How to Narrow Your Topic
"I'm writing a paper on World War II."
Often students start their research with a very general topic, even though they may realize the topic is too large to deal with in a 10-15 page paper. Faculty and librarians tell them, "You have to narrow this down." But how do you narrow a topic?
- What discipline am I working in? If you are in a sociology class, ask a sociological question about World War II, like "How did WWII affect women?" If it's a political science class, your question might be something like "How did WWII affect presidential elections in the US?"
- What are some subsets or aspects of your topic. Some good aspects are:
- by place, such as a country or region
- by time period, such as a century, decade or year
- by population, such as men, women, ethnic group, youth, children or elderly
You can combine these ideas, "What were the major impacts of WWII on women in France, in the decade after the war?"
More ideas in our brief tutorial on topic selection and narrowing.
Library Workshop: Research 101
Unsure how to start a paper or research project? Think maybe you could stand to brush up on search strategies?
If this sounds familiar, Library Workshop: Research 101 has you covered. This interactive tutorial explores six stages of the research process. You can view it from start to finish, or focus on specific sections as needed:
Starting strategies, from choosing a topic to finding the right keywords.
The publication timeline, scholarly vs. popular sources, and differences in academic disciplines.
Search for books and other items in OskiCat, Cal's local library catalog.
Locate and access articles in library research databases.
How to cite your sources correctly.
Common techniques for constructing searches that yield useful results.
Specialized search strategies for targeting specific topics.
What is Peer Review?
Your instructor may want you to use "peer reviewed" articles as sources for your paper. Or you may be asked to find "academic," "scholarly," or "refereed" articles. What do these terms mean?
Let's start with the terms academic and scholarly, which are synonyms. An academic or scholarly journal is one intended for a specialized or expert audience. Journals like this exist in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Examples include Nature, Journal of Sociology, and Journal of American Studies. Scholarly/academic journals exist to help scholars communicate their latest research and ideas to each other; they are written "by experts for experts."
Most scholarly/academic journals are peer reviewed; another synonym for peer reviewed is refereed. Before an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it's evaluated for quality and significance by several specialists in the same field, who are "peers" of the author. The article may go through several revisions before it finally reaches publication.
Magazines like Time or Scientific American, newspapers, (most) books, government documents, and websites are not peer-reviewed, though they may be thoroughly edited and fact-checked. Articles in scholarly journals (in printed format or online) usually ARE peer-reviewed.
How can you tell if an article is both scholarly and peer-reviewed?Read more