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Hesburgh Libraries

University of Notre Dame

Starting Your Research: Refine Your Topic

A Beginning Scholar's Guide to Research Success for new students at the University of Notre Dame

Finding a Research Topic / Background / Reference Tools

Gathering background information allows you to:

  • Gain familiarity with a topic
  • Identify ways in which you could narrow your topic
  • Identify differing perspectives of a topic
  • Identify the experts, researchers, and scholars familiar with a topic 

The following resources are great for identifying an interesting topic and finding background information. Hover over the titles for a description.

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Narrowing Your Topic

Narrowing a topic requires you to be more specific about your research interest and can help you to develop a thesis:
  • Who? Who is the specific person/group to which you would like to limit your research?
  • What? What specific aspect of the broad topic idea is interesting to you?
  • Where? To which specific geographic area or region would you like to limit your research?
  • When? On what time period would you like your research focused?
  • Why? Why do you think this is an important/interesting topic?

Turning Your Research Question into a Search Strategy

To successfully search for information on your topic, it is best to determine the main concepts and then find keywords for those concepts. The keywords can become your search words.  In general, you should search library databases with 2-3 keywords, rather than your whole topic question or a sentence.  
For example, your research question is "Does fracking cause water pollution?" First underline the keywords as shown.
Then begin generating synonyms and related words to help you develop a search strategy.
fracking
water
pollution
hydraulic fracturing
underground water
contamination
drilling for natural gas
aquifers
toxins
natural gas wells
wells
carcinogens
directional drilling
domestic water supply
flammable water

(example adapted from University of Idaho Libraries)

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Visit the reference desk during regular hours for immediate research help from a librarian or staff assistant.


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Searching is a Strategic Process

How to Develop a Good Research Topic