Thursday, October 25, 2012

How to Choose a Research Paper Topic

So, your assignment is to write a research paper. You could probably have an easier time writing a paper about all the things you’d rather do than write a research paper, but it still wouldn’t make the assignment go away. The good news is, if you give yourself adequate time to complete the assignment and have a few time-tested strategies under your belt, research paper process can go a little more smoothly for you.
Choosing a topic
In some cases, the instructor may assign a specific topic or choice of topics: in other cases, the instructor may allow you to choose your own topic as long as it relates in some way to the class you are taking or the current unit of study. While giving you “free choice” of topics may suggest that you have more freedom, many students find this “freedom” may lead to more frustration and confusion.
Think of your Topic as a Question or Problem
Research can be defined as “studious inquiry or examination” (Merriam-Webster Online); if “inquiry” is a search for information, think of your topic as not just a general subject, but an answer to a question. We do research every day without even realizing it: where is that new movie playing? Where can I get the best cell phone plan? Which college has the best athletics program? These are all examples of questions that we seek to answer through research.
Once you start with a general theme or area of interest, find a way to turn that into question form. If you think of research as a quest to answer a question, you will not only be more likely to find more useful information, you will also be less likely to become overwhelmed by your search process. If you have an idea of what may interest you, but don’t know how to put it in question form, some questions to ask yourself might be: Why does this topic interest me? What do I want to learn about this topic? What are some questions I have about this topic that I’ve always wanted to find out?
How One Student Did It
Here’s a real life example I encountered while teaching a Humanities-based 12th grade research paper class.  I had a student who wanted to research “overpopulation”. He was interested in it because he felt it was an ethical issue. We both headed to a computer and I said, “let me show you something.” I typed “overpopulation” into Google, and got this:
Over 4 million results. “You don’t want to read through all 4 million hits, do you?” I asked.
You can probably guess his answer. Not wanting to discourage him, I followed with, “What is it about this topic that concerns you?” He replied, “I think overpopulation may be endangering the earth’s resources.” So we then tried to turn that into a question: “How is the increase in human population affecting the earth’s resources?” (we changed “endangering” to “affecting” because it’s always better to remove any bias from your question before starting your research).  When we went back to Google, we got this:
Sure, it’s still a lot of results, but we were able to narrow it down considerably. It’s also a good idea to try a few different search terms and combinations of words, in this case adding “human” to population, or searching “earth’s resources” in addition to “environment”. I used a Google to make a point, but I would stay away from Google when looking for articles for my research paper. Online databases are a better bet.
Use an Online Database to Do Your Research
Many high schools and most colleges/universities subscribe to online databases. These databases are highly organized collections of articles, websites, and other materials that will help you answer your research question. Remember, Google is a very useful search engine, but it is not a research database; you should search databases before you turn to Google to find reliable information. If your instructor hasn’t already suggested databases, you can ask them for recommendations. Your school’s research librarian is an excellent resource for database information; she or he can recommend which databases are best for your particular subject.
Sweet Search is also great free research tool for students. Type in a topic and see what you find! Another useful research helper is the Citation search tool on EasyBib  website, where you can see what types of sources other students are using.
In my next post, I’ll talk about what to do once you have your sources and are preparing to start writing. Until then, good luck with your topics!

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