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Searching for a Research Topic

Writer(s): 
Charles Moore, Concordia University

On the path to publishing your work, one of the first steps is choosing a topic to research and write about. In this short article, The Writers’ Workshop hopes to briefly outline several points of advice writers might want to keep in mind when searching for a research topic.

1. Take Time and Strategize!

This whole process of finding a research idea begins by simply sitting down, setting aside time, and giving some good thought to what you would like to research. A lot of times we as writers can feel rushed to start making real progress on our writing, but the initial thinking stage is the point of our research when our focus can be given to the process of letting creative ideas develop within us. 

Many times the best inspiration will come from areas that you are already interested in. If you are a language educator, what are some areas within linguistics that pique your interests? You can even jot down some research questions that have arisen from your own language learning experiences (e.g., vocabulary acquisition through the L1, or the benefits of extensive reading). 

Do not feel pressured to sit down and come up with all of your research ideas at one time. You can progressively write down your ideas as they come over a length of time. A good idea would be to keep a “research idea” notebook and gradually write down ideas as they come to mind. Another approach, suggested by the University at Buffalo, is to create an “idea map” and graphically draw a grid of your potential areas of research (University at Buffalo Libraries, n.d.). There are many different methods that will be effective for different people, and the most important thing is to find one that works for you and to intentionally set aside time to strategize about which topics to research.  

2. Be Creative!

This point is somewhat contained in the previous one, but it is imperative to remember that, when the need arises, a researcher can set aside logic for a moment and give free rein to their creativity. At this point your research will still be in its initial stages. Later, there will be plenty of time to rationally plan out the logistics of your research aspirations, but for now you can have the luxury of ignoring these and letting your creativity roam free. O’Leary (2004) states, “I think the best researchers are those who manage to be creative in thinking, yet logical in structure.” Just remember that at times being creative, non-linear, spontaneous, and right-brained is very much in line with being an apt researcher. 

3. Commit to One Idea

After you have thought through and generated enough potential research topics, you will then need to narrow them down and choose one idea to pursue. Do not worry, the other ideas that you so diligently generated can be saved for the future, with the potential of becoming research papers in their own right. There may be different reasons as to why you choose one topic over another. Rather than endlessly remaining undecided about which idea to research, sometimes it is best to simply choose a topic and leave the other ideas for a later time. They can always be developed into research projects in the future.

4. Read Lots of Review Literature

After you have settled on a single idea, go ahead and read lots of review literature, thoroughly examining the background of the topic you are planning to tackle. Make sure to review not only previous, crucial work related to your topic, but also be sure to cover recent progress made in the area. Thoroughly reviewing literature will also help you understand and define your own research ideas as well. “Initial research problems tend to be general and somewhat tentative . . . . By reviewing related studies and discussions of research in that area, the investigator learns how others have defined the general problem in more specific ways.” (McMillan, 2008, p. 56). Reading ample amounts of prior work will ensure that your research is built on a theoretically sound foundation from the start, and will ultimately add credibility to your results. 

5. Narrow the Scope of Your Research

Without knowing it, a lot of times the scope of what we plan to research can be too broad, even after defining it more after reading through review literature. If you can narrow your idea down to its clearest form, this will ultimately allow your research question to be very pointed and easy to understand. The MIT Library suggests limiting the parameters of our research by further defining areas such as geographical location, time, or even population group. “Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species, or ethnic group. For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.” (MIT Libraries, n.d.). You may have a case where the scope of your research is already adequately defined, but it is perfectly normal if you find that your research idea needs further refining and definition along the way.

6. Find Your One Research Question

When you have narrowed your research topic down to one clear, definitive idea, there is still one more thing that needs to be done. Ultimately, all of the work you put into developing your research idea needs to produce one question. “Readers of research reports don’t want just information, they want the answer to a question worth asking” (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2003, p. 45). This one question will ultimately represent the problem which your research is all about, and is the definitive idea of your paper. A research question worth asking will leave your reader in anticipation of finding the answers and results as they read through your paper; an ambiguous or uninteresting research question will instead fail to catch your reader’s interest.

Conclusion

This short article is by no means an in-depth look into the subject of finding a research topic. Rather, it offers a few guiding tips meant to help the novice writer begin this process. No doubt, one of the best teachers of this will ultimately prove to be experience itself as you search out and generate your own research ideas. Perhaps the most important thing is to simply plunge in, start coming up with ideas for yourself, and ultimately you will find a research topic worthy of your time.

References

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2003). The craft of research. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from <http://is.cuni.cz/studium/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=53831&kod=JMM003>

University at Buffalo Libraries. Choosing a topic. Retrieved from <http://library.buffalo.edu/help/research-tips/topic/>

McMillan, J. H. (2008). Educational Research: Fundamentals for the consumer. Boston, MA: Pearson.

MIT Libraries. Selecting a research topic: Refine your topic. Retrieved from <http://libguides.mit.edu/c.php?g=175961&p=1160160>

O’Leary, Z. (2004). The essential guide to doing research. U.K.: Sage Publications.

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