTrac. Please see the databases listed under General Interest Databases on the Article Database page for more information.
Experts in a particular field will sometimes compile lists of useful resources for people pursuing research. Many bibliographies on a variety of topics are published in book form and are available at the Illinois library. The home pages for some UIUC departmental libraries may also provide information about bibliographies for their particular subject. For more information, please see the Class Materials by Course page.
To search the library catalog for bibliographies, do a keyword subject search by typing the word bibliography and words that describe the topic of your research. For example, if you are researching a paper on global warming, you could run a search for 'bibliography global warming' to see what resources are available. For more information, please visit Top Ten Tips for Tackling Tricky Database Queries.
- Identify important concepts in your topic.
- Once you have articulated your topic, try to pick out important concepts or keywords which you can use when you search for articles.
Example: How will global warming affect developing countries?
- Identify the subject area.
For the global warming and developing countries topic there are a couple subject areas to consider when trying to choose a database or index. The issue of global warming could be described as environmental or scientific. The fact that the issue of developing countries is also a factor means that the subject area also involves international issues.
- Consider how recent or historical your search is.
Since global warming is a recent concern, finding the most current articles would be useful.
- Choose the appropriate article database or index
- Look at the Article Database Page (Online Research Resources) and match the subject areas of your topic with the subject areas of the different article databases that are available for you to search.
Example: For the Global Warming topic, you can look at the Life Sciences & Medicine database subject area and see that there is an Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management database that deals with environmental issues. By looking at the Social Sciences, Business, & Education database subject area, you can also see that the PAIS Archive (Public Affairs Information Service) database might have articles dealing with developing countries. Searching both of these databases for articles relating to your topic would be a good place to start your research.
- Run the search
- Think about the important concepts and subject area of your topic. Choose keywords that you can use to search the databases.
Example: In the topic "How will global warming affect developing countries?" the important concepts are global warming and developing countries. One way to make sure that your search for articles is effective is to think of synonyms or additional words to describe your topic.
global warming: greenhouse effect, climate change
developing countries: developing nations, underdeveloped countries, third world
- Most article databases allow you to build your searches by combining similar concepts with the word OR. This will result in a broader search.
For example: global warming OR greenhouse effect OR climate change will find any article that has any of the three concepts in it. You can combine dissimilar concepts to create a focused search.
Example: The search "global warming AND developing countries" will find any article that has both concepts in it. For example, the search "(global warming OR greenhouse effect) AND developing countries" will find any article that has either global warming or greenhouse effect as terms and the term developing countries.
- Look at the number of article citations you were able to retrieve. If you retrieved more articles than you expected and they don't seem to be relevant to your topic, you may need to add another concept or keyword to your search statement in order to narrow your search. If you retrieved fewer articles than you expected, perhaps your search statement was too narrow. You might want to take some keywords out of your search statement to create a broader search which will retrieve more articles.
- Look at the abstract or subject headings of the article citations you have retrieved to determine if they are relevant to your research.
- If you want more information about how to search article databases, workshops are offered every semester.
- If you are having any trouble searching the article databases, check out tips on locating articles or be sure to Ask a Librarian for help.
Once you have successfully searched and found citations or references to articles which you think might be useful, the next step is to find copies of the articles in question. In order to search for the location of a journal that contains an article you are interested in, it is necessary to have the following information:
- Title of the journal
- Date the article was published
- Year and volume of the journal
- Page numbers of the article.
Once you have this information, you can use the Online Library Catalog to find the location of the journal you need. Since you know the exact title of the journal, use the Start of Magazine/Journal Title search in the catalog to search for the location of the journal at the University of Illinois library.
It is important to carefully examine the articles you find in order to see if they will truly be helpful to you in your research. The list of questions below is intended to provide a starting point for evaluating an article in four major categories: accuracy, content, author, and date.
- Accuracy-- Based on your knowledge of the subject, does the article seem to be accurate? Are any conclusions supported or backed up by convincing data?
- Coverage-- Does the article fully address the issues raised? Is the coverage comprehensive, or do you need additional sources? Is the article objective, or does it seem to be based on opinion?
- Authority-- Are the authors authorities in their fields? Have they published extensively on this topic? Are they affiliated with a reputable university or institution?
- Coverage-- When was the article published? Is it current enough for your topic? Do you need to find similar articles that are more up-to-date?
Evaluating Web-Based Resources
Are you using Web-based resources in your research? Webpages also need to be evaluated to determine if they will be useful in your research. In most cases you may apply the criteria you would use in evaluating print resources to the evaluation of Web-based resources. It is important to remember that unlike scholarly print publications, where articles are subjected to a process of review, anyone can publish on the Web. Many webpages are also designed to be commercial as opposed to educational. For more information about evaluating Web resources, please see the following pages:
Usually a professor will tell you if there is a preferred citation style for your research project. The list that follows is a sample of some of the online resources that are available for people with style and grammar questions.
This site contains resources covering most grammar and writing needs specifically for University of Illinois students.
Information about how to cite both print and online materials.
Internet Public Library collection of style manuals and guides on how to cite sources found on the Internet or other electronic formats.
The Slot: A Spot for
Written by a Washington Post Copy Editor, this site serves as a supplement to the AP style book. Contains good advice on lots of tricky or picky situations and is fun to read.
Victoria Writer's Guide
A dynamic database suitable for answering most writing questions.
William Strunk Jr.'s Elements of Style (1918
The classic guide to usage, composition, and form for the English language.