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Navigating Library Research: Unit 3: Research Questions

Research Questions

The topic you select is the most critical decision you will make:
  • A good research question will help create a quality paper that is interesting to write and to read.
  • It will determine what databases you use.
  • It will shape the type of information that you need and find.
  • If it's too broad you will have trouble finding useful information.
  • If you don't care about the topic the assignment will be a burden.

This unit will help guide you in finding a good topic, narrowing it down and finding background information.

Finding a Topic

The perfect topic will not fall from the sky. It will take a process of browsing information and thinking about issues.

Start with the assignment:

Read your assignment. It may provide a structure and some limits that are better suited for certain topics. For example, it can be difficult to find scholarly research on popular, controversial issues in the news.

Try looking for a scholarly research articles on the rights of individuals in the city of Aurora to own Pit Bulls.

Good luck.

You might be able to find a research article in Agricola or Biological Abstracts on the genetic factors of the Pit Bull that may contribute to aggression. If you want to use a very local news issue for your paper, you will need to find research that supports your view rather than searching directly on your topic in the databases.

Browse sources of information for ideas:

Read through magazines, websites, and newspapers. To find appropriate journals to explore you can look in your textbook, syllabus, class readings and even ask your instructor. Browse those journal by entering the journal title in the Journal List search box.  You can find the Journal List below and under quick links on the library homepage. Read the table of contents online. It will be difficult NOT to find ideas.

Read and follow leads:

If an article looks like it would be interesting to explore for a paper topic, read the abstract then the discussion section. Use the references in that article to find more like it. Use keywords in the title and abstract and the subject headings to search for related articles.

Get background information:

Before you get too far in searching for articles, look up the general topic area in a specialized subject encyclopedia for your topic. These sources will give you a history, discuss major research findings and list the ideas and people who have had a major impact. This will give you an understanding of the broader issue and questions that are part of your topic. You may not even directly use that encyclopedia article in your paper, but will very likely find ideas and references that you can use.

The library reference collection has many subject specific encyclopedias both in print and electronic. One way to find these is to do a keyword search in the catalog:


Encyclopedias on child development


Encyclopedias on biology

Environmental science encyclopedias


Encyclopedias on terrorism


Encyclopedias of literature

Art encyclopedias

Each of the links above will generate a search in the catalog using the term "encyclopedias." Different keywords will generate a different set of results. Note the locations; some are in reference and others are on the internet or on the second floor.

Making a Topic a Research Question

Most topics are not research questions. They are usually too broad and general.

How to turn a topic that's too broad into a narrow research question:

  • Ask questions about your topic.
  • Think of different variables that can be part of your topic, and make them the focus.
  • Start searching databases and see how the topic is addressed in the literature.
  • Let yourself brainstorm and come up with tangents using your initial idea.


Gun control is really not worth writing a paper about. Just about everything has already been said on the issue and your professor has read far too many student papers on the topic. Ask a related question instead, "What are the motivating factors for people in the U.S. to own guns and do these factors differ by education?" The topic is now phrased as a question and the focus is changed.

Global Warming? Try asking a question about temperature dependence and bacteria in the oceans.

Know something about the topic in order to narrow it

In each of these examples, it is helpful to have background information about the topic. If you know nothing about an issue it is next to impossible to ask meaningful questions about it. Read up on the topic in databases, websites, and magazines (see the previous section, Finding a Topic).