Developing a Research Strategy

By Kaeley McMahan

Defining your Topic

A research topic may come to you in several different ways. You may have a topic assigned to you by a professor, suggested on a topic list, or you might have to come up with a topic on your own. Frequently, your topic will change based on the information that you find as you are doing your research, but that is a normal part of the research process! (is this covered in another chapter?)

As you work on possible topic ideas, rather than writing your topic as a statement, it can be helpful to think of it as an open-ended question that needs to be answered, and not with a simple “yes” or “no”. This method can help focus both your writing and your selection of resources, as you can choose books and articles based on their ability to answer your research question. As an example, rather than stating your topic broadly as, “The Roles of Women in the Civil War,” you might phrase it as a question, making it more specific at the same time: “In what ways did the roles of Virginia plantation women change during the Civil War?” This question will then be introduced in the beginning section of your research paper.

By rephrasing your broad topic statement as a specific question, you have given yourself several ways of getting to information on the vast subject that is the Civil War. In the example given above, “In what ways did the roles of Virginia plantation women change during the Civil War?”, several categories were used to narrow or limit the original topic of “The Roles of Women in the Civil War.”

  • Geography: the focus of the question is on Virginia, and even more specifically on the plantations of that state
  • Time: the majority of your research would focus on the years of 1861-1865, but would also need to consider the years immediately before and after the War in order to make comparisons
  • People group: the question focuses on plantation women, which would include both white and black (enslaved and freed) women. If the question needed to be narrowed further, you could focus on one or the other of these groups.
    • There are many other people group categories to consider, depending on your topic, including:
      • age (infant, toddler, school age, adolescent, teenager, college age, working adult, Generation X, Millennials, etc…)
      • marital/familial status (single, never married, married, divorced, widowed, remarried, step-parent/child, sibling, grandparent, etc…)
      • social/economic status (lower-, middle-, upper-class, college educated, working poor, etc…)
      • national/cultural/racial affiliation (second-generation immigrant, France/French, North African, European, etc…)
      • religious affiliation (Evangelical, Catholic, Methodist, Buddhist, Muslim, non-religious, etc…)
      • political affiliation (liberal, conservative, moderate, progressive, Democrat, Republican, Green, etc…)

Moving your topic from the general statement of “The Roles of Women in the Civil War” to anything more specific using the categories outlined above will likely involve some basic research. You may not start out knowing enough about your broad topic to be able to narrow it down by an appropriate category such as geography or age. This is where reference sources and introductory book resources can be of great help to you. Reference sources are written in order to give the researcher an overview of a topic, including the most important dates, people and events. Reference sources also include helpful things such as bibliographies, which will give you a selected list of books and articles to take you on to the next step of your research and help you refine your topic even further.

This chart shows how more general topics are broader, while more specific topics are narrower.


No matter how you decided upon a topic, because of the amount of time you will spend immersed in researching and writing, it is important to select a topic that you find interesting. Working on a topic you are curious about will help keep you going if your research hits a rough patch and you will be more willing to follow leads and make connections!

Defining your Research Strategy

Even if your professor doesn’t give you a specific topic for your paper or project, they will likely give you some basic parameters or criteria that you will need to frame your research. These parameters will usually include items like page length, type of project, number of sources, type of sources and citation style to use. Let’s look at each of these and how they will impact your choice of topic and research methods.

