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LIS2004: Research Strategies

Selecting a Research Topic

Selecting A Research Topic

Before attempting to search for Internet resources, you should have a clear idea of your topic and the kinds of information you will need.

To identify a research topic, try:

  • Suggested topics from instructors, texts, or readings
  • News stories or social concerns that interest you
  • Your own business, hobby, sports, or personal interest area
  • A site like Hot Paper Topics, which complies a list of common topics seen in college level courses. 

In addition to the sites above, which were designed specifically to help students choose topics, the following sites may also be helpful.

The following library databases might also be consulted. These are subscription databases which require a student ID number and PIN. Lesson 4 will discuss library databases in more depth.

  • CQ Researcher
  • Issues and Controversies
  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context

One of the most common problems in trying to come up with a topic is narrowing a broad subject to a topic that is specific enough to handle within the constraints of a research paper. The following list provides three subjects and some possible topics within each subject.

 Subject: Alternative Medicine

  • Topic: Can hypnosis cure disease?
  • Topic: Should insurance companies reimburse patients who use "unproven" treatments?
  • Topic: Does the interest in alternative medicine suggest that conventional medicine is failing?

 Subject: Animal Rights

  • Topic: Should animal tissues and organs be transplanted into human beings?
  • Topic: Is animal dissection or vivisection still necessary as a teaching tool?
  • Topic: Should animal experimentation for cosmetics be abolished?

 Subject: Home Schooling

  • Topic: Does home schooling isolate children socially?
  • Topic: Should home schooling parents be required to be certified in the subjects they teach?
  • Topic: Should public schools offer extra-curricular activities for home-schooled children?

A specific topic may not be obvious when you first start a research project. You may need to practice some of the activities outlined in Module 2, where you will purposefully attempt to narrow and focus your topic.


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Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Focusing Your Topic

Focusing Your Topic

 You may need to begin your research project by using resources such as encyclopedia articles or books to gain a basic understanding of the scope of your topic. Look at the basic concepts or ideas your topic involves and decide whether you need to focus on a specific aspect of the subject. You may need to narrow or broaden the scope of your topic. The Internet Public Library provides a guide on Looking For and Forming a Focus.

One basic source for background information on research topics is, a group of encyclopedias that offer a free abridged version on the Internet. There are also a number of specialized encyclopedias available either on the Internet or accessible through your local library system, which will provide background material on your topic.

 My Facts Page: Encyclopedias at provides a list of online subject encyclopedias.

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia created and maintained by users. Because the authors are unknown and entries can be edited by anyone, credibility of the content is sacrificed. Read their disclaimer here. Lesson 7 will discuss the pros and cons of Wikipedia in more depth.

 Questions to help you state a topic: When selecting your topic, consider the following questions.

  1. What terms and keywords are frequently used to describe the topic?
  2. What dates are important to the topic?
  3. What specific places are important to the topic?
  4. What important events are related to the topic?
  5. Which people, groups or organizations have made a significant contribution or have been involved in some way with the topic?
  6. Which subject or discipline is the topic part of?
  7. Are there any conflicting views or controversies surrounding the topic?

 As you answer these questions by thoughtfully examining your topic, you will be building a body of search terms, concepts, and ideas that will help you engage in productive research as you continue with the process.

You may also need to visit your local library or search an online library catalog to find background material, usually in books, for your topic and to get a sense of how much information will be available on the topic.

  1. LINCCWeb provides access to all of the Florida Community College library catalogs, and specifically to Indian River State College's databases. Items may be requested by current students from any of the statewide collections.
  2. The State University Libraries of Florida provides access to eleven of the Florida State University library catalogs.
  3. WorldCat provides links to library catalogs worldwide.

Interlibrary Loan: Your local college or public library may offer interlibrary loan services that allow you to borrow materials located in remote library catalogs. It may take a week or even longer to borrow material via interlibrary loan so begin your research early. In addition, any student enrolled in a state institution of higher education in Florida has reciprocal borrowing privileges at all community college libraries and all state university libraries.

 Searching the online catalog: As you peruse the online catalog for books and material in alternative formats, consider the following questions:

  1. Approximately how many titles are in the online catalog on your topic? What, if anything, can you tell from the listed titles, dates and authors?
  2. Are there subheadings displayed for the topic?
  3. Are cross-references or alternative headings displayed for the topic?
  4. Will your local library be able to support your topic, or will you need to get material from other libraries through interlibrary loan?


Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License

Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Stating Your Topic as a Thesis

Stating Your Topic As A Working Thesis

As you begin to develop a thesis for your research project, it is important to note the difference between a topic and a thesis. A topic is a general area of inquiry and is frequently stated as a question; a thesis is more specific and can be defined as an opinion statement.

At this early point in your research, you can expect the thesis statement to be a preliminary or working one. As you learn more about your topic, you will be able to revise the thesis. The working thesis will help keep you on track as you research your topic. The following illustrates some topics and preliminary thesis statements.

Topic: What effect does the use of alcoholic beverages have on college students?

  • Thesis Statement: College students who are binge drinkers are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior than students who are either moderate drinkers or who abstain from drinking alcohol.

 Topic: Should animal tissues and organs be transplanted into humans?

  • Thesis Statement: The potential medical benefits of xenotransplantation outweigh any ethical concerns the public may have.

 Topic: What effect does television violence have on children?

  • Thesis Statement: The implementation of V-chip technology to block violent or sexually explicit television content will reduce the incidence of school violence.


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Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Creating Search Statements

Creating Search Statements--Identifying Keywords

The next step is to create a search statement, also called a search string, which you will use to search for appropriate resources. First, identify the main concepts or keywords in your preliminary thesis.

By creating a list of keywords, you can increase your search capacity. This enables you to find more information on your topic. Try to think of all the ways your topic could be described. For example, if you are doing acid rain, you might also use words like pollution, air pollution, carbon dioxide levels, ozone depletion, etc...

Choose your keywords carefully. Do not use a complete sentence or phrase as you do in spoken natural language. Leave out minor words, such as articles ("a", "an", or "the"), and prepositional or verb phrases ("on...", "in...", or "going to"). Stick to the keywords, usually nouns or noun phrases that express the major concepts of your thesis.

For the thesis, "College students who are binge drinkers are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior than students who are either moderate drinkers or who abstain", you might choose the nouns and noun phrases alcohol, alcoholic beverages, binge drinking, risk-taking behavior and college students as keywords. For the thesis, "The implementation of V-chip technology to block violent or sexually explicit television content will lessen the incidences of school violence", you could use television, TV, V chip, school violence andchildren.

As you begin your search, you should write down all your search terms so you can decide which were effective and which were not. You may find terms you wish to eliminate from your results list or terms you want to always appear in your results.

To identify alternative keywords, use a thesaurus (Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus is available online), check the Library of Congress Subject Headings, a reference book available in most libraries, or try browsing or searching several of the web subject directories listed in Lesson 4. The subject directories may provide alternate keywords or related topics that you wouldn't necessarily think of on your own.


Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License

Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Refining Search Statements

Refining Search Statements

The next step in developing your search statement is to refine your keyword search string. This may help to narrow or direct your search so that you retrieve the most relevant results. When results are relevant, they are on target or very close to the information being sought. Complex search statements could be refined by adding words and characters such as Boolean operators, quotation marks to indicate exact phrases, truncation symbols, or field search limiters.

Boolean Searching

Boolean searching is based on a system of symbolic logic developed by George Boole, a 19th century English mathematician. Most computer databases and Internet search engines support Boolean searches. Boolean search techniques help reduce the number of irrelevant documents in the search results.

The power of Boolean searching is based on combinations of keywords with connecting terms called Boolean operators. The three basic operators are the terms ANDOR, and NOT. Many Internet search engines replace Boolean operators with symbols, for example+ for AND, - for NOT.



The examples above illustrate general topics expressed with just two keywords. Actual search strings, which express complex topic ideas, may consist of several keywords and combinations of Boolean operators.

For example, the thesis statement "Automobile air bags are not safe for children" might result in the search string: 

  • automobiles AND air bags AND children AND safety

Most databases and major search engines support complex Boolean searches. If you have a complex search using more than one operator, you can nest your search terms, using parentheses. Search terms and operators included in parentheses will be searched first, then terms and operators outside the parentheses. A search for:

 (ADD OR attention deficit disorder) AND college students

will search for documents containing either the acronym ADD or the words attention deficit disorder, then narrow the search results only to those documents that also contain the words college students.

 These concepts are further illustrated in the Advanced Boolean Searching tutorial by Colorado State University libraries.

Phrase Searching

Pay attention to phrases in search strings. If you are looking for information on the capital gains tax, you need to enter that part of your search string as a phrase. Otherwise, you may retrieve irrelevant documents which contain all of the keywords, in any order, anywhere in the document. Most search engines and databases support phrase searches. Internet search engines usually require quotation marks to indicate phrases such as: "capital gains tax", "physician assisted suicide", "human genome project".


