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What do you already know about the topic?

Who is this research for?

Who does this research benefit?

Who cares about your topic? 

  • Who cares about your will help you figure out what type of research they do. (scientists will perform experiments, doctors may run a randomized controlled trial, a professor might write a literature review, etc)
  • Once you figure the type of resources someone who cares about your topic would create, you can then determine where you will find these resources. (scholarly articles can be found in databases, news articles can be found online, etc)

How is your topic portrayed in the media?

  • Is this a hot-button issue that folks have very differing opinions about?
  • Has your topic been unfairly criticized or wrongly portrayed in the media?

Who has access to information about your topic?

  • How do everyday folks know about it? Are they getting their information solely based on mass media?
  • Misinformation and fake news are symptoms of a lack of access to quality information. (Think of this as an information desert)

What gaps have you noticed in the research? What's missing? Who's missing?

  • This is where your research question can start. How can you address the gap?


Brainstorming Keywords

Start by by thinking about the main ideas that are related to your topic.  The PICO format (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) can help you think about these concepts.

Consider using synonyms of your keywords to help find even more information. For example, if you are looking for articles about the benefits of exercise for patients with heart disease, you might start with the keywords and synonyms below:

Keyword Synonym 1 Synonym 2
heart disease cardiovascular disease
exercise fitness physical activity

Searching for Keywords

Creating a grid like the one above can also help you enter your keywords when you're searching in the databases.  

Try Boolean Operators...

  • "Or" broadens your search results.  (Citrus OR Oranges OR Lemons OR Tangerines OR Grapefruit)
  • "And" narrows your search results. (Rainfall AND Deforestation AND Brazil)
  • "Not" narrows your search results. (Wound healing NOT Plants) (Social media NOT Facebook)
  • "Not" can be used to weed out biased words or phrases associated with your topic. (immigrants NOT illegal aliens)
  • Combine operators for more complex searching. (Coastal sage scrub AND fire OR Postfire OR Postburn)


  • Broadens your search
  • Enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.
  • The database will return results that include any ending of that root word. (teen* = teens, teenager, teenagers, teenaged.  environment* = environments, environmental, environmentalist)


  • Broadens your search.
  • Use if a word can be spelled several different ways but has the same meaning.
  • Wom*n = women, woman,  col*r = color, colour

One way to keep track of your research results is to use a research log. This way you will remember where you searched, the keywords you used, and how many results you got.