  • Page length: The length of your paper will help to determine how narrow or broad your research topic can be. The shorter your paper, the more narrow and focused your research question will need to be. Generally, the length of your paper will fall in these general ranges: 8-10 pages, 12-15 pages, and 18-20 pages, and as you move into more advanced and complex courses, the number of pages you will be expected to write will be more likely to be in the 20 page range. Clearly, the type of question that can be covered in an 8-10 page paper will be much more focused and specific than what could be covered in a 20 page paper.
  • Type of project: While most of the techniques in this book will refer to the standard research paper, there are other types of papers or projects that you might be assigned. You could be asked to write an opinion paper, for which you will need to find an issue that has (at least) two sides that can be compared to each other, or you could be assigned to write a company report, where you will need to consult statistical information and analyses. You might also be assigned creative writing assignments, where reflection or free writing is the goal, and resources might not be needed at all.
  • Number and type of sources: Your professor will frequently indicate the minimum number of sources that must be cited for your paper. Generally speaking, the longer your paper, the more sources you will be required to consult. The number of sources required may also be combined with the type of sources required. One example for a 12-15 page paper could be: “You will need to cite at least 15 sources for this paper, 3 of which must be primary sources, 5 of which must be scholarly books and 5 of which must be scholarly articles. The remainder can be any combination of books, articles and primary sources. ” It is also important to note whether or not your professor might allow websites as resources. The types of sources required by your professor may impact the types of historical events you can study, or how recent an event you can research. If you are required to use 5 scholarly books, you probably wouldn’t be able to select a recent topic, as there may not have been time for 5 scholarly books to have been written. Similarly, if you need to use primary sources, selecting an historical topic may be the best, as you may have the option of using newspaper articles from the time period, or diaries and letters written by those involved in the event. (See Chapter 3, on the Information Timeline.)
  • Citation style: There are many different citations styles used in academic writing. The two most popular are from scholarly associations: the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). APA is used primarily in the social and hard sciences. Citations in this style place the publication date immediately following the author, reflecting the importance of current research to these fields. The MLA style is used primarily in the arts and humanities. Your professor will usually indicate which citation style they prefer for you to use for your papers. Some professors are more strict than others regarding the following of citation rules, so if you have questions about how to cite a particular source, make sure you ask your professor or a librarian before you turn your paper in! There are also online guides that can give you examples to follow, as well as software that can help you organize and format citations (Zotero, RefWorks, EasyBib, etc…) as you do your research. Whenever you use this type of software, it is important to double-check the citations, to make sure that the output actually follows the rules of your style!

Starting your Searching: Catalogs and Databases

Before you begin to search for resources on your topic, it is a good idea to think about where you are searching and the search terms you are going to use. While it would be great if you could confidently use the same search terms and strategies in every library catalog or database, the reality is that they are usually designed differently from each other, though often for good reasons, and knowing a little bit about what is actually in library catalogs and databases will help you get the most useful information out of them as you do your research.

Library Catalogs: Library catalogs include a wide variety of items that have been collected by a library over many decades, such as books, government documents, microfilm, films (dvd, vhs), rare books and archival collections. These items will have varying amounts of information included in their catalog records. Many older items may only have the basic information that you would need for a citation, such as author, title and publisher. Newer items, published in the last ten years, may also include the table of contents for the book, reviews, or summaries from the publisher.

Citation-only databases: As can be inferred by their name, these types of databases only include the information included in citations: author, title, journal, volume, etc… They may also include subject headings (see Controlled Vocabulary section below).

Abstract databases: These databases include a little more information, in that they have a summary of the article, either written by the author or the database company. These articles usually are 250-500 words in length, and should include the main points of the article and important keywords that would help someone searching for the article in the database to locate it.

Full-text databases: Full-text databases include the complete article within the database, which could be 50,000-100,000 words (I have no idea if that is right!!). Any search you do in one of these databases will be searching through the full length of all the articles it contains.

Think for a minute about how you might need to change the search terms you use, or how many terms you use, based on what type of catalog or database you are using for your research. The smaller the amount of information you are searching (i.e. a citation-only database), the more broad your search terms should probably be. Your search terms might include the name of a country, rather than the specific city you are interested in, or a war rather than a specific battle. In a full-text database, on the other hand, you can be very specific, searching for a particular person or location, which might not be possible in a citation-only database.

Brainstorming Search Terms

As you do your research, it is a good practice to keep a running list of search terms you have used, and in what combination (see below). You can start with a list of terms you have brainstormed based on your initial research topic or question. Think of synonyms or variations of your terms, as an author could use a variety of terminology in their book or article. If you are looking at studies on girls aged 13-18, terms such as “high-schooler,” “teenager,” “adolescent,” “female,” “young woman” or “pubescent” could all be possible descriptors of that age range and gender. As you read the sources you find, continue to add new terms to your list. You may find that researchers in the area you are looking at all use the same term, or they may use variations of a term. Also brainstorm narrow and broad variations of your terms that you can use in the various types of databases and catalogs. If you are looking for information on an event that happened in Paris, you could also use the broader term of “France” or the more narrow name of the specific arrondissement in Paris where the event took place.

