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WR 13100 (13) — Writing and Rhetoric (Duffy)

Background Information & Context

Once you have identified the main topic for your research, try to find one or more sources of background information to read. These sources will help you understand the broader context of your research and tell you in general terms what is known about your topic.

Background information can help you

  • Gain familiarity with a topic
  • Identify more specific aspects of a topic to which you will begin to find focus
  • understand context and identify differing perspectives of a topic
  • Identify the experts, researchers, and scholars familiar with the topic you may have interest in researching

The most common background sources are encyclopedias and dictionaries from the print and online reference collection. Some good sources are:

For additional reference resources, see: Encyclopedias & Dictionaries:

Choosing a topic

Source: clipart

Browsing through magazine articles may spark ideas for your paper, and it also will illustrate what topics will provide you with sources for your bibliographies.

Academic Search Complete
Discover what scholars are writing about: This database covers most academic disciplines and allows you to focus on scholarly sources.


Expanded Academic ASAP
Discover articles by scholars in most academic disciplines.

The following resources are also good for identifying possible topics for your papers. 

CQ Researcher 

Current Events by 

Global Issues In Context

Opposing Viewpoints in Context 



  • Choose a topic which interests you!  Your progress will usually be faster and more full-filling. 
  • Don't pick the same topic that your friends are doing.  Make this project your own!
  • Select a topic with a moderate amount of published information.  If your topic is too broad there may be an overwhelming amount of information.  If your topic is too narrow, there may not be enough information.  Remember, if you choose a very current topic you may not find a lot of published information.
  • Be flexible!  It is highly likely that during the course of your research project, you will have to modify your topic at least once.  Too little published information may require you to broaden your topic.  Too much information may require you to make your topic more specific.  Be sure to start early!
  • Talk with your instructor.  If you experience difficulty in finding or refining your topic, talk with your instructor before spending too much time on the project. 

Too much information?  Make your results list more manageable.  Less, but more relevant, information is key.  Here are some options to consider when narrowing the scope of your paper:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding of the high rate of failures in animal cloning. 
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning. 
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age. 
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.   For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.

Not finding enough information?  Think of related ideas, or read some background information first.  You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including: 

  • Your topic is too specific.  Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written.  If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information.  Use Vera to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic.  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.