Research topic

How to research a topic

Researching a topic does not have to be difficult, and it does not need to require insane amounts of hours. I have written numerous articles as a student at the Southern University of Denmark, and I have found that research topics is the fun part of writing.

Narrow down your topic

You cannot and should not try to cover everything within broad research topics – even if you are researching for a Ph.D. 

So, whether you are writing a college paper on microorganisms, a Ph.D. on Islamic punk rock, or just a brief blog post about training your dog, you need to narrow down your topic. 

I always ask myself: what do I want to learn? You might know this as brainstorming. I write down all the topics that come to mind, and then I ask myself: Where can I contribute? To get an answer, I ask as many people as I can find which topic they would like to understand better. The less your peers know and the more interested they are in your subject, the better your writing will be.

If you don’t want to burden your friends and family with all your research topic ideas, you can create an outline for each topic and see which subject you know best. I did this for my MA thesis, and it looked something like this:

I wanted to learn about both topics, but I knew more about horror than water. Thus, I ended up writing about Horror in the Bible.

Google is your friend

When you have settled on a specific topic, you need to figure out which questions people have about your subject.

The best place to do this is Google. Almost everyone goes to Google when they have a question and don’t know where to start. Therefore, Google has a vast list of former questions that people have sought to answer.

So, if you’re writing an article about types of running shoes, you start by typing into Google: running shoes. Then you get these results:

Google lists common questions by people who share an interest in your subject, as you can see at the bottom of the page. If you click on them, they refer to articles that answer these questions:

Some of these articles might be personal opinions. Some of them might be from authoritative publications. Thus, you need to figure out if the information in the article is relevant to your topic or not. To do this, you need to dig around some more and look for certified experts in the field. Tom’s Guide is less authoritative than the University of Connecticut Health Center.

No more libraries – use databases

The days when libraries were the masters of knowledge have passed. Today most research is published on online channels, such as Jstore, Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or local journal websites such as Journal of Near Eastern Studies or Horror Studies.

While the information given in these journal articles and online publications might be too detailed for a brief blog post, they are authoritative sites that provide you with the most recent research on a particular topic.

These articles might be a bit heavy to read, and you may have trouble understanding the content if you are not already an expert in your field. However, the information that you receive comes from scholars and experts. Thus, if you reference these authoritative figures, your article will be much more informative and helpful to other people.

Sometimes you will find the perfect answer to your topic question, but the article will not be available for you to download. It happens a lot if your topic is narrow enough, like Ghosts in Ugarit. If this happens, you need to contact your local library and ask if they have access to the journal and if they can send you a copy of the article via email. I did this a lot when writing my MA thesis, and a word of advice: you need to be specific with the research topic as the librarians aren’t necessarily experts in your particular field and might not know what you are looking after.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet

Why am I focusing so much on scholarly papers? Well, facts are bendable to whoever is asking the questions. When you are working on your research topics, you will find that many articles – especially on Google do not meet basic quality standards concerning the information they provide. Let us look at an example: Loch Ness Monster.

As you can see, Google ranks the most readable articles highest – not the most informative ones. So, if you’re writing an article about why people create sea monsters, these articles cannot be used as references – unless you want to use them as case studies.

You should go to an authoritative figure on sea monsters and see what they have to say. Take this paper as an example: 

First of all, the article is from a well-renowned journal, Palgrave Communications. Even though the paper is primarily about Frankenstein’s Monster, it introduces us to the scholarly field of Monster Theory. Thus, the article describes monsters in general by analyzing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster – which means that you can use the basic information that the paper gives us to write your piece on the Loch Ness Monster. 

One more important thing to note about research topics on the internet: always always always google the authors. It does not matter whether they are professors or people on Quora. You need to know whether their expertise is legit or not. The best way to find out is by googling them and seeing if they have a degree on the topic or if they are merely expressing their personal opinion.

Keep track of your findings

When you read through all of this information, you need to take notes. There is simply nothing more frustrating than having read an article at the beginning of your research, and when it is time to write, you have no idea where that information came from, the title of the article, and who wrote it.

You need to have either a physical notebook beside you or just a Word document open to ensure this does not happen. This way, you are ready to take note of every relevant fact or reference you meet. I usually download articles as PDF files and write my notations using Adobe Reader.

This way, the comments are available on each document without me having to find them in separate documents.


To sum up:

  • Narrow down your topic by brainstorming alone or with friends
  • Use Google and pages like Quora to find initial information on your topic
  • Once you have some understanding of your topic, you should look towards authoritative sites and authors
  • Remember to evaluate the information you find
  • Make sure to take notes and avoid starting over once you start writing

Do you have any tips to share? How do you research topics? Let me know in the comment section!

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