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Focusing/Refining a Research Topic

Ways to focus a topic:

Brainstorming: Write down topics suitable for your assignment that that interest you, check your textbook and other sources.

Current event survey: Check a couple reputable open web sources for topics of interest suitable for your assignment. For news articles you could check Science Daily or the National Science Foundation Biology News

Check library resources: Use Credo Reference to test search some topics suitable for your assignment.


Ways to refine your topic:

Free associate: Write down ideas that come to you. Don't worry about grammar or punctuation at this point. If you are better at speaking than writing, try recording your ideas. You could sketch a drawing to capture any ideas you have about your topic.

Clustering/Mind mapping: Write your main idea in the center of a page, then write information about that idea around the topic. Draw lines to connect the ideas that belong together to help you refine your topic (example video).

Browse sources: Do a keyword search in the library catalog or article databases like Academic Search Complete to see how others have treated the topic, then browse those sources for ideas.

Searching Better

Using keywords is one of the most effective way to start searching. This is true even in search engines like Google or Bing, but in academic research tools- keywords are critical! Finding useful keywords, putting them together well, and tracking your results systematically will help you improve your search technique and save you time. 


Keyword Searching: Keyword searching is a great starting point.


Try starting more generally, then get more specific as you go along. This applies on a number of levels.

  • Start with broad keywords will bring you a big pool of results, which you can sort through and filter using tools in the database. As you proceed through your search, you'll pick up additional keywords you can add to your search.
  • Starting your searching in background sources where you will find more general information, as well as history and more keywords  Similarly, it's important to start your search with background sources. This is a great way to gather broad information and learn the basics of the topic and the vocabulary used by experts (more keywords!). You don't want to go into your research missing basic, crucial information.
  • After getting some background info, search in books and databases


Subject Searching: Once you have a defined research question or area of interest a subject search will return resources in databases and library catalogs that are grouped by the subject they address. Subject searching is a more precise way to query databases. To identify subject headings (terms used by databases and catalogs to describe literature about specific topics) to use for a subject search you can:

  • Run a keyword search
  • Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.
  • Look at the information about the articles and note the Subject Terms section. Use these terms to confirm or improve your next searches.

Boolean Logic

This brief tutorial will explain how to use Boolean operators with your search terms for best results.

Search Strategies

A search strategy is a plan that helps you look for the information you need. Follow these steps to develop a search strategy


  • Identify the key concepts in your topic
  • Decide on keywords.
  • Brainstorm additional alternative keywords for these concepts, if needed.
  • Refine your search to dates, study groups, etc., as appropriate.
  • Use Boolean Logic to combine your concepts.   

Use the worksheet below to help you devise your search strategy.