Another useful search parameter is truncation. Truncation allows the searcher to insert a truncation symbol, usually an * or ?, as a wildcard at the end or the middle of a word. For example, the search term teen* will locate the terms

  1. teen
  2. teens
  3. teenager
  4. teenagers
  5. teenaged
  6. teensy
  7. teeny

 Try not to use truncation on a very short root word as too many words would be retrieved, and the relevance of the search would be affected. Some search engines automatically truncate your search terms to find plural, -ing, or -ed endings. Truncation symbols will vary. Some search engines and databases do not support truncation.

The concept of truncation is further illustrated in this tutorial by Colorado State University libraries.

Field Searching

Field searching is a technique which allows you to search a particular part of a computer record. For example, in many search engines and electronic databases, you can specify that a specific word in your search string be found in the title of the document.

 You may also be able to search for an author's last name, a range of dates, full-text documents, or material in a particular language. In web search engines, you may be able to search by domain name, URL, or type of file (picture, sound or video). This search technique works efficiently when you need to narrow your search in a very specific way. Some web search engines make field searching available only in the advanced search mode.




Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License

Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Deciding Which Resources to Use

Deciding Which Resources to Search

Once you have identified the keywords for your topic and have created search statements that reflect the relationship between the keywords, you should also consider the types of resources that will be most appropriate for your topic. Often your professor will require that certain types of resources be used. Both free Internet resources and library-based electronic resources can be used to access a wide variety of types of information.

 You may be required to use scholarly or peer-reviewed publications in addition to popular resources. Depending on your research project, primary source documents may be essential. The discipline area in which your search topic falls may require that the information be current. Finally, you may need to access information from a variety of different formats such as audiovisual, graphical or raw data.

Scholarly vs. Popular

Professors will often require that students use a certain number of scholarly resources for research projects. Scholarly information will present original research findings and provide much more detail and usually a better understanding of a topic than will a popular or general interest publication. In some cases, deciding what is a scholarly publication versus what is a popular publication may be easy, especially when considering print sources; in other cases it may be more difficult to make the distinction. Some of the distinguishing factors that are obvious in a print source (e.g., price, availability, etc.) will not be relevant for an electronic publication. Use the following table as a guide to help differentiate between popular and scholarly publications/Internet sites.




Popular Sites

Scholarly Sites


General readers

Scholars, researchers, professors, students


Colorful, eye-catching, engaging, lively, slick

Attractive but also serious


Many, colorful; banner ads that change on a regular basis

Few, if any, advertisements


Commercial organizations, non-profit organizations, personal home pages

Universities, individual faculty pages, professional associations, some commercial or non-profit organizations


Staff writers, journalists, usually not experts, web sites are frequently unsigned

Professionals, experts in the field, credentials given with the site


Non-technical, informative, introductory information, entertaining, news oriented, opinions

Original research, specific narrow focus


  Easy to read, engaging

Formal language, specialized jargon used, requires prior knowledge of the subject matter


Usually short to medium in length, providing broader overview of topics

Usually rather lengthy in order to provide in-depth analysis of a topic


Heavily illustrated, photographs, eye-catching

Few illustrations, little or no color, will include appropriate research oriented tables, charts, and graphs


Very little documentation, if any

Documentation, bibliographies, footnotes



Timeliness is not as important; thoroughness, originality, and in-depth coverage/analysis of a topic are more important than being on the cutting edge of a newsworthy topic


No specific words included or excluded; titles may be cutesy or contain slang

Titles may use language of the discipline; frequently words such as research or study will appear in the title


Slowik, Guy, ed. "Alcohol Use and Abuse." The Treatment Center., 2010. Web. 28 Mar 2012.

US. National Library of Medicine. Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. Washington, DC: National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web.

Primary vs. Secondary

Depending on the general subject area or discipline of your research, primary sources may be a major focus. Primary sources take different forms depending on the discipline. In literature, a primary source is the novel, short story, poem, etc. Primary sources in history include laws, letters, oral histories, diaries, and newspaper articles on events. In science, primary sources include reports of original research. Primary sources tend to stand on their own and be firsthand observations of an event.


A secondary source is one which analyzes, critiques, reviews or explains a primary source. They are often authored by people who were not present when the event occurred or the person under study was alive. Many are written by scholars who have carefully studied the primary source and have drawn their own conclusions from it.

