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Picking a Research Topic - Infographic

Refine Your Topic

Tip: Doing research can help you find a narrow focus within a broad research topic. Take time to read background information.

1. Start with a broad topic: "I'm interested in el Día de los Muertos"

As you move through the questions to help refine your topic into a research question, use the types of sources listed ont he right to help you answer the questions on the left.

Arrows pointing down to narrower and narrower topics Questions to Ask Sources to Use
Narrower topic Who? Can you identify a person or group of people that are involved in your research topic? I am interested in how artists portray el Día de los Muertos Background and reference sources
Even narrower topic What? What is the key idea of your topic? What are the sub-topics? I am interested in the use of images in el Día de los Muertos traditions Books containing overviews (aka General Histories)
Narrow and specific topic When? Is time an important factor in your topic? Do you need current or historical research? I am interested in the origins of the portrayal of la Catrina Scholarly Journal Articles
Even more ore narrow and specific topic Where? Is geography important to your research topic? Can you find information on a region or do you need information about one specific place? (Mexico) News and other Primary Sources

1. End up with a research question: "How does José Guadalupe Posada initial portrayal of lower-class women in Mexico through la Catrina imagery connect to contemporary traditions for el Día de los Muertos?"

Infographic by Bronwen K. Maxson, adapted from an original by Shonn M. Haren, Wichita State University Libraries, 2015. CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

Evaluating Information with the 6 Question Words

Evaluating Information: 6 Question Words

Use the following 6 journalistic question words to guide you through evaluating whether information sources are authoritative (to be trusted as being accurate and reliable) for your needs.

Important: A source is never only “good” or “bad” but can be more or less appropriate depending on the research you are doing.

Example: Your friend runs out of the basement yelling “it’s flooding!” and is an authoritative source on if the basement is flooding. However, your friend has never read Jane Eyre and gives you his opinion about the book, is not an authoritative source on Jane Eyre.

WHO : Author

Explanation: Authority exists in many forms such as subject expertise (a professor), societal position (a member of Congress), or special experience (a participant at an event). What are the author’s qualifications? What credentials contribute to the author’s authority? Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (e.g., well-known scholars) that are considered “standard” in the field. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged.

Example: A blog posting by an eye-witness to a riot would be an authoritative primary source on the subject. That same blog posting would not be an authoritative secondary source.

WHAT : Type of Document & Overall Tone

Explanation: Authoritative content may be any type of media (books, articles, videos, social media, etc.) and come in many different tones (conversational, academic, technical). Authoritative sources are appropriate to the research being done.

Example: Research on Malcolm X would be enhanced by an informal conversation with one of his friends, not by the study of technical reports. Research on structural engineering, however, would be enhanced by the study of technical reports.

WHERE : Source of Information (Where it Appears)

Explanation: Authoritative content may be in formal (such as a scholarly article) or informal (a blog posting) sources. Many disciplines have acknowledged authorities (publications like scholarly journals or books) that are considered “standard” in the field. Similarly, there are publishing houses, academic presses, or even certain restricted website domains (e.g., .gov or .edu) that have reputations for providing high-quality information. But even these “standards” can be and have been challenged. It is important to evaluate not only the work but also where you found it.

Example: Authoritative research on fracking produced by the federal government but then re-purposed by a fracking company website, may be authoritative, but should be carefully analyzed in the context of the site on which it was found.

WHEN : Publication Date & Occurrence that Precipitated Publication

Explanation: Authoritative information may be recently published or very old. Subject and context are all important when asking “when.”

Example: Referring to a book published in 1900 for research on the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) could be very authoritative. Researching stem cell transplantation using a journal article published in 2010 could be out-of-date.

WHY : Author’s Purpose for Writing the Document

Explanation: Bias can exist in any source (newspapers, scholarly articles, blog posts, etc.). When evaluating a source, asking why they wrote the document (and if the work was funded or sponsored, by whom) can help you decide if it is authoritative. Having a bias doesn’t mean a source shouldn’t be used, rather any information should be examined critically and verified with another source.

Example: Research explaining the benefits of smoking funded by a tobacco company very likely has a bias but could still contain authoritative information if verified by other sources.

HOW : Author’s Method of Gathering & Analyzing Data

Explanation: There are many different ways to gather & analyze information. When gathering data an author may have done their own original study, compiled various outside sources, interviewed people, or be writing from personal experience. Any method can be authoritative, depending on the information need. When analyzing data, the author's use of proprietary, inter-operable (the extent to which systems can exchange, interpret, and share data), or open data formats signals how and if an author intends the data to be used and shared.

Example: Using interviews to support the effectiveness of a new drug is not a sound methodology; however, using interviews to give context to a riot is.


Method adapted from Rachel Radom and Rachel W. Gammons, “Teaching Information Evaluation with the Five Ws: An Elementary Method, an Instructional Scaffold, and the Effect on Student Recall and Application,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 53, 4 (2014): 334-47.

Finding the Full Text of an Article in a Library Database

Finding the Full-Text of an Article

  • Some databases provide the full text, others include just a citation and abstract. To see if full text is available through another Libraries subscription, click "Find it at CU"
  • Clicking "Find it at CU" will take you to this page. If the full text is available, you can click the blue "Full Text Online"button
  • Next, a new window should open to a database or a journal's website where you can download the full text of your article, usually as a PDF.
  • If you are unable to find the full text try these options:
  1. Contact Interlibrary Loan using the link above. It's a no-cost service that will search for the article at another library.
  2. Try searching Google Scholar to find the author's manuscript version or an Open Access copy.
  3. If the item is available in print, try the Library Catalog link.

