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Macdonald-Kelce Library

Introduction to Library Research

Library handouts and a video presentation on starting your research using the resources at the Macdonald-Kelce Library at The University of Tampa.

Choosing a Topic

Sometimes choosing a topic is easy. Something strikes your interest, or your professor guides your decision in some manner.

Sometimes, especially if it's a discipline with which you are unfamiliar, or an area that doesn't readily grab your interest, finding a topic can be more challenging.

In the latter case I like to start broad, and then ask myself a series of questions until I find a more narrow focus that interests me.

NOTE: It is critical to find something that interests you. The more motivated you are to sincerely learn about a topic, the easier it will be to do the work of researching, learning, and reading about that topic.

But, if I'm not sure what interests me, I start with a broad element that strikes my curiosity at least a little, and then I ask questions about it.

"Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions or lines on inquiry in any field."*

At this point I might even browse the internet, or read the entry at Wikipedia. And, the questions I ask myself are typically open-ended. I want to ask How? or Why? or Should? If I only ask closed-ended questions (Who? When? Where?) I find the answers quickly and don't have a topic to write about.

Once I start getting traction on something that might be interesting, I'll then typically look to see if I can find a book on that topic, or do some cursory searches in Summon or Google Scholar. At this point, also, it might be a good time to check with your professor to see if you're heading down the right path.

*"Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education", American Library Association, February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework (Accessed June 19, 2020.)

From Question to Problem to Claim

  • Ask open-ended questions that require complex answers. Who, what, when, or where are easily answered questions that relate factual information. A good research paper asks more nuanced questions like why and how.
  • Evaluate your questions: Why is it worth asking? What can be gained by attaining greater understanding? What are the broader implications or consequences? Why is it significant?
  • Does your question and its possible answer present an original contribution to existing scholarship? Remember research is not summary or reporting. Your goal as a researcher is to add something new or to further the conversation in some way through your own analysis. (This is a bit challenging when you are just starting out, but it is the goal for which scholars always strive.)
  • Think about what problem you hope to find a solution to through your research. This will help you identify why it deserves research and communicate why it is of value to your readers.
  • As you begin to read books and articles you may notice inconsistencies, contraditions, unsubstantiated claims, unanswered questions, or the use of dubious evidence which can lead you to ask new questions or lead you to areas worthy of deeper exploration.
  • Your claim, thesis statement, or argument is your proposed answer to the problem posed by your research question. Your research and analysis of sources provide the evidence which supports your claim.
  • Your claim need not be absolute. Often times your research may prove inconclusive, there may be a variety of valid alternatives, or it may be that not enough information is available.

Refining a Topic

Focus on a specific aspect of your topic. Follow these helpful steps:

  • If your topic is too broad (e.g. World War II or crime) there will be too much information.
  • If your topic is overly narrow finding enough information will be challenging.
  • Taking the time to read background information from reference works, internet sources, and books will help you establish an appropriate topic for a research paper. This will allow you to evaluate if there is sufficient interest and scholarship for you to gather the amount of information needed.
  • Figure out the correct language to use. Identify useful terms relevant to your topic. Occasionally, the language you and I use to discuss a topic is not the same language used by experts.
  • Consider limiting the focus of your topic to narrow your research; by time frame, geographic location, demographic group, specific event, or category of analysis (i.e. social, economic, cultural, etc.).

Steps in the Research Process

  • Primary research is conducting an original experiment, investigating firsthand evidence, or interpreting creative works. Please see the Primary Sources guide for further details.
  • Secondary research involves gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research available in books, articles, statistical sources or other published data.
  • A research paper is not a summary or merely accumulating facts. Research should expand our understanding of the known world, build upon previous scholarship, or offer new insights based on critical evaluation of evidence.

Steps in the Research Process:

 

  • It may be necessary to revisit some of these steps as you progress in your research.
  • You may find that your initial expectations are not supported, new questions arise, or there are gaps in the research.
  • Flexibility, following the trail of evidence, and reflecting on different ways to phrase or frame your topic are invaluable in dealing with the challenges of research.
  • Cultivating the skills needed to be an effective researcher are integral to professional success and informed citizenship.

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