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Research Essentials

Background Sources

Reference sources like dictionaries and encyclopedias provide general information about various subjects. They offer background that can be a springboard for more in-depth research.

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

Choose an area of interest to explore. 

For you to successfully finish a research project, it is important to choose a research topic that is relevant to your field of study and piques your curiosity. The flip side is that curiosity can take you down long and winding paths, so you also need to consider scope in how to effectively cover the topic in the space that you have available. If there's an idea or concept you've recently learned that's stuck with you, that might be a good place to start!

Gather background information.

You may not know right away what your research question is - that's okay! Start out with a broad topic, and see what information is out there through cursory background research. This will help you explore possibilities and narrow your topic to something manageable.  Do a few quick searches in OneSearch@IU or in other relevant sources. See what other researchers have already written to help narrow your focus. 

Narrow your topic.

 Once you have a sense of how other researchers are talking about the topics you’re interested, narrow down your topic by asking the 5 Ws

  • Who – population or group (e.g., working class, college students, Native Americans)
  • What – discipline or focus (e.g., anthropological or art history)
  • Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns; Standing Rock)
  • When – time period or era (17th century; contemporary; 2017)
  • Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

Broad topic: Native American representations in museums

Narrowed topic: Museum efforts to adhere to NAGPRA

Adapted from: University of Michigan. (2023 Finding and Exploring your topic. Retrieved from

From Topic to Research Question

So, you have done some background research and narrowed down your topic. Now what? Start to turn that topic into a series of questions that you will attempt to answer the course of your research. 

Keep in mind that you will probably end up changing and adjusting the question(s) you have as you gather more information and synthesize it in your writing. However, having a clear line of inquiry can help you maintain a sense of your direction, which will then in turn help you evaluate sources and identify relevant information throughout your research process. 

Exploratory questions.

These are the questions that comes from a genuine curiosity about your topic. When narrowing down your topic, you got a good sense of the Who, What, When, and Where of things. Now it’s time to consider

  • Asking open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic, which can lead you to better explanations about a phenomenon or concept
  • Consider the “so what?” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others? What are the implications of the information you’re discovering through the search process to the Who and the What of your topic?

Evaluate your research question.

Use the following to determine if any of the questions you generated would be appropriate and workable for your assignment. 

  • Is your question clear? Do you have a specific aspect of your general topic that you are going to explore further? Will the reader of your research be able to keep it in mind?
  • Is your question focused? Will you be able to cover the topic adequately in the space available? Are you able to concisely ask the question?
  • Is your question and arguable? If it can be answered with a simple Yes or No, then dig deeper. Once you get to “it depends on X, Y, and Z” then you might be getting on the right track.


Once you have developed your research question, consider how you will attempt to answer or address it. 

  • What connections can you make between the research you’ve read and your research question? Why do those connections matter?
  • What other kinds of sources will you need in order to support your argument?
  • If someone refutes the answer to your research question, what is your argument to back up your conclusion?
  • How might others challenge your argument? Why do those challenges ultimately not hold water?

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2018). How to write a research question. Retrieved from

Sample Research Questions

A good research question is clear, focused, and has an appropriate level of complexity. Developing a strong question is a process, so you will likely refine your question as you continue to research and to develop your ideas.  


Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?

Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as Facebook and TikTok?


Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?

Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?

Simple vs Complex

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?

Appropriately Complex:  What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2018). How to write a research question. Retrieved from