Guiding you through a Research Process

Guiding you through a Research Process

Research can be messy. Each research question requires different approaches, so be prepared to skip around between steps and even add other steps as needed.

  1.  Start with a research question

  2. Gather background info to develop your topic

  3. Learn search techniques

  4. Use search tools to find information

  5. Read and evaluate what you find

  6. Organize, write, and cite your research

Tip! If your search results don't help you answer your research question, go back to a previous step and try another strategy. Research is an iterative process that can be both frustrating and rewarding!

This research guide is organized around these 6 steps of the research process, so follow the tabs from left to right to learn how to carry out each step. >>>


Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary v. Secondary Sources


Primary Sources: Original documents created or experienced contemporaneously with the event being researched. They are first-hand observations, contemporary accounts of events, viewpoints of the time. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.

Secondary Sources: Works that analyze, assess, or interpret an historical event, era or phenomenon, generally utilizing primary sources to do so. They provide interpretation of information, usually written well after the event. They offer reviews or critiques.


Primary Sources Secondary Sources
Diaries Biographical Works
Journal articles detailing original research Books (except fiction & autobiographies)
Letters Commentaries, crtiicisms
Newspaper articles written at the time Histories
Oral & video recordings Journal articles (depending on the discipline these can be primary)
Original documents (e.g., birth certificate, trial transcripts) Literature Reviews
Photgraphs Magazine and Newspaper Articles (this distinction varies by discipline)
Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g., annual report, treaty, constitution)  
Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)  
Works of art, architecture, literature, and music)  
Data, Statistics, etc.  

Popular Vs. Scholarly

Scholarly v. Popular*

What are they? Scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles are written by scholars or professionals who are experts in their fields. Popular sources aim to inform a wide audience about issues of interest and are much more informal in tone and scope.

Why do we care? Evidence. You want to base your writing and arguments on the best available evidence. While both types of sources contain credible information, scholarly articles (usually) provide the best evidence for the authors' claims (through high-quality citations and the peer-review process).

How do you know which is which?

Scholarly [Criteria] Popular
research projects, methodology, and theory Contents personalities, news, and general interest articles
specialized Audience general
subject experts Authors journalists and generalists
academic institutions Affiliation staff or freelance writers
highly focused, geared towards researchers and professionals Topics more generalized, geared towards nonprofessionals
peer-reviewed (usually) Review Process edited but not peer-reviewed
bibliographies/footnotes References no bibliographies
many have dull covers Appearance glossy, eye-catching covers
few or none Advertisements many
Journal of Food Science, Urban Studies, Journal of Applied Psychology, Annals of Human Genetics Examples People, New York Times, Psychology Today, Time

*Types of Periodicals - Periodical is a generic term used for magazines and scholarly journals. They are materials that are published at regular intervals (monthly, quarterly, daily, etc.).

Finding ALTEC Materials through University Libraries

Using OneSearch

1.Leave the search box blank; click “Search”
2.Select the Library Location filter from the left sidebar options; click “More…”
3.Choose ALTEC; click “Apply”

Using Chinook Classic

1.Using the Advanced Search, put an asterisk in the search box
2.Select ALTEC from Location
3.Click Submit

Preparing to search

Preparing to Search

1. Lean what the AND and OR do to your searches. If you’re not sure, test them out by putting one at a time between two different words: cat AND dog; cat OR dog

2. Brainstorm some keywords, then brainstorm some more. The keywords (or phrases) you use in your searches might not be the same terms or concepts authors and academics use, so it’s helpful to have other keywords (synonyms or related words) to try.

3. Put your keywords together with AND, OR, and in some cases, NOT to create logical search statements. Hint: There is a logic behind how these special words operate.

Another hint: put any commonly used or special phrases into quotation marks. For example: “medio ambiente” “carte blanche” or “market value”

Creating Search Statements
•Waste AND international AND exchange
•(waste OR garbage) AND (international OR global) AND (trade OR exchange)
•“global waste trade” AND “Latin America” AND “environmental justice”
[clip art image of a globe with arrows pointing outward from North America to other parts of the world]

Which Library Catalog Should I Search?

Graphic prepared by Bronwen K. Maxson for educational purposes only

Finding books & more at University Libraries

Search each resource in this order to locate items quickly:

1.  Takes 0-1+ Days. Start with OneSearch and Chinook to locate resources we own or subscribe to [links to OneSearch and Chinook]. Chinook finds physical materials and subscriptions and OneSearch finds all that and more!

If the University of Colorado doesn't have what you're looking for, try these regional library systems next:

 2.  Takes 3-5+ Days. [links to Prospector and Mobius]. Prospector finds materials held in Colorado & Wyoming libraries. Mobius locates many additional items in Missouri libraries.

Still not finding what you need? Use WorldCat to search libraries worldwide, then borrow them via Interlibrary Loan (ILLiad):

3.  Takes 7-10+ Days. [Links to WorldCat and ILLiad system]. WorldCat searches participating library catalogs from across the globe. Submit your requests through ILLiad

Still not finding what you need? Contact your Subject Librarian to suggest a purchase [Link to CU Subject Librarian Directory]

Using Catalogs at University Libraries

Using Catalogs at University Libraries

Subject Librarian

Bronwen Maxson's picture
Bronwen Maxson
Bronwen K. Maxson
Norlin Library
1720 Pleasant Street | 184 UCB
303-492-3134 |