Identifying the Important Aspects of Your Topic

Before doing searches in computer databases, it's a good idea to break the question down into its key concepts. For example, our sample research question: "What is the history of the endangered species list in the United States?" has these key concepts:

  • Endangered species list is a main concept: it is what the paper is about
  • United States is the geographic area we want to focus on
  • History is the aspect of the U.S. endangered species list we are most interested in.

As you think about the concepts important to your topic, remember: not everyone will use the same words to mean what you mean. Most research databases, including library catalogs, article databases, and web search engines, respond to key words which represent your ideas. In selecting the words you will use to represent your concepts, realize that you, the authors and the people making each index or database may each have chosen different words to represent those concepts.

  • You may find you need an alternate term from the one you started with.
  • You may need a narrower term if you are getting too much irrelevant information.
  • Sometimes you may need a broader term in order to find enough information.

A Tip for Finding Synonyms: Use a thesaurus, dictionary or encyclopedia related to your discipline. You can also pick up words for concepts related to your discipline while browsing through article titles, book titles and chapter titles. For example, from background reading on our sample topic, these are some other useful terms we identified for endangered species list:

  • wildlife
  • conservation (broader term)
  • endangered species act - the law (related term)
  • endangered animals (narrower term)
  • threatened species (related term)
  • extinction (related term)
  • ...