Choosing a Topic for a Research Paper or Presentation

Selecting resources

What kind of information do I need, how much, and in what format?

If you are looking for a little bit of information or a discrete fact, then an encyclopedia, handbook or dictionary might do the trick. Don't spend hours looking for the boiling point of a substance when we have handbooks that will show you in a moment! We have more of these in electronic format, such as Access Science.

Access Science

If you need magazines or newspapers, ProQuest Central, Ebscohost Academic Search Complete and Nexis Uni include many of them.

Many people start out by using the interdisciplinary databases in the "Top Ten" list. Or select a database by choosing your subject from the list of databases under Databases. For example, databases for Agriculture include Agricola, CAB Abstracts, Web of Science, Food Science and Technology Abstracts, and others.

"Top Ten" databases

A-Z list of Databases

NOTE: Some topics appear in more than one database. Articles about food security will show up in Food Science and Technology Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, Criminal Justice Abstracts, and CINAHL, as well as in ProQuest Central, and others. Check your terms, though. In some subject areas, food security means food safety, as in food sources being protected from contamination, vs. having enough food available to feel secure in your ability to eat regularly.

Many databases will allow you to limit your search to "peer-reviewed" or "scholarly" articles. These will more in-depth and of better quality than magazine or newspaper articles.

Find visual aids and statistics to support your speech. They will improve the audience's understanding of an issue and support your argument more readily than words alone. Don't forget to cite figures, diagrams or images that you include, as you would other supporting material.

If you need to have electronic text (esp. distance education students or if you're working from home), many of our databases allow you to limit your search to citations that have the full text of the article attached.

When using any database provided by the Libraries, the user is responsible for observing the copyright laws of the United States (Title 17, United States Code). Students, faculty and staff should understand the fair use guidelines that protect scholarship and research.

Peer-reviewed/Scholarly/Refereed?

Peer review is the process by which articles or other works are critiqued before they are published. Authors send articles to an editor, who decides whether the work should be forwarded to reviewers for the journal. The most stringent form is anonymous or blind review, where neither the author nor the reviewers know whose work is being examined by whom. This helps reduce bias.

Reviewers are usually well-published researchers and experts. The reviewers return the articles to the editor with remarks and recommendations-- usually publish 'as is' (rare), publish if edited or changed in specific ways, or don't publish. Editors most often go with the recommendation of the majority of the reviewers. 

The process is intended to improve the content of studies published-- more eyes on a project, and one's reputation on the line with peers, tends to improve the quality of what's submitted and published.  There are cases where it hasn't worked, and critics of the cycle, but it is the best system that has been developed to this point.