One type of source is not, by nature, more or less reliable than the other. Some examples of both primary and secondary sources follow.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Darwin Remembers: A Play by Fred Sandford

The Declaration of Independence A User's Guide to the Declaration of Independence

Plato's Republic

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy: Plato

Current vs. Historical

For some disciplines, timeliness or currency of information is crucial. In the sciences and medicine, it is very important that the most recent information on a topic be retrieved. In history or literature, currency may not be as important. Frequently, professors will place time limitations on assignments and this will help guide your research. Some search engines and library-based electronic databases will allow you to specify a time frame for a search.

Resources By Discipline

Information is organized into disciplines or subject areas. The discipline or subject area in which your research topic falls will have a bearing on the type of research you will do. In addition, the same research topic you choose for a general composition class in which you primarily retrieve Internet sites and articles from library-based general electronic resources will take on a very different flavor in an upper-level discipline-based class.

Depending on the discipline area, the following considerations may be important:

  • One or more organizations may be responsible for the dissemination of information.
  • There may a standard terminology for the discipline.
  • There may be a standard index for the discipline.
  • Scholarly resources may be preferred over popular resources.
  • Primary resources may be preferred over secondary resources.

One or more of the following investigative methods may be preferred:

  • laboratory experiments
  • simulations
  • field work
  • interviews
  • surveys
  • statistical analysis
  • tests and measurements
  • original thought and analysis

Current resources may be preferred over historical resources.

Resources By Format

Since research material on the Internet is available in many different formats, you may find that an audio file, an image, or a video clip may be appropriate for your research topic. For example, if you were required to make an oral presentation of your research project in addition to a written report, and you were going to create a presentation with PowerPoint, you might find it helpful to import audio files, images and video clips into the presentation. 


Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License

Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Revising Your Topic and Searching

Research is seldom a neat, tidy process. Sometimes your first search attempt will not give you the results you anticipate. You may either find too much information on your topic, not enough information on your topic, or the information you find may not be helpful. In this case, it may be necessary to change or redesign your topic question or statement.

One of the most common problems encountered in research is retrieving search results which are too broad or unrelated. In that case, you will need to rethink your search strategy to limit your search results.


Try the following to narrow and define your search.

  • Use the AND Boolean Operator to add relevant terms to the search.
  • Use the NOT Boolean Operator to eliminate terms from the search.
  • Search for one or more words in the title field as opposed to searching throughout the full-text of a document.
  • Use phrase searching to define your search terms.
  • Use vocabulary that is more specific.
  • Choose a narrower category of a major topic.


When there are too few sources on your topic, try the following to expand or broaden your topic.

  • Combine synonymous terms with the Boolean OR Operator.
  • Use wildcards and truncation to retrieve alternate spellings or endings of root words.
  • Think of the topic in broader terms and use a more general vocabulary.
  • Make sure you are using the appropriate vocabulary for the discipline in which your topic falls.
  • Eliminate the least important concept to broaden the search.
  • Try the option available in some search engines that will look for related documents to one or more of your relevant hits. 

Sample Research Probem

A Sample Research Problem

The following is a sample research topic and a thesis statement that illustrate how a researcher might work with keywords, Boolean operators, nesting of operators, and truncation to get better results.

Sample Research Topic: "Does recycling E-Waste lead to environmental problems in and of itself? 

  • Background:  As more and more computers, cell-phones, televisions and other electronic media are dismantled and recycled, a whole set of environmental concerns are created.  Frequently these materials are sent to developing countries without any concern for their environment.

 You may find this too broad a topic. The following thesis statement is more specific:

“Companies that produce recyclable electronic products must be responsible and pay for safe and reliable methods of disposal, as well as safe, environmental friendly recovery of component parts and rare-earth metals.” 

 Keywords for this might include:

  • E-waste
  • recycling
  • electronic devices
  • environmental pollution
  • third-world countries
  • toxic metals
  • recycling fees

 Some of the possible search statements which could be used for this thesis are:

  • environment and recycling and “electronic devices” and “third-world countries”
  • (“e-waste” or “electronic devices”) and environment and “third-world” and corp*
  • (“toxic metals” or “rare-earth” metals) and “recycling fees”


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Copyright © 1997-2012 Florida Community College, Learning Resources Standing Committee. Last revised August 2012 by the LIS 2004 Course Revision Committee.

Assignment Two

Assignment Two

Now that you know how to select a topic for a research paper, you will use the tools you learned in lesson two to develop a thesis statement for the Course Project for this class. Before starting, you should read the Course Project pages. Now view this video on how to use Wikipedia for choosing a research topic:


1. Use the knowledge you gained from Lesson Two to select a topic and narrow that selection into a thesis statement for your annotated bibliography.

2. Send the thesis statement to the instructor through IRSC email (

DUE Saturday, March 8.