Research is the process of finding information to explore questions and contribute to new understanding of a topic.
Explore a topic idea that truly interests you. Test your topic with exploratory research. Then, refine your topic so that it is neither too narrow nor too broad. A topic that is too narrow might result in finding too little information. A topic that is too broad may overwhelm you with information. You may change the focus of your topic several times. That's part of the research process! New information can lead you to yet more questions and sources. In this way, just deciding upon a suitable topic involves research too! Watch the video below to learn how...
(Image: Still from video "Picking Your Topic is Research" shared below)
Meet Jennie. Jennie has a research project due in a few days. She picked a topic when her professor first assigned the project. She chose her favorite TV show Bridezillas. It seemed like a good idea, but now that she's doing her research, she's having a lot of trouble finding sources. She's freaking out.
Jennie's problem started with her mental model of the research process, which she sees as a one-way street. Like many students, Jennie thinks that once a project is assigned, she should pick her topic right away. Then she can move on to finding sources and reading through them. And once she has all her sources, she can start writing her paper.
But, the research process is a lot messier than that, and picking your topic is intertwined with finding and reading sources and writing and editing your paper.
Picking your topic IS research.
When you first pick a research topic, it isn't set in stone. It's just an idea that you test with some exploratory research. If it looks good, you find and read some more sources. At this point, you might find that the published research leads you away from your original topic. That's OK.
You can let the research you find guide you and tweak your topic a bit. And by the time you have gone through this cycle a few times, you may find that you have enough sources to start writing and editing your paper. Even then, as you're writing, you may find that you need to pull in additional pieces of information and you may return to the research cycle.
So, let's wind the clock back for Jennie, bringing her back to the day her professor assigned this project, and allow her to do it again with this research model.
Again, Jennie picks a topic that is interesting to her: the reality TV show Bridezillas. As she tests the topic with some Internet research and in article databases, she discovers that there is lots written about it in the popular press, but not much scholarly research, which her professor requires.
Realizing that maybe her topic is a bit too narrowly defined, Jennie decides to tweak it by broadening her scope to "Reality TV" in general. But when she tests this new topic, she winds up drowning in a sea of research all of which has to do with Reality TV, but doesn't tie together to help her form a coherent thesis.
Back at the drawing board, she wonders if there's a happy medium between Bridezillas, which is too narrow a topic, and "Reality TV" which is too broad. Since Bridezillas is just one of several reality TV shows about brides and weddings, perhaps there's more written about this sub genre. Testing this topic in some of the library's research databases yields a promising, but not overwhelming, number of results.
Instead of realizing too late that her topic was un-researchable, Jennie built in the time to test and tweak her topic, so she could take her original idea and shape it into a topic that she still finds interesting and can realistically use for a short research assignment.
If you want to know more about the research process or about how to pick a good topic, Ask a Librarian for help!
Video by North Carolina State University Libraries in August 2013. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.