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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Topics and Background Research

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

Your Research Journey Starts with a Good Topic

the Plan portion of the research process with the steps: explore your topic, find keywords, write a research questionBefore you can write any paper, you have to pick a topic. This can take many paths. Maybe the topic is assigned to you, or you can pick whatever topic you want. Either way, you can choose the topic that is interesting to you.

The reason you want to pick a topic that is interesting to you is so that researching becomes an investigative journey rather than a dredge through a swamp of information. But this doesn't make it easy. Sometimes just picking a topic can be the hardest part of your research, especially when you can pick any possible topic in existence.

Starting from topics that interest you is key. What have you been thinking about lately? What news have you been following? What do you enjoy doing? What is something you are curious about that you don't know anything about? No matter how weird the topic is, there is usually a way to make it into a topic that is researchable on an academic level.

But doing that is going to take a bit of work. So here are some things to consider before getting started:

  • Understand the assignment. Before beginning your research, make sure you know exactly what is required for the assignment. Make sure you understand these specifics about the assignment:
    • What type of presentation or paper is required?  Are you writing an argumentative essay, expressing your opinion, analyzing the facts you've gathered, gathering sources for a bibliography, or giving a speech?
    • How long is the presentation? Are you writing a 5-6 page paper, a bibliography, or giving a 5-minute speech?
    • How many and what kind of sources are required? Can these sources be popular books, articles from popular magazines or newspapers, and Web sites, or are scholarly sources required?
    • What format is required for your writing assignment?  MLA, APA, or another?
    • What is the due date?
  • Try to avoid overused topic ideas. Topics like abortion, gun control, teen pregnancy, assisted suicide, or athlete drug abuse are often chosen by students and tend to be overused. If you must use these topics, try to think of a unique perspective on the topic. 
  • Choose a topic that interests you. Personal interest makes research more enjoyable and if it is of interest to you, you'll probably do a better job of writing.
  • For INFO 1010, this means picking a topic that is interesting to you, but also works within the theme of your ENGL 2010 class, if you are taking these classes together. Think about whether or not the topic will work for a 7-10 page paper.

Brainstorming a Topic

Brainstorming is a good way to explore topic paths that you can take and is a vital part of the planning part of research. There are many ways to brainstorm, so choose the way that makes the most sense to your learning style. Be as visual or as textual as you want.

The main point of brainstorming is to explore connections between concepts within a topic. For example, if you really love dogs, you can look into different aspects of what you like about dogs. Even a topic as broad as dogs has a lot of different researchable sub-topics.

Start making a list of the things you like about dogs:

  • Dog breeding
  • Dog walking
  • Dogs are happy
  • Dogs make people healthier

It helps to look at topics in the news and other media. Usually the news will report on new and breakthrough studies that are related to your topic, so doing a quick search will give you ideas about where to begin when it comes to brainstorming directions your topic can go in.

Once you have a list, you can start exploring the connections. Some people like to create a mind map to connect their ideas and visualize a topic. This can help you see the connections and brainstorm even further as you start coming up with ideas and seeing how they relate to each other. (Some free mind mapping tools you might check out include: Miro, Canva, Figma, Invision, and Mindomo).

a mind map of different topics that relate to dogs.

Google Searches

As you learn more about your topic, you'll know what direction to take it in. Brainstorming alone won't provide you with all the possible sub-topics to choose from. Doing a quick search on Google or another search engine can help you see what people have written about the topic and provide you with additional sub-topic ideas. Background searching helps you see the big picture.

For example, If someone was interested in researching marijuana use because it's all over the news, they could do a quick search online and look at some of the top websites. This would give them some context for what's going on in the news, what is generally said or believed about it, and could give them ideas about what more they want to learn about.

google results page for the search 'marijuana' showing the top stories, top results, and the quick facts about Cannabis


You can add what you've learned from your Google search to your mind map to make even more connections. Maybe you want to know how one facet of your topic relates to another. How does dog walking relate to mental and physical health? Is there a connection between puppy farming and animal cruelty? The more you learn the basics of the topic, the more you will know what you want to know more about, in greater detail, enough for you to write you paper on.

INFO 1010 Note:

This is the process that you will follow in the INFO 1010 Module 2 assignment, where you start with your broad topic and use Google searches to get ideas about keywords and phrases to help narrow your topic.


Background Research

Wikipedia Searching

One resource you're probably familiar with is Wikipedia. You've probably been told that you can't use it in your papers. That's only true if you are trying to use it as a cited source. As an encyclopedia, it's too general to use as a cited source, but it is great for getting the background information you need.

Use Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia) to understand the basics of the topic. Skimming the introduction can give you a good summary of the broad topic. Usually there are hyperlinks to specific aspects of the topic that can provide you with ideas for how to broaden or narrow your focus. For example, if you were interested in Marijuana, just the first couple of paragraphs links to pages on psychoactive drugs, recreational drugs, and medicinal drugs. It also highlights the common ways it is used, as well as the effects, both short and long-term. Any of these could lead to a more focused version of your topic.

Wikipedia page for Cannabis, showing the introductory paragraphs.

Looking at the table of contents can also help you see the different directions you could potentially take as you quickly go to the sections and read some basic details about that aspect of the topic.

table of contents of the Wikipedia page for cannabis.

Taking Notes while Searching

Just reading can be helpful, but make sure you take notes while reading the different articles and sections to help you keep track of subtopics and facts that you are more interested in. You should also make note of terms you see frequently while reading the sections that interest you. These are often more technical terms. For example, marijuana is also called cannabis. "Recreational marijuana" refers to when it's used for fun, while "medicinal marijuana" or "medical cannabis" are terms used when it's used to treat patients. These are frequently the keywords that you will be using when you start searching in the library databases.

Wikipedia section on cannabis uses highlighting keywords to use when searching medical marijuana.

Additional Resources

Where to look for topic ideas in the SUU Library web page:

  • SUU Reference sources can be found on the SUU Library Website and in the Reference Collection on the first floor of the library.

Below are a few general online reference sources, (encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks), that may help you find a topic that interests you:

  • Oxford Reference Online is an example of a reference source that may spark ideas for research topics and provide excellent background information. 
  • CQ Researcher is a database of reports on current and controversial topics. The reports provide background information, Pro/Con views, maps and graphs, and bibliographies with additional information sources. 
  • Opposing Viewpoints is another database with articles on social issues including pro/con essays, topic overviews, primary source documents, periodical articles, and data.

These databases can all be found by selecting Find a Database which is just under the "Search the Library" search bar, then selecting General Research from the All Subjects drop down box on the top left-hand side of the page.

Here are some more subject specific encyclopedias: