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Define Your Topic


What is your need for information?

Do you have an assignment to do a paper about a topic?

See your syllabus or ask your professor about the specific requirements.

  • What is the general subject you are looking for?

    • “Marketing” and “Sociology” are far too broad, but you can focus on issues within those broad areas. Think about “Demographics of the college student market”.
      “Architecture” and “ecology” can become a paper on “green building”.

  • Can you describe your topic in a few sentences or give a quick definition?

    • For example, here is a statement about “green building” from the EPA:

      “Green, or sustainable, building is the practice of creating and using healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance and demolition.” http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/

Doing this helps you to define the major concepts in your topic. Here are starter questions: who, what, when, where, how, why?

If this seems difficult, try dividing your topic into three components.

For example, research about a broad topic could be broken into several different aspects:

  • Climate change: (changes in the physical climate; changes affecting animals; changes affecting humans--economically and socially)
  • History of a country: (growth and changes in the population; major trends in the arts; changes in society over time; changes in relationships with other countries over time)
  • Social issues: How has a certain group been identified (by members of the group; by others; how was this manifested during a certain time period, and what did it mean for members of the group)?

Can you state your topic as a question, or as a problem that you want to solve?

“What is green building, and what are some ways the concepts are being applied?”

Doing this helps you to define the major concepts in your topic. Use starter questions: who, what, when, where, how, why?

If this seems difficult, try dividing your topic into three components.

For example, research about a broad topic could be broken into several different aspects:


  • What kinds of materials are used in green building?
  • Where are green building projects being carried out?
  • Who is responsible for regulations about green building? Is this at the local, state or federal level?
  • When did green building become a major trend in the U.S. (or another country)?
  • Have indigenous groups (Who) practiced green building for centuries (Where?)

Do you have more specific requirements for your topic?

  • Identify minor concepts in your topic to limit your topic to a specific aspect of the broader ideas. For example, you can limit a topic by:

    • Geographic area (Climate conditions in southern Arizona contrasted with Minnesota) (Different green building materials & practices)

    • Age group (Age groups that are interested in green building methods/materials) (Answers the who and what questions)

    • National or ethnic groups (comparison of the green building movement in France and America) (Also answers the who question)

    • Time period (Before 1950, 1950-1990, trends since 1990) (Answers the when question)

    • Strategies that project managers (architects, engineers, construction workers) are using in constructing green buildings (Answers the who, what and how questions)

    • Potential energy savings or pollution reduction (Answers the why question).

What terms can you use to describe your topic?
  • Create a list of synonyms for describing your topic. This step is critical when you are searching electronic sources for information. Would other people use:

    • singular/plural terms (metal or metals)
    • synonyms/similar terms (rock or stone)
    • broader/narrower terms (mineral or rock, or boulder or pebble or gravel or granite or marble)
    • common/scientific terms terms (Eastern red cedar or Juniperus virginiana)
Are there other requirements that limit your topic?
  • If you are doing research for an assignment, are there specific requirements for your information sources? If you are doing research for personal interest, are there types of sources that would by default have more appropriate information? Some criteria to consider:

    • publication date (only information published within the last five years)
    • publication language (only information published in English)
    • quantity (need five books and five articles)
    • type of source (articles from popular magazines or from scholarly journals or chapters from books)
    • intended audience (is the purpose of an article or a website to inform, or to sell a product?)
What general tools can help you to define your topic, choose major concepts, and create lists of terms?

Dictionaries provide an understanding of terminology and sometimes suggest synonyms or related terms.


Directories provide descriptions and contact information for companies, types of products, and other necessary facts. A few examples:

Accessibility Legend
Available to all free of charge
Resource available via the Internet to everyone free of charge.
Internet resource licensed by OSU
Resource available via the Internet to the Oklahoma State University community (faculty, staff, and students), Stillwater campus. These resources may be available to other users depending upon permissions from their home institution.
CD-ROM available in OSU libraries
Resource available via CD-ROM at public workstations in the Oklahoma State University Library. These resources may be available to other users depending upon resources at their home institution.
Print resources available at OSU
Resource available in print at the Oklahoma State University Library. All call numbers refer to this library. These resources may be available to users at other locations.

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URL: http://www.library.okstate.edu/infolit/step1.htm
Last Updated: 1 Sept 2009