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Citation Guide : Research Paper Help

Steps in finding a research topic

STEP 1--Choosing a topic.

Is there something that you want to know more about? Do you have a particular hobby or something you really like to do in your spare time? Have you read an article lately about a subject that intrigues you? Is there something in the news that interests you? Picking a topic that interests you will make doing the research more enjoyable!

If you're still having trouble selecting a topic, consider the following suggestions:

  • Come to the Reference Desk and look at the book 10,000 Ideas for Term Papers, Projects and Reports.
  • Look in the CQ Researcher database. It contains short reports on current topics.
  • Search the library online catalog for the following series which address current trends and social issues:Look at the internet site Hot Paper Topics or Hot Topics 
    • Opposing Viewpoints
    • Taking Sides
    • Information Series on Current Topics
    • National Issues Forums

Hopefully, by now, you've found a topic that you're really excited about.

Narrowing your topic
If you picked a broad, general topic such as "terrorism" or "the environment" to write about, you probably need to narrow the focus of your research. If you looked up "terrorism" in the Academic Search Premier database, for instance, you'd find 59262 articles. Do you reallywant to look through 59262 articles about terrorism?

How do you narrow a topic? Begin by thinking of a particular issue or sub-topic associated with your topic. An example of narrower aspects of "terrorism" or "the environment" would be "psychological aspects of terrorism" or "global warming".

Having trouble thinking of a sub-topic? Go to the Reference Desk and ask to see theLibrary of Congress Subject Headings. Look under your topic and find the NT symbol. These are Narrower Topics. Glance through these terms for one that interests you.

You might also trying looking up your topic in the Academic Search Premier database. Be sure to do a "subject terms" search. Click on the term itself to see broader terms, narrower terms, or related terms. You will find your topic broken down into sub-topics.

Step 2--Finding Background Information

When you've chosen your topic begin by gathering background information. Background information will tell you in general terms what is known about your topic. It includes things like definitions of your topic, names of people who are authorities in the field, movements or dates, important facts, etc. Background information will also help you understand the relationship of your topic to other subjects, find subcategories and issues within the subject, and locate terminology associated with your topic. Start by:

  • Asking a reference librarian to help you find a general or subject specific dictionary.
  • Finding out if the library has a subject specific encyclopedia on your topic.
  • Checking the CQ Researcher database.
  • Looking in Dixie Cat (online catalog) for a basic book about your topic.
  • Reviewing your lecture notes, textbook or reserve readings.

Take advantage of the bibliographies at the end of articles, chapters, etc. in these books. Write down any useful sources such as books, journals, magazines, etc. These are usually excellent starting points for additional research.

Check periodical databases for magazine and journal articles. Keep in mind that the books or articles you find may also have bibliographies of other materials that will be useful in your research.

Step 3--Finding Information Sources

Before you begin writing a paper it helps to think about the kind and amount of information you will need. Do you need facts, statistics, laws, opinions, research or case studies, etc.? Do you need the latest information (science and technology topics) or the historical development of an issue (political, educational, or social topics)? Where will you find the information? In books, magazines, journals, newspapers, electronic databases, on the internet? Maybe you want to find an expert and interview him/her.

Make sure the resource fits the research.

Two basic kinds of sources used in researching a topic are:

  • Directional sources such as online catalogs, periodical indexes, bibliographies and the Library of Congress subject headings list. These sources will help you locate what you are looking for in the information sources.
  • Information sources such as general & specialized encyclopedias, specialized reference books (dictionaries, handbooks, etc.), books, magazine and journal articles, online databases, and the internet. 

Step 4--Evaluating What You Find

As you are gathering information for your paper, you will want to carefully evaluate what you find. This is true for all types of materials. Some questions you should ask yourself when you are evaluating a source are:

  • What are the author's credentials?
  • When was it published? Is there a newer or revised edition?
  • Who published it? Are they well-known, reputable?
  • For journals--is this a scholarly journal or a popular magazine? If you need help determining what type of journal you are looking at click here Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from Other Periodicals (Cornell University site) or go to the Reference Desk and check Magazines for Libraries by Katz.

Scholarly journals usually contain footnotes or references, popular magazines don't.

  • Now look carefully at the text and ask yourself these questions:
    • Who is the intended audience? Is the information too simple, too technical, too advanced or just right for your needs?
    • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
    • Is the information well-researched or unsupported by evidence?
    • Is the point of view objective and impartial?
    • Does the work verify other information you have gathered or does it add new information?

Internet Sources 
Two basic kinds of resources on the internet are subscription databases and web pages . Subscription databases generally contain full text periodical and newspaper articles that can also be found in print. Evaluate them the same way you'd evaluate the printed source. Web pages can be posted by educational institutions, the government, organizations, businesses or individual people. It is helpful to know who has posted the web page when you are evaluating the material found there. 

Step 5--Citing what you find

When you are gathering information for your paper, it is helpful to carefully record full citations to each source you use. It will save you time and frustration as you write your paper. Be sure you know what format your instructor requires. Modern Language Association (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA) are two of the most common. Others are: The Chicago Manual of Style, and The ACS Style Guide (American Chemical Society).

Where can I find style manuals and citation formats?

  • Ask at the Reference Desk
  • Select HELP on the library home page (upper right). Citation Libguides have both MLA and APA help.