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Library Research Process: A Tutorial

Develop  your research topic

Need an Idea?

A great idea for a topic can come from many places. Here are some possible places to start:

  • Class discussions
  • Assigned readings
  • Topics in the news (get a free student pass for the New York Times newspaper!)
  • Browse journals in the field
  • Personal interests
  • Brainstorming! See video below:

Develop Your Topic: Explore and Refine


Before you develop your research topic or question, you'll need to do some background research first.

Some good places to find background information:

  • Your textbook or class readings (is it on Course Reserve in the Library?)
  • Encyclopedias and reference books (what books does the Library have?)
  • Credible websites (what's a credible source? Find out in Step #2)
  • Library Subject Resource Lists (suggested books, databases, social media, and videos by subject area)
  • Library databases (collections of articles, journals, magazines, ebooks and videos)

When you're ready, move on to refining your topic.


Now that you've done some background research, it's time to narrow your topic. Remember: the shorter your final paper, the narrower your topic needs to be. Here are some suggestions for narrowing and defining your topic:

  • Is there a specific subset of the topic you can focus on?
  • Is there a cause and effect relationship you can explore?
  • Is there an unanswered question on the subject?
  • Can you focus on a specific time period or group of people?

Describe and develop your topic in some detail. Try filling in the blanks in the following sentence, as much as you can:

I want to research ______(what/who)

and ______(what/who)

in ______(where)

during ______(when)

because _____(why)

Topic vs Question

Many people use the terms research topic and research question interchangeably. But there is an important difference:

research topic is a subject that you are interested in investigating. For instance, flu shots or vaccines are topics.

research question drives your investigation. It is something that you want to know about your topic; something you will explore and try to answer. For example, "Does a delayed distribution timeline for childhood vaccines increase the likelihood that a child will contract a vaccine-preventable illness in the United States?" is a research question.  

Topic vs Question graphic


"Topic vs Question" by New Literacies Alliance is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / A derivative from the original work

More Information

See also this library guide for further explanation on developing your Topic:

Develop a Topic

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