Controlled Vocabulary

What did you call a Coca-Cola or Pepsi when you were growing up? Did you use those brand names, or did you use other slang terms, such as “soda” or “pop” instead? You probably didn’t use other terms such as “carbonated beverage” or “caffeinated drink”, but authors writing from a business analysis or scientific perspective might.

Controlled vocabularies, such as those created by the Library of Congress or the editors of online databases, are a way to bring these various terms underneath one standardized heading so that it is easier for researchers to find the relevant books and articles that they need. Academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings to describe the contents of books, films, journals, and other items that they collect. When you search for a book in a library catalog, you will see at least one subject heading, and frequently four or five, which give information about the most important aspects of that book. Similarly, databases will include subject headings to describe journal articles, either the same Library of Congress Subject Headings used in library catalogs, or specialized subject headings for a specific discipline.

These subject headings can be very helpful in expanding your search results. If you find a book or journal article that is particularly good for your topic, take a look at the subject headings. These will usually be links, and clicking on one of the links will lead you to other books or journal articles that share that subject heading. While you may have already located some of the titles that share that subject heading, there may be others, which for one reason or another, did not come up in one of your previous searches.

Boolean, Truncation, and Advanced Searching

Boolean searching is an incredibly powerful research tool, and you may already be using it without even knowing it! When you Google something using more than one search term, you are using what is called “Boolean logic”. Google assumes that what you are looking for will include all of the search terms that you have entered, and automatically inserts an invisible “AND” in between each of your terms.

And, Or and Not

“AND,” “OR,” and “NOT” are Boolean operators. You may see these operators in the advanced search section of your library’s catalog or in article databases, usually as drop-down options that allow a researcher to combine search terms or phrases. While Google uses the “AND” operator automatically, the “OR” operator must be manually inserted, and the “NOT” cannot be used at all.

AND” will combine your search terms so that any item in your list of results will include all of the search terms you entered : “world war I” and “nurses”. This type of search will narrow your list of results, as any result must include both search terms. Adding any additional search terms will narrow your list of results even more. Using the above example, you could add another search term to limit by geography (France, Belgium) or a specific organization (Red Cross, Army Nurse Corps).

OR” will expand your list of results. This is especially useful when parts of your topic can be described using multiple or synonymous terms. Any of the search terms you enter will be included in your results list: “world war I” OR “great war” AND “nurses”. In this example, both “world war I” and “great war” are terms that are used for the same event or time period. Authors writing about that time could use both terms, so it would be appropriate to include both as search terms, inserting the “OR” to indicate that either of the terms are acceptable in your list of results.

NOT” excludes certain terms from your results list. There may be times when you get a large number of results that you are not interested in and you would like to exclude them from your search. An example of this might be: “world war I” OR “great war” AND “nurses” NOT “france”. In this case, you actively want to eliminate sources that highlight France in their coverage of nurses in World War I.
It may help to think of Boolean searching mathematically. If you think back to how you did algebraic equations, these search strategies are processed in the same manner. Using the “OR” example from above, your search would be represented this way: (“world war I” OR “great war”) AND “nurses”. This construction makes it clear that the two terms “world war I” and “great war” should be searched and the results merged, and then combined with all results for “nurses.”

Quotation Marks

In the examples above, quotation marks have also been incorporated into the search strategy. Quotation marks are extremely useful when one of your search terms is actually a phrase. In the examples above, using quotation marks around “world war I” specifies that the searcher wants those words to appear together in the results list. Because the words in that phrase are very common, and are very close to another related phrase (“world war II”), you will want to use the quotation marks to verify that those specific words, in that specific order, are the ones you are looking for. Using quotation marks can also be useful when you are looking for information on a specific person. Searching for “martha washington” will ensure that you don’t get sources that include Martha Stewart and Washington Irving, if such a source existed!

