First, before launching into a full-scale search of the internet, you need to clearly outline and define the research topic. It is important to consider the following: What is the focus of your research? What is your overall goal? What do you hope to accomplish or uncover through your research?
While your topic may evolve as a result of the research process, it is useful to begin by identifying keywords and conducting a preliminary search for information. You can use the American Library Association's research plan, outlined below, to document this preliminary work.
Take some time to identify the main concepts, keywords and synonyms connected with your topic. All of the keywords and ideas that you uncover during this initial stage can be utilized during subsequent searches of library databases and online search engines. Be sure to document this process on the research guide highlighted above. To help you flesh out your topic, try using:
- Classroom Textbooks. Look up the topic in your textbook (e.g. science, history, English, mathematics). Be sure to check the index at the back of the book. How is the topic listed? What other topics are listed along with it? What key words are identified in the textbook chapter(s)? Are there important dates, people or geographic locations associated with your topic? How does this information shape your research plan?
- Dictionaries. Dictionaries are a wonderful resource that can help you uncover additional words associated with the selected topic. As each dictionary will define the term differently, you may wish to explore a variety of sources: Merriam Webster | Cambridge Dictionaries Online | AskOxford
- Synonyms. Once you outline a set of keywords, check for synonyms. What other terms are relevant to your topic?
Thesaurus.com | Merriam Webster | MacMillan Thesaurus
Preliminary Search for Information
Once you have an formulated a list keywords, you can conduct a preliminary search on the topic. Overall, your goal is to uncover general information about the area of interest and to refine your list of keywords. By crafting a list of keywords in advance, your will be rewarded with refined resources closely aligned with the selected topic. Here are some helpful resources for this stage of the work:
- Bartleby: Great Books Online is a free, comprehensive online tool. The company has formed partnerships with Columbia University Press and Houghton Mifflin "to present the most up-to-date and readily accessible free encyclopedia, dictionary, thesauri, style, usage, quotation, and geographic reference works" (Barleby.com, 2008). You can search a variety of sources such as the Columbia Encyclopedia, History Encyclopedia, and the World Factbook.
- FactMonster, which is part of Information Please, is a wonderful online tool. It is bright, colorful, and easy to read!
- Britannica Encyclopedia is an excellent place to begin. Locate and read encyclopedia articles to set the context for your research. Use this information to expand and refine your research. Here are some points for consideration: Is a particular author associated with the article? Experts are often invited to write encyclopedia articles. What keywords are highlighted and/or defined in the article? What books and articles related to the topic are listed in the bibliography?
- HowStuffWorks from the Discovery Channel "is the award-winning source of credible, unbiased, and easy-to-understand explanations of how the world actually works" (HowStuffWorks, 2008). Please note: this resource is not suitable for all research topics. It is an outstanding resource for topics of a scientific nature.
Refine the Topic
Based on this information, how do you need to narrow or refine your research topic? Before proceeding to the next stage, review your research plan and update the appropriate sections (e.g., research question, keywords, etc.). Keep in the mind that by clearly articulating and defining your research topic, it will be easier to locate reliable and suitable sources.