Choosing a Topic for a Research Paper or Presentation

Quick Tips

If you have an assignment or project, how much time do you have? How long/how involved does the paper or presentation need to be?

Are you working alone, or in a group? This influences the topic you can choose, as some topics will be a better choice if the length of the paper or the time until the due date is short, and some topics are easier to deal with as a single author vs. a group.

  • One person I spoke with planned to write a paper on water pollution. I asked "When is it due?" "A week." "How long does it need to be?" "Five pages." They had started with the topic of water pollution, which is too broad to be well-covered in five pages. We talked more and and decided that they could find enough information to write a paper on local controversies between the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas on pollution of the White River. That made a concrete topic that could be reasonably covered in five pages. I wouldn't use that topic now, but you can see how thinking it through might work.

If you have been assigned a topic, how long it will take will still be influenced by what you know and when it's due.

What kind(s) of supporting information do you need-- a single fact, an opinion, a simple analysis, an in-depth discussion, or more? Some things show up in specific places and not others, or are easier to find quickly in certain places. Facts such as boiling points or other technical information are easier to find in handbooks.

Are specific types or numbers of sources required? sometimes articles from peer-reviewed or scholarly journals are required (see the box for a definition of peer review).

How much do you know about your topic? If it is an assigned topic, is there a facet or aspect that interests you in particular or more than the main topic?

Have you procrastinated? If so, you aren't alone. Talking to librarians may be even more helpful when time is short.

It is far easier to keep track if you record the information about your sources as you go. We offer Endnote Basic and can help with some other citation managers in the Libraries.

Peer-reviewed? Scholarly?

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. They 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 studies published-- more eyes on a project, and one's reputation on the line with peers, tends to improve the quality of what's published. There are cases where it hasn't worked, and critics of the peer review cycle (some claim that it limits innovative studies, among other issues), but it is the best system that has been developed to this point.

Peer-reviewed or referreed or scholarly are often descriptions used interchangably for reputable journals. Not all scholarly journals are peer-reviewed, but many are.