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Research Guide

Use this guide to help you with every stage of the writing process

STEP 1: Define Your Topic

The first step when planning and writing a research paper is picking a good topic. A good topic is relevant to the assignment and has enough information available for you to use and is neither too broad nor too narrow. This section will help you pick a subject that interests you, and refine that subject to a specific topic.


  • Read over your assignment.Be sure you understand the requirements. If you are unsure of anything, ask for clarification.
  • Try to choose something that interests you.You will be spending a lot of time learning about the subject, so it should be something that you want to know more about.
  • Start early.Take time to read some of the information out there in the topic, and to try out different searches. Settling on the right topic will take more time than you think!
  • Make sure you have a good topic.Explore the library’s resources to see what kind of results you get. If the topic is too big, you may need to narrow it down; if it is too specific, you may need to expand your search.
  • Make sure to pick a topic that will have enough information.A test search will help to determine how much information is available on your topic

Think about Search Terms

Use your background information to think of appropriate search terms. Brainstorm every possible search term for your topic.Try to think of synonyms and related words for each keyword to help broaden or narrow your search.

Look at your topic. For example: ‘Are Canadian youth politically engaged?’ The keywords in this topic would be Canadian, youth, and political engagement.

These keywords can become:

  • Canadian → Canada
  • Youth → "young people", "young adults", or adolescents
  • "Political engagement" → vote, voting, politics, elections, or "political participation"

My research question was ‘Can alternative energy sources help stop global warming?’

For this question, the keywords would be alternative energy sources, and global warming. So, some search terms could be:

  • global warming → climate change, temperature change, greenhouse effect
  • alternative energy sources → sustainable energy, renewable energy source, alternative fuels or environmental technology

1. Background Research

  • Do some research to start narrowing down your topic:
    • Do some background reading to understand more about the topic.
    • Is there a current book or article that gives you are good overview of the topic? 
    • You can use Wikipedia for ideas, keywords for your search and important dates and issues, but do not use it as a source in your final paper, as is not an academic source. It can also include errors, so be careful. 
    • Try a test search of the library's resources to see what kind of results you get. If the topic is too general, you may need to narrow it down; if it is too specific, you may need to expand your search. 
    • You can also do a test search of the internet using Google. 
    • Keep in mind that what you will find through the AC Library is mostly subscription based and will include content not available for free on the internet.  

My assignment:

Write a research report on a topic of your choice

My subject ideas:

  • I am interested in environmental issues.
  • I have read about global warming, but what are the causes?
  • I wonder, what are some possible solutions?
  • Why is it such a complicated problem and what are some of the issues that are debated by scientists?
  • Is technology the solution to global warming? Or are changes in our behaviour the solution?

My broad topic for the assignment is ‘Global Warming’.

My research to narrow my topic:

  1. Research in Wikipedia:
    • I got a good overview of the topic.
    • I discovered areas of the topic that interest me and that I might want to focus on, such as the causes of global warming and the possible responses to it.
  2. Searching Library resources:
    • I searched for for ‘Global warming’ in Page 1+.
    • I got too many results, because my topic is too general.
    • I can find suggestions of subjects on the left side of the page, which I can use to make my subject more specific.
    • In the next step, I will use what I have learned to refine my topic.

2. Refine Your Topic

Narrowing your subject to a more specific topic takes a bit of research and thought.

Here are some ideas to help you narrow your topic:

  1. Talk to a friend to get ideas. They may give you ideas that didn't occur to you.
  2. Brainstorm - think about or write down what you know about the topic. Use these as terms for your test searches. 
  3. Use these questions:

    • WHY did you choose the topic? What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
    • WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic? Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
    • WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
    • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?
    • WHEN is/was your topic important? Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

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  4. Turn your topic into a question. You will be trying to answer this question with your research. Think about something you would like to try to prove or argue.
  5. Make sure to pick a topic that will have enough information available. Do a preliminary search to see if there is enough information about your topic.

The subject we chose in the earlier step is ‘global warming.’ This subject is a very broad topic with many different aspects you could research. We will use the techniques above to narrow our subject to a research topic.

  1. First, I answered the questions:
    • Why: I am interested in environmental issues, and I am interested in how technology can be used to improve things in the future.
    • Who: Many environmental journals have published research on this topic. Also, organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme publish reports on the topic.
    • What: The main questions in this topic are as follows:
      • Which types of energy sources are best for the environment?
      • Are they feasible?
      • How much will they cost?
      • What are the potential positive or negative effects?
      There are many debates about this topic and climate change can be a controversial issue.
    • Where: This issue is important for everyone, both on local levels and on a global level.
    • When: This is a current issue; it is very important today and for the future. I would like for this paper to be more future-focused.
  2. From these answers, I came up with possible topics, such as ‘the causes of global warming’ ‘technological solutions to global warming’, or ‘what effect does global warming have on business?’ or ‘scientific debate about global warming’
  3. I turned my topic into a question: ‘Can alternative energy sources help stop global warming?’
  4. I made sure my topic has enough information available. A quick search of library resources shows over 7,000 results related to my question.

Sample research question: Can alternative energy sources help stop global warming?