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The content on this page is from the online SkillShop Research Basics. If you complete the SkillShop, you'll earn a badge that can be shared with your instructors or included in your resume.
More often than not, the hardest part of the research process is choosing your topic. However, that is usually because people misunderstand what it means to 'choose' their topic. Choosing a topic is a major part of research process and happens gradually as you move through the process. When your instructor tells you to 'choose a topic,' you will want to keep two things in mind-
For an illustration of what this all means, watch this short (3 min) video about how choosing a topic is part of the research process. [Created by NCSU]
Hopefully the idea of developing your topic throughout the research process makes a bit more sense and seems a little less daunting. But what's the best way to get started?
When choosing your topic, think about what interests you-
Choosing a topic that is interesting or important to you will make the research process easier and more enjoyable. College is difficult enough, don't make it worse by choosing boring topics!
If you're feeling like you can't answer questions like those above or just can't come up with anything interesting, you may want to get started by looking at some reference resources. Online sources such as eBooks, online encyclopedias, web sites and even Wikipedia can be very helpful in finding an area to explore. As you read about different issues and subjects, think about what areas are still unexplained or are being currently researched.
Once you have at least a basic idea for your topic, you will want to think about how to distill the idea into some keywords that you can use to search for articles. Keywords are the most relevant terms for your topic. Keywords are also the basic components of your topic. Instead of full sentences or phrases, your keywords will be one or two words.
If your topic is, "how disinformation campaigns online affect the economy," then some useful keywords based on this sentence might be:
Notice that many of the words in the original phrase describing the topic aren't good to use as keywords because they are so commonly used or aren't specific to the topic itself. The words "how" and "the" are just so common that they probably won't be useful. The word "affect" is pretty important to the idea of the topic, but it is also a very common term and if we were to search "affect" in a research database, we would get almost every research article in the database, because most research looks at the affects of a certain variable or considers how a concept can affect other ideas, institutions or people. The word "campaign" is also important to the topic but mostly unnecessary because disinformation is almost always associated with a campaign of some sort and any type of campaign that isn't a disinformation campaign won't be relevant to the topic.
But if we take some time to think about the topic more, we might think of other related ideas, like:
These are just a few examples of how to think about keywords for a topic. Depending on what interests you about this topic, the keywords may look quite different.
The 'Picking Your Topic Is Research' video already illustrated that research is a cyclical process and this is true with keywords as well. We've brainstormed some good terms to start off with, but after we start searching in a database, we might change some of these. For example, if it turns out that we find a lot of disinformation articles that are not about disinformation campaigns, then we might want to include the word 'campaign' in our searching.
Another example might be that we find too many articles about disinformation and need to narrow it down further to avoid being overwhelmed with options. This might mean looking at a specific type of campaign, like social media or YouTube videos.
No keyword is the perfect keyword and all good research requires trying various keywords to see how they affect the search results. For assignments that are fairly small in scope, like the sample in this SkillShop that asks you to find only two articles, it may work out that you find two very relevant articles with the first keywords you use. But if you find that your first keywords don't get you what you were expecting, that is completely normal and doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong. It just means that part of the process for your topic is figuring out what the best keywords are.
For some topics, finding the right keywords can be difficult. If you're ever having an issue with choosing the right keywords or search strategy, don't forget that there are Librarians waiting to help you with your project. That is very literally what we're paid to do and we love to hear and learn about new research projects! You can contact a Librarian using our Research Help Guide.
Here are some more examples of how to turn an idea for a topic into a set of keywords. First are some examples of keywords that need improvement and then better examples are listed. Three different topics are listed to illustrate how this process might work in different disciplines. Feel free to choose one and follow it or examine them all:
Topic A: how to deal with racist imagery in professional sports mascots and team names
Topic B: climate change and how to convince people it is real and important
Topic C: disinformation causes people to fall for scams which hurts the economy
It's best to only enter words that explicitly describe your topic. Avoid phrasing your search as a sentence- all of the terms you type will determine your list of results. Words like "with," "in," and "how" will bring up unexpected results.
Topic A: racist imagery sports
Topic B: climate change perceptions
Topic C: disinformation online economy
These searches only include the terms are most important to the topic and would be good ways to start looking for relevant articles that include the terms listed.