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The Research Process: Research Topic

This guide is created to help students through the steps of writing a research paper or project.



Pre-Research is the very beginning of any research process. This is when you're trying to figure out what topic you're interested in and see what kind of information is out there about it. CREDO Reference and Wikipedia are great places to get started with the pre-research process. 

Wikipedia provides user-generated content meaning anyone can edit Wikipedia articles (including you!). Articles are supposed to contain references, but references are not always there or accurate. It's a great place for pre-research, but once you pick your topic you'll want to head towards more scholarly sources.

Choosing a Topic

Brainstorm topic ideas:

• what are your personal interests

• discussions with your instructor or classmates

• browse issues of periodicals or magazines  

• look in your textbook, or read articles in an encyclopedia, and reference books to get ideas

• browse the CREDO Reference database 


Tip image    Remember it takes some research to begin writing and it takes writing to discover what else to research. In other words, you will likely continue to research while writing your paper. 

Note: Access is available to students on all SRC campuses and 
from off campus with your library card number found on the back of your student ID card. When prompted for this number be sure to use a capital D and your digits with no spaces in between, for example D8692xxxxx.

Students can obtain their SRC ID card at the following sites:
* Canton: LRC – 2nd Floor Centers Building
* Macomb: LRC - 2nd Floor
* Havana: Front Desk
* Rushville: Front Desk


The Research Question

The Research Question    question mark


Your topic is the starting place for your paper or project, and the foundation of a strong research paper is the research question. When you develop a research question it helps you to focus your research into a logical essay. Also, once you have the answer to your research question that answer will be the thesis of your paper.


When determining the research question:

• Try listing all of the questions about your topic that you would like answered yourself. 

• Does this question put a new spin on an old issue, or does it try to solve a problem? 

• Is this question researchable, within the time frame of the assignment? 

• Is the question measurable, what type of information do I need, can I find actual data to support or contradict a position?

• What sources will have the type of information that I need to answer the question (journals, books, internet resources, government documents, interviews with people)? 

(adapted from the Vanderbilt University Writing Center)

Refining your Question

Choose a question that is not too narrow or too broad: 

     For example, you choose the topic of water pollution and ask the following questions:

          • What can we do to reduce the amount of pollutants in our water? - too broad

          • How much garbage is dumped into the Atlantic ocean on a daily basis? - too narrow

          • What are the effects of plastic particle water pollution on humans and marine wildlife? - just right



Here are some additional examples to refine your research question:

Narrowing a Topic: Too Much Information!

If your topic seems too broad, consider questions like:

  • * What do you already know about the subject?
  • * Is there a specific time period you want to cover?
  • * Is there a geographic region or country on which you would like to focus?
  • * Is there a particular aspect of this topic that interests you? For example, public policy implications, historical influence, sociological aspects, psychological angles, specific groups or individuals involved in the topic.


Original Topic: Government funding of the arts (too broad!)

Focused Time Period: 1930s
​Focused Location: USA
Focused event/aspect: New Deal, painting

Refined topic: Federal funding of painters through New Deal programs and the Works Progress Administration.

Broadening a Topic: Not Enough Information!

If your topic is so specific that you can't find sources that specifically address it, consider questions like:

  • * Could you add elements to your topic for examination?
  • * Could you think more broadly about this topic? Give thought to the wider implications of your research.
  • * Who are the key players in this topic?
  • * What other issues are involved in this topic?


Original topic:  What is the effect of deforestation on Colombia's long-term ability to feed its citizens? (too specific!)

Alternative place: South America
Widened focus: agriculture, sustainable development.
Key person or group: United Nations and its subgroups
Alternative event/aspect: birth control

Revised topic:  How can the United Nations encourage South American countries to employ sustainable development practices? 

(adapted from the Duke Universities Libraries)


This video discusses how "messy" finding your research topic can be. 

NCSU Libraries video 

Shared by North Carolina State University with a Creative Commons license. 
creative commons image


Keywords and Phrases

As you work on synthesizing your research question keep a list of keywords and phrases about your topic. Be sure to write down sub-topics too!

This list of keywords will help when you begin searching for articles, books, and eBooks about your topic.  

Choosing a Topic Video

Additional help with choosing a topic. 
Video from the Kansas State University Libraries.

Developing a Research Topic
(K-State LibrariesCC BY-NC-ND 3.0