Truncation and Wild Cards

Truncation and wild card techniques are some of the most useful search strategies when searching in online databases and library catalogs. When using truncation or wild card searching, a letter, or multiple letters, in a word are replaced by a symbol, which allows for more flexibility in your searching. In the majority of databases and library catalogs, that symbol is an asterisk (*), but you may need to check to make sure of the symbol when you use an unfamiliar system. The reason truncation is so powerful is because you can replace multiple searches with a single search by placing the truncation symbol in the correct spot. Using our previous example “world war I” AND “nurse” we would change the search terms to “world war I” AND “nurs*”. By changing “nurse” to “nurs*” you will get results that include the following terms: nurse, nurses, nursed, and nursing. Note that the “e” was taken away from the end of “nurse” and replaced with the asterisk. This allowed for changes in endings, such as “-ing”, to be included in the search results. You can see how powerful this type of search can be when we construct a full search query: (“world war I” OR “great war”) AND (wom* OR fem* OR gender* OR nurs*). This search query gets both names for the time period/event we are interested in, as well as a number of synonymous terms that describe our interest in the roles that women played during that time period.

A wild card search is similar to truncation, in that it usually uses the asterisk as its symbol, and it also replaces individual or multiple letters in a search term. The difference comes in the location of the asterisk in your search term. The asterisk will always be placed at the end of a word if you want to truncate it. When you use a wildcard, the asterisk can be placed at any location in the search term. This can be useful for words such as “wom*n”, where the asterisk stands in for either “a” or “e”.


Notice the use of "*" truncates a root word.

Notice the use of "*" truncates a root word.

Advanced Searching

The search techniques discussed so far have applied to basic keyword searching, using keywords related to your subject or topic to find books and journal articles. Most library catalogs and databases include other more advanced features that can be used in conjunction with, or instead of, basic keyword searching.

The default settings for most library catalogs and databases are for keyword searching, with no limits. By using the advanced search page, you can include special limits in your search, such as publication, publication date, location, or type of article. This can be particularly useful in full-text databases when you frequently have thousands of results to a search.

  • Publication: Most databases allow you to select a specific journal that is covered in the database, and then complete your search within that journal.
  • Publication date: If you are interested in the discussion of a particular topic during a specific range of time, you can limit to articles or books published during that time (i.e. The Cold War, 1945-1990), or if you want to look at the discussion of a topic before a certain event happened, you can limit to publication before that date (i.e., al-Qaeda before September 11, 2001).
  • Location: When searching for items in a library catalog, you may want to limit by location, and thus be able to search for items located in the Rare Books collection, or in Government Documents.
  • Type of item: Both library catalogs and databases include a variety of different types of items. Library catalogs can include books, films, manuscripts, dissertations and government documents, while databases can include newspaper articles, scholarly articles, performance or book reviews, book chapters, or white papers. By limiting to one or more of these types, you can exclude items that you are not interested in or don’t meet the requirements of your project (i.e., newspaper articles or book reviews).
In an EbscoHost database, you can often limit searches ahead of time using these fields.

In an EbscoHost database, you can often limit searches ahead of time using these fields.

Non Electronic Search Strategies

One type of searching we haven’t discussed yet is serendipity! Serendipity during research refers to finding a resource when you weren’t expecting to, or while you were looking for something else. This is a perfectly legitimate way to find information, and often results in the most interesting parts of your research. There are a few ways of helping serendipity along, however.

  • Browse the stacks: When you find a call number area where many books on your topic are located, leave the computer behind and go browse the shelves. Seeing the books on the shelf will change how you read the titles and what you pay attention to. You may see other books nearby that also relate to your topic.
  • Look at a journal issue or volume: You may find one article on your topic, and find out that it is part of a theme issue on a particular topic or in honor of a particular researcher in the field. These issues can be really useful and look at your topic from a variety of angles.
  • Follow footnotes: Footnotes aren’t just for citing your sources! In scholarly books and journal articles they can be a great way to find additional sources, or get a glimpse of the scholarly debates that surround a topic. There may also be bits of information in the footnotes that weren’t able to be expanded upon in the main discussion of the article or book.
  • Time: Give yourself a little time as you start your research. Follow a few leads and see which one interests you the most, and then focus your time on that area. Don’t wait until you are too far along in the process to find what you would really like to research!


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