Skip to Main Content

Research Basics

A Guide to Academic Research at Dugan Library

Refine Your Topic

Performing background research may reveal that your topic or research question is too broad (large) in focus or too narrow (small) in focus. You may have found too many or too few results to meet your information needs or assignment requirements. For example, a topic like "race horses" will be too broad and return many results and potential areas for research. In contrast, a topic like "race horse cardiovascular injuries on synthetic surfaces" will be too narrow to find substantial research.

If you suspect your topic or research question is too narrow or too broad, proceed to the next sections for tips on how to fix these issues.

Narrow Your Topic

Are you finding too much information on your topic? Make your results list more manageable. Less, but more relevant, information is what we're aiming for. Here are some options to consider:

  • Theoretical approach: Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue. For example, if your topic concerns cloning, examine the theories surrounding of the high rate of failures in animal cloning.
  • Aspect or sub-area: Consider only one piece of the subject. For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning.
  • Time: Limit the time span you examine. For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group: Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group. For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location: A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.

Broaden Your Topic

Not finding enough information? Think of related ideas, or read some background information first. You may not be finding enough information for several reasons, including:

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written. If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information. Use our A-Z List to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic. Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.

Source: MIT Libraries. Selecting a Research Topic: Refine your topic.