Now that you know what to look for, how should you go about finding academic sources? Having a plan in place before you start searching will lead you to the best sources.
Many students want to start searching using a broad topic or even their specific thesis statement. If you start with too broad of a topic, your search results list will overwhelm you. Imagine having to sort through thousands of sources to try to find ones to use in your paper. That’s what happens when your topic is too broad; your information will also be too broad. Starting with your thesis statement usually means you have already formed an opinion about the topic. What happens if the research doesn’t agree with your thesis? Instead of closing yourself off to one side of the story, it’s better to develop a research question that you would like the research to help you answer about your topic.
Steps for Developing a Research Question
The steps for developing a research question, listed below, help you organize your thoughts.
Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).
Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.
Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.
Step 4: Pick the question in which you are most interested.
Step 5: Modify that question as needed so that it is more focused.
Here’s an example:
Keywords & Search Terms
Starting with a research question helps you figure out precisely what you’re looking for. Next, you’ll need the most effective set of search terms – starting from main concepts and then identifying related terms. These keywords will become your search terms, and you’ll use them in library databases to find sources.
Identify the keywords in your research question by selecting nouns important to the meaning of your question and leaving out words that don’t help the search, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and, usually, verbs. Nouns that you would use to tag your research question so you could find it later are likely to be its main concepts.
Example: How are birds affected by wind turbines?
The keywords arebirdsandwind turbines. Avoid terms like affect and effect as search terms, even when you’re looking for studies that report effects or effectiveness.These terms are common and contain many synonyms, so including them as search terms can limit your results.
Example: What lesson plans are available for teaching fractions?
The keywords arelesson plansandfractions. Stick to what’s necessary. For instance, don’t include: children—nothing in the research question suggests the lesson plans are for children; teaching—teaching isn’t necessary because lesson plans imply teaching; available—available is not necessary.
Keywords can improve your searching in all different kinds of databases and search engines. Try using keywords instead of entire sentences when you search Google and see how your search results improve.
For each keyword, list alternative terms, including synonyms, singular and plural forms of the words, and words that have other associations with the main concept. Sometimes synonyms, plurals, and singulars aren’t enough. Also consider associations with other words and concepts. For instance, it might help, when looking for information on the common cold, to include the term virus—because a type of virus causes the common cold.
Here’s an example of keywords & synonyms for our previous research question arranged in a graphic organizer called a Word Cloud:
Once you have keywords and alternate terms, you are prepared to start searching for sources in library search engines called databases.
Using the example shown above, create a Word Cloud for your research question. Think of at least five keywords and alternate terms you might use for searching. If your class had a library session, you will find a copy of the Word Cloud worksheet on your ENG 111 InfoGuide (http://infoguides.virginiawestern.edu/eng111).
- It’s a good idea to begin the research process with a question you’d like to answer, instead of a broad topic or a thesis statement.
- Creating a research strategy and finding keywords and alternate terms for your topic can help you locate sources more effectively.
- Creating a Word Cloud to organize your thoughts makes searching for sources faster and easier.