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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

  1. Some article records in databases have full text, and others are simply a citation and abstract. To see if the full text is available through another library subscription, click "Find it at CU"
  2. Click "Find it at CU" to open this page. If the full text is available through another CU subscription database, you can click the link in the middle of the page to get to the full text
  3. Next, a new window should open to a database or journal where you can download the full text of your article.  
  4. Full text is usually available as a PDF. Look for an icon or "full text" link on the page
  5. If you are unable to find the full text using "Find it at CU," click here to request the article at no cost to you via Interlibrary Loan (indicates the "Request through interlibrary loan" link on the link resolver page).

Guiding you through the Research Process

Taking on a research process can be daunting, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But it can also be fun and rewarding! 

Where do I start?

Follow the tabs of the guide from left to right to learn how to carry out important steps of a research process.

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

Subject Librarian

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