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Research Tips and Tutorials

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Finding Background Research

Background research is the research that you do before you start writing your paper or working on your project. Sometimes background research happens before you've even chosen a topic. 

Some reasons to do background research include:

  • Determining an appropriate scope for your research: Successful research starts with a topic or question that is appropriate to the scope of the assignment. A topic that is too broad means too much relevant information to review and distill. If your topic is too narrow, there won't be enough information to do meaningful research.
  • Understanding how your research fits in with the broader conversation surrounding the topic: What are the major points of view or areas of interest in discussions of your research topic and how does your research fit in with these? Answering this question can help you define the parts of your topic you should explore. 
  • Establishing the value of your research: What is the impact of your research and why does it matter? How might your research clarify or change your understanding of the topic?
  • Identifying experts and other important perspectives: Are there scholars whose work you need to understand for your research to be complete? Are there points of view that you need to include or address?

Doing background research helps you choose a topic that you'll be happy with and develop a sense of what research you'll need to do in order to successfully complete your assignment. It will also help you plan your research and understand how much time you'll need to dedicate to understanding and exploring your topic. 

Trying to learn about a new topic, or need help narrowing a research topic? These two reference databases are filled with encyclopedia-style entries to get you started. 

Credo Reference 

Credo contains over 3 million full-text entries alongside thousands of easily searchable images, audio files, and videos. In includes access to hundreds of in-depth titles covering every major subject from current Social Issues to Ancient History and Shakespeare to Einstein. 

Below is a mindmap Credo created from my search history. It points me to related topics, which may be useful for choosing a topic, or narrowing the focus of your research.

Oxford Reference 

Oxford Reference is the premier online reference product, spanning 25 different subject areas, bringing together 2 million digitized entries across Oxford University Press’s Dictionaries, Companions and Encyclopedias. As you browse through Oxford Reference, you may find results that range from short-entry, general reference to more in-depth articles on specialized subjects. For an overview of each subject on Oxford Reference use the links in the left-hand pane.

Need help choosing a topic for a debate or speech? These are a great place to start.

Opposing Viewpoints

Find overviews, news, and opinions on hundreds of today's important social issues. Great for exploring topics for a debate or speech. 

Issues and Controversies

Reports on hot topics in politics, business, government, law enforcement, energy, education, health, science, foreign policy, race, human rights, society, and culture are updated weekly. Another great resource for exploring topics for a debate or speech.

  • Wikipedia and reference sources in general (e.g., encyclopedias, atlases, handbooks) are excellent sources of background information. This is especially helpful if you are assigned a topic you are not yet very familiar with.
  • Though Wikipedia is not considered a scholarly or academic source, it can be a great starting point for your research, allowing you to gather general information on your area of interest, and giving you ideas for narrow areas of focus. 
  • While the fear of inaccurate information being portrayed on Wikipedia is a legitimate concern, it is also true that Wikipedia is used by millions of people daily and errors are often corrected as soon as they are found. This is especially true on the pages that are used by many, like those for famous people, landmarks, or current events.
  • Though most professors will not accept Wikipedia as a source cited in the research assignment you ultimately turn in, it can be a useful tool in the early stages of research when you are seeking background information.

Adapted from Butler, W. D., Sargent, A., Smith, K.(2021).Introduction to College Research.