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6.4: Moving From Ideas to Topics With the Help of the Library and the World Wide Web

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  • Coming up with an idea, especially using these brainstorming techniques, is not that hard to do. After all, we are surrounded by potential ideas and things that could be researched: teen violence, computer crime, high-fat diets, drugs, copyright laws, Las Vegas, dangerous toys. But it can be a little more tricky to figure out how ideas can be more specific and researchable topics. Ideas are general, broad, and fairly easy for all of us to grasp. Topics, on the other hand, are more specific, narrow, and in need of research. For example:

    “Idea” “Topics”
    Computer Crime Terrorism and the ‘net, credit card fraud, computer stalking, “helpful” hackers
    High-fat diets Health risks, obesity, cholesterol, heart disease, health benefits of, weight loss from
    Pharmaceutical Drugs Cost of prescriptions, medical advances, advertising, disease prevention

    In other words, a topic is a step further in the process of coming up with a researchable project for academic writing.

    Chances are, your brainstorming activities have already helped you in the process of developing your idea into a topic. But before you move onto the next step of developing a working thesis, you should consider two more helpful topic developing techniques: a quick library subject search and a Web engine search.

    A quick library subject search is just what it sounds like: using the computerized catalog system for your library, you can get a sense about the sort of ways other researchers have already divided up your idea into different topics.

    Hyperlink: For guidelines and tips for using your library’s computer system to conduct subject searches, see Chapter Two, “Understanding and Using the Library and the Internet for Research” and the section called “Finding Research in the Library: An Overview.”

    For example, imagine your brainstorming has led you to the general idea “fisheries” and the potential problem of over-fishing in some part of the world. While this seems like it might be a potentially good and interesting thing to write about and to research, “fisheries” is an idea that could be narrowed down. If you conduct a subject search on your library’s book catalog for “fisheries,” you might find the library keeps track of different books in several categories. Some examples of these categories include:

    • Fisheries, Atlantic Ocean.
    • Fisheries, Canada.
    • Fisheries, Environmental Aspects.

    You might also want to use your library’s periodical databases for some quick keyword searches. For example, a keyword search for “computer crime” in a periodical database returns article titles like “Demands for coverage increase as cyber-terrorism risk is realized” and “Making sense of cyber-exposures” (which are both articles about the concern businesses and insurance companies have about cyber crime), and also articles like “Meet the Hackers,” an insider’s view of computer hacking that disputes it being a “crime.” At this point in the research process, you don’t need to look up and read the sources you find, though you will probably want to keep track of them in case you end up needing them later for your research project.

    Another great place to go to brainstorm ideas into topics is one of the many search engines on the World Wide Web, and you are probably already familiar with these services such as Google, Yahoo!, or

    Hyperlink: For guidelines and tips for working with Web-based research, see the section “Finding Research on the Internet” in Chapter Two, “Understanding and Using the Library and the Internet for Research.”

    Like a quick library keyword search, doing a quick keyword search on the Web can give you some good direction about how to turn your idea into a topic. However, keep these issues in mind when conducting your Web searches:

    • Search engine searches are done by computer programs, which means that they will not sort out for you what is “relevant” from what is “irrelevant” for your search.
    • Most search engines and search directories offer an “advanced search” option that explains how to do a “smarter” search. Read these instructions and you will be on your way to better searches.
    • Different search engines index and collect information in different ways. Therefore, you should do keyword searches with the same phrase with a few different search engines. You might be surprised how your results will differ.
    • If you aren’t having much luck with the keywords of your general idea, try a couple of synonyms. For example, with “computer crime,” you might want to try “Internet crime,” or a related term such as “computer hacking.”

    Exercise 5.3

    With an idea in mind, try doing a quick keyword search on the library’s computer system and on a World Wide Web Search Engine.

    • What sort of differences are there in the information you get back from doing a quick keyword search at the library versus doing one on the Web?
    • If you are having a hard time getting results with your searches, can you come up with any synonyms for your key words?
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