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SPAN 3010 Advanced Rhetoric and Composition: Develop a Topic

A Course Guide to support research and inquiry for Spanish 3010 at the University of Colorado.

Step 2: Getting Informed through Background Information

The second step of the research process often happens simultaneously with the first step. We use background, or reference, resources like encyclopedias (think Wikipedia), dictionaries, handbooks, atlases, and other background sources to learn important names, dates, and theories that are related to a research question. Exploring these details can lead us to new ideas and questions that can help shape our research question. Ultimately, using background information can help us get informed so we are ready to do the foreground research in the literature and humanities databases and in the library catalog and other sources. 

Using Wikipedia for Research and other Reference Sources

As you gather background information about your topic, your research question may change and that’s okay. Background information should inform you of what’s already known about your topic so that you can ask questions that truly require research to answer. Sometimes background information can be called “reference information.” In fact, there’s a whole section of Norlin Library that has reference materials.


Wikipedia sphere logo Wikipedia name text

One place you can start is Wikipedia, but be sure to check other sources including library subscription encyclopedias (see links in the "Reference Databases" box). You can use Wikipedia to:

  1. Do some initial searching and learn about related topics
  2. Find keywords that you can use in database searches
  3. Find links to references to useful, and hopefully, credible sources

Be careful:

  1. Do not cite to Wikipedia. Since anyone can edit this online resource, it can be difficult to cite an author or evaluate that author for credibility
  2. Do not believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Try verifying the information through another credible source, like a library reference database

Thinking about Keywords & Synonyms

Your research question will help us identify keywords to use for searching in the next steps. Start brainstorming some synonyms, closely related words and ideas, as well as antonyms for your keywords. For example, if we use the topic of ecotourism and trash in Costa Rica, we can start to come up with some keywords like trash, basura, waste, refuse, rubbish, etc. These terms may not be perfect synonyms, but their meanings overlap and can both be useful as keywords in your searches. Keep in mind, you should brainstorm synonyms in multiple languages.

Keyword 1 = Synonym 1  OR Synonym 2 OR Synonym 3


Trash = Waste OR Refuse OR Garbage OR Basura OR Desechos OR Desperdicios

Ecotourism = Green Travel OR Environmental Tourism OR Ecological Tourism OR Sustainable Tourism OR Ecoturismo

Use an online thesaurus to search for synonyms or related words. Also, be sure to think about whether there are broader or narrower terms for your words. In the example above, tourism would be the broader term, and might lead you to other relevant studies about the impact of tourism on the waste management industry. Here are some suggested sites:

Narrow your Focus by Refining your Topic

Revisit your Research Question

Now that you have done some background searching, and have hopefully picked up a few new keywords along the way, revisit your research question. Can you add more details to it to help you focus in on a more-specific topic? By reflecting on what you're really interested in will help make your database and catalog searching more efficient and targeted.

Consider also whether your question is too big - are you attempting to explain and solve a huge problem in just 4-6 pages? Is your question too focused and narrow so that it is difficult to find something exactly about the one situation you want to write about?

If you're still struggling to narrow your topic down, do some more background research or reach out to your instructor and librarian for help.

Reference Databases

Reference works like encyclopedias and atlases contain background information that help inform you so that you're ready to do foreground research. What's the difference? Typically scholars do not cite background information because the information is already well known in their field or easy to find. Foreground research is what I call the stuff that you cite - the journal articles, books, and other sources you use to build your arguments and inform your projects and papers.

Explore these databases below to learn more about the context (the people, places, eras, themes) of your research topic. Taking time to do this before diving into the databases can help you search more efficiently later on. 

Tip! Keep your eyes peeled for new keywords!

Literary Reference Databases

Research Process: Develop Search Terms

keyword icon from noun project

Using your research question, identify the main concepts that are involved. Try to avoid general words like 'impact' or 'effect' because they are going to appear in all sorts of writings from many different fields. Stick to concepts unique to your research question. These concepts can be translated into keywords for searching. 


  • Identify nouns and noun phrases in your research question
  • Consider how experts or academics talk about the concept
  • Are there more or less-specific terms that relate to your concept? Narrow or broader terms that relate?
  • Would it be useful to use synonyms or antonyms in other languages for searching?

Use the link below to learn more about how to develop strong search terms.