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Identifying a Research Topic

Choosing a Topic

Research usually starts with a question, and formulating that question can be the hardest part of the process. Before you can find the right question to ask, you need some context or background about your topic.

From Cornell University Library's Introduction to Research tutorial (2009), here are some approaches you can use to choose and explore a research topic:

  • Discuss your ideas with your course instructor, TA, or a librarian.
  • Look at popular news articles and blog posts to see what’s currently in the news about your topic.
  • Perform a Google search. This is a very popular approach, and it can be a good one, but it is not the only option available to you. Explore this resource for additional ideas.
  • Use an encyclopedia for your subject or discipline; the index or list of topics can give you additional ideas. Wikipedia isn’t the only online encyclopedia available! (Read our caveats in the section called Using Wikipedia.) Online reference works available through your library can offer a quick and authoritative starting point, especially for more specialized subjects.
  • Check your library catalog for books and other resources on the topic.

Use sources like these to understand the broader context of your topic. They can tell you in general terms what is known about it, including what kind of information is out there and what interesting questions are still unanswered.

Testing the Topic with a Search

First, state your topic idea as a question or a sentence. For example, you might be interested in finding out, "How did Title IX impact women athletes in college athletic programs?" Before you commit to this or any specific topic for your research, use the library databases to test it. Academic Search Premier or Proquest Research Library are often a good first step because they are trustworthy general resources that cover many subject areas. The library subscribes to thousands of databases — collections of articles, images and data — in a wide range of disciplines that cover in-depth information that is often not available for free online.

The more specific you can be about what you are looking for, the more effective your search will be. To define your potential search terms, identify the main concepts or keywords in your question. In this case, they are "Title IX," "women," "athletes," and "college athletic programs."

Now perform the search. Review the search results to determine if your topic is:

  • Too large. Are there too many search results? Maybe you can focus or narrow the topic more.
  • Covered comprehensively elsewhere. Did a number of people already fully explore this topic? Check with your TA or professor if you aren't sure. They may be able to suggest a new perspective, or they may suggest that you choose an alternative topic instead.
  • Too specific or too new. You may find there just isn’t enough information available to complete the project. This can be particularly important if you are planning on using data in your research. You may need to broaden your topic by using a more general term or terms in your search.

It’s helpful to create and refine your search multiple times as you hone your ideas, find new pathways, change your ideas, and learn more about the subject area. For more information on choosing and developing your topic and testing your search, see "Choosing and Developing Your Topic" in the Cornell University Library's Introduction to Research tutorial.

If you complete your test, and you are still in doubt, ask your professor.

Text modified from Cornell University Library. (2009). Introduction to Research. Retrieved May 14, 2009, from