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MSU Library Research Guide

This guide will help MSU students get started with research using the MSU Library resources.

Suggested Tutorials

Keyword Tips

  • Experiment:
    • Try different search terms
    • Go into Advanced Search to search by topic, such as "nuclear power," then create another subject box to add a second term of "history" or other terms that make sense for your interest.
    • Most databases will allow you to check various boxes to manipulate your search terms (dates of publication, types of sources, whether or not there are illustrations, etc.).
  • Identify Alternative Terms:
    • Try popular terms such as "fracking"
    • See if the catalog leads you to a formal term, such as "hydraulic fracturing."
    • If nothing comes up for your term, search a basic database such as Academic Search Complete or look around in Google or even Wikipedia to see if you can find some alternative terms to use.
  • Browse by Subject: 
    • Perform an initial search in CatSearch. From the results page, explore subject categories on the right

Link Keywords Effectively (Boolean Searching)

Boolean operators are words you use to link your search terms together when searching for resources. 

Use them to increase or decrease the number of search results to find what you need

Boolean Operator Example Reason to Use
AND women AND military Searches for items that talk about both concepts together, and to DECREASE RESULTS.
OR women OR females  Searches for items that talk about either concept individually, and to INCREASE RESULTS.
NOT women NOT men To eliminate terms and concepts and to DECREASE RESULTS.


Choosing a Topic

Brainstorming Ideas

There are several things to think about when selecting a topic:

  • First, have you been assigned a topic or are you free to choose a topic?
  • Next, how many words or pages do you need to write (or how long does a presentation have to be)?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources in your citations?
  • Finally, if you can select your own topic, what are you passionate about or most interested in from the class?

Still need ideas for a topic?

  • Scan your textbook for broad topics,
  • Review your notes from class,
  • Do some pre-research in the library using encyclopedias and our reference databases,
  • Look at some of the library’s databases, like Academic Search Complete or CQ Researcher, for current events or controversial topics.

If you still need help choosing your topic, Ask the Library to send an email or chat with a librarian.

Refining a Topic

Expanding a Topic

Once you have your topic, if you are having a hard time finding enough information than your topic might be too narrow. If that’s the case, try:

  • Exploring related topics or products,
  • Comparing or contrasting your topic with another topic,
  • Choosing an alternative topic that isn’t as recent.

You can also:

  • Consider the time period your topic is covering,
  • Look at a larger sample population, or
  • Expand the geographic area being discussed.

Narrowing a Topic

If you need to narrow a topic from a broad subject to a specific research question or thesis statement, one of the easiest ways is by asking yourself the 5Ws – who, what, where, when, and why. You don't have to answer all the questions, but should answer enough so that your topic is manageable to research and will fit within your assignment length requirement.

the 5Ws

Alternative Text

  • Who
    • What population or group do you want to look at? Is there an age group to focus on?
    • Examples: College students, seniors, children, teens
  • What
    • What is the subject area or discipline? Does it meet your assignment requirements?
    • Examples: Terrorism, American Revolution, Agriculture
  • Where
    • What geographic location do you want to focus on? This can be a city, state, country, or other.
    • Examples: Chicago, Montana, Great Britain, North America
  • When
    • What time period are you wanting to cover with your research? Is it historical or current?
    • Examples: 2000 - present, 1776 -1780, Overview of 1800 - today
  • Why
    • Why is the topic important? To you? To your course of study? To society as a whole?
    • Examples: Personal experience, major theory, current event

Identifying Keywords

Unlike Google and other web searches, databases work best when you enter keywords instead of full phrases or questions.

Keywords represent the main ideas and concepts in your research topic. Things to remember:

  • Each database can organize the main concepts of your research under different subjects or headings.
  • It is important to brainstorm different words authors may use for your topic.
  • Having alternate search options can keep you from getting stuck when doing research.

Identifying main concepts within your research question/topic.

Research Question: How does lack of access to food effect child development?

Main Concepts: lack of access to food, child development (words like how, does, and, to, etc. are not important)

There are a few types of keywords that you can work with, depending on your topic.

  • Narrow - can you use a more focused word or idea? (ex. brain development, physical health)
  • Broad - what is the big picture idea behind your topic? (ex. Wellness, Health)
  • Related - are there concepts that closely relate to your topic? (ex. hunger, nutrition)
  • Similar - are there synonyms for your topic/concepts? (ex. hunger, food insecurity, food security, food desert)