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