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General Research Process: Background Research

Step 1: Choosing a Topic


  1. Think about what interests you most or something you always wanted to find out about. 
  2. Use a resource to help you find a topic and gather some background information. Perhaps reading a newspaper will give you an idea.  Below are library databases that can help you locate topics on current events, controversial issues, or social issues.

Library Databases for Topic Ideas

For off-campus access you'll need your UserID and Password:

User ID: 7-digit student number or faculty/staff Datatel number.

Password: First initial of your first name and up to six letters of your last name, all lower case with no spaces

These three databases are a good place to start when trying to decide on a topic or understand various arguments surrounding a topic.

Develop a manageable thesis statement before you start searching for articles.

If your topic is too broad, you may get too much information that you will have to sort through.

If it is too narrow, you may not find the information that you need.   For example:

Let's say you decided your topic will be the environment

Just environment?  - Too broad!!  There are so many aspects of the environment. 

What do you want to know about it, and why do you choose that topic?  Your answers may help you to focus or narrow it down.  Are you interested in pollution, water issues, social issues, political issues. anthropological or artistic issues, etc.

When trying to narrow down your topic, it may help to think of the 5 Ws:

  • Who? - Does your topic relate to a specific population, age group, ethnic group, etc?
  • When? - Does your topic involve a certain time period?
  • Where? - Is your topic specific to a certain geographic area, country, city, county etc?
  • What? - What aspect of your topic do you want to look at? Legal issues, social issues, educational issues, etc?
  • Why? - Why is your topic important or what are some of the concerns surrounding your topic? Pollution, economic impact, etc?

OK. You say "nature".  So natural environment?  Environment and nature?  What aspects of nature do you wish to research?  Oh, OK.  You were reading Henry Thoreau's Walden.  But, you are still not sure of an exact topic even though you want to include Thoreau in your nature research. How about considering today's issues of global warming with that of Thoreau's years?  

Select keywords once you have focused on a topic

Why are keywords important?  Keywords help you find information faster.  One you have good keywords, you can use those to search for book, for articles in journals, magazines, newspapers, etc. 

  • Make a list of keywords related to your topic.  When trying to decide what is a keyword, it may help to look for the nouns and/or verbs in your topic/thesis statement.

Examples of Research Questions / Thesis Statements and their keywords

  • Video games contribute to childhood obesity
    • The keywords would be: video games, childhood, obesity
  • Social networking sites should be liable for personal privacy
    • The keywords would be: social networking, liable, privacy
  • Charter schools are more effective than public schools
    • The keywords would be: charter schools, effective, public schools


Step 4: How to search Gale ebooks

Step 1: This is the homepage of Gale eBooks. You can type your topic into the search box.

Gale Homepage with search box


Step 2: These are the results of a keyword search. On the right you'll see a button that says 'Start the Topic Finder.' Click on that button for topic ideas. 

Gale Results page


Step 3: These are the topic ideas. You can click on any of these for more information. I clicked on Pollution.

Gale Topic Finder

Step 4: On the right you'll see suggestions for topics. You can click on one of those topics. In this example I clicked on Global Climate Change.

Gale Topic Example



Step 5: Once you click on a topic, you'll get an article on the topic as well as the option for more articles on the topic. You'll notice two tool bars:

  • The top tool bar allows you to send, download, print, as well as Cite the article. To find the citation for the article, click on the quotation marks toward the upper right part of the page. When you copy and paste a citation from the database's tool, make sure you correct the spacing and formatting. The citation should be double spaced and the second line should be indented.


Freedman, Bill, and Laurie Duncan. "Global Warming." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, 3rd ed., vol. 3, Gale, 2004, pp. 1831-

1834. Gale eBooks, Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

  • The lower tool bar allows you to save the document to your Google Drive, One Drive, email, or download.


Article tools

Step 2: Background Research

When we have an information need, it's usually because we have a knowledge gap about something. In order to fill in that gap, whether we realize it or not, we conduct background research. 

In terms of academic work, doing some background research is important for a number of reasons:

  1. You learn the basics about a topic you may be unfamiliar with. 
  2. You identify all sides of the topic and any controversies surrounding the topic. 
  3. You identify some of the key people, organizations, etc. involved with the topic. 
  4. You learn if there is enough information available on the topic to be able to successfully complete your assignment.
  5. Gathering background information can help you decide on an approach to your assignment. 


Once you've chosen a topic, there are library resources, such as general encyclopedias, that can help you do some background research. Below are two databases the library subscribes to that provide access to electronic reference books.

NOTE: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. However, since anyone can edit it with no authority control, it's not considered a reliable source. It can be used as a very beginning point, but it is not an acceptable source to use for any assignment for this course and shouldn't be used for academic work. 

Step 3: How to use Credo

Credo is the name of the company that provides access to a database that contains hundreds of electronic reference books. These are things like general and subject specific encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, etc. 

Step 1: This is Credo's homepage. You can choose from one of the topics listed, or you can type your topic into the search box.

Homepage of Credo

Step 2: I've typed in the topic global warming. You can type in your general topic.

Type topic into search box of Credo

Step 3: This is the search results from the global warming search.

Results from search

Step 4: I clicked on the Topic Page for the topic. This provides a general overview of the topic as well as related articles. Credo also provides a mindmap. This is a very useful tool for choosing keywords related to your topic.  

At the top of the page on the right you'll also see various tools that allow you to interact with the article. You can print, email, or save the article. The database also provides the citation to the article. Click on the quotation marks to see the citation.

Article in Credo with tools


Credo citation button


The default is APA. Make sure you choose MLA to see the correct citation format we're working with. You can then copy and paste this into your assignment. When you do this, make sure you adjust the spacing and formatting. The citation should be double spaced and the second and third lines should be indented. 

"global warming." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Britannica Digital Learning, 2017. Credo Reference,

url= Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

MLA citation button