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How to Research a Paper Topic

Is Google really the best way to research a paper topic? Most of the time, probably not because it may be difficult to get results to an accurate and manageable list. After all, your time is valuable! Watch this virtual classroom-style video by English Professor, Renee Bangerter, to learn how to:

  • Research a paper topic without even going to the library
  • Hone in on sources that give you the information that you really need
  • Narrow down your topic to something worth writing about

Read along (transcript):

Where is the first place you go to do research for an assignment?  Google? Why do students usually choose Google as their firs stop shop for research? Some say because it “has the most information on their topic” or “It’s easy,” “convenient!”

But I’m going to ask, “is that really what you want?

Let’s take a look at a Google search for global warming: 84,400,000 hits.  Do you have time to search through that many? I don’t.

There is a way to research your topic with the same ease and convenience as Google but with more manageable hits.

Your school library has invested in a collection of online materials.  You don’t even have to physically go to the library.

Here’s how it works.  Libraries purchase databases, or collections of articles for their students to access.  Some popular databases are “EBSCOhost” and “ProQuest”. You search these databases the same way you would a Google search, with key words.

Let’s use “global warming” in an EBSCOhost search.  Now we have only 128, 423 hits. Still not very manageable.

How can I make this number more workable? I need to reevaluate how I am searching.

I want to talk for a minute about the type of source you are really looking for: typically students want periodicals, journal articles by experts in the field of study they are researching.

What’s a periodical?  There is a clue in its name…it is published periodically.  What kind of texts do you know about are published periodically rather than once like a book?  Newspapers and magazines are periodicals.  Journals are also periodicals.  They are articles about topics but written by experts.

When these experts write for journals, they have to be peer reviewed, but what does that mean? Other scholars check to make sure the article is accurate, interesting, well-written, etc.

We can actually check a box that will limit our search to Peer Reviewed articles, so I’ll get the best scholarly articles in my search right off the bat.

How many hits do we get when we change our search to Peer Reviewed articles? Now we’re down to 27, 000.

However, while we’re checking boxes, let’s give ourselves a little bit of a reality check and see if we can’t make that 27,000 smaller.  It’s not likely that you are going to go to the library to pull your sources, right?  Not like I had to when I was researching, you know back before the internet existed.  Let’s just go ahead and make it easy on yourself and check that you only want Full-text articles, those that you can access right online, the whole article ready to download or print.

One last thing we can do to narrow the types of sources we get.  We can play with time a little by establishing that we want only recent articles on our search, say 2000 on.  So now we’ve moved from 84 million random sources to 9,000.  I don’t know. I’m still not convinced I have that kind of time.  There’s got to be something we can do to make the work manageable.

The term “global warming” is actually too general, too broad for the paper I’m doing, an argument on an issue.  The search itself can lead you down the wrong path.

My paper is supposed to be something I feel strongly about so I can argue a claim.  Keeping my topic connected to global warming, but more about something that affects me everyday are reusable bags.  You see, I have a problem, when I go to the store, I forget my reusable bags in my car.  I end up going to the store and using bags when I don’t need to.  How many of us do the same thing?  How can we change consumer behavior, so we remember our reusable bags?  And why would we even want to eliminate plastic bags in the first place?  This can be my new search.

I can approach this topic from several different avenues, but let’s just take plastic bags as a search in the database just to compare the numbers to our global warming search.

There, we have 217 peer reviewed, recent, full-text articles.  That is something I can write about and now something I can manage reading about as well.


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