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MSU Library Research & Instruction Guide

This guide will help you locate library research and instructional support resources that are available remotely from MSU Library.

Narrowing a Topic

Determining the scope of your paper to fit the assignment requirements is important. You can begin with a broad topic and continue to refine the topic to a manageable scope. A topic such as terrorism is too broad for a short paper, but it is a great place to start.

When you are looking for factual information, it is important to know how to phrase your topic sentence. 

One way of guaranteeing a focused research question is to answer 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.

An example of a question can be: 

What is the relationship between United States intelligence operations and counter terrorism since 9/11?

Infographic depicting the use of the 5W's.

All text from the infographic above is included below for accessibility.

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 location.
  • 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 from 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 do high school seniors prepare to take the standardized tests?

Main Concepts: high school seniors, prepare, standardized tests (words like how, do, 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. SAT instead of Standardized Test)
  • Broad - what is the big picture idea behind your topic? (ex. Education)
  • Related - are there concepts that closely relate to your topic? (ex. ACT, GRE, MCAT)
  • Similar - are there synonyms for your topic/concepts? (ex. assessment, test, exam)

Searching Databases

How do I use the keywords I come up with in the databases?

Keywords can be combined in different combinations within the database to form "search strings" using connecting words like "AND" and "OR". Different keyword combinations will work better depending on the database, so having a list will help you from getting stuck.

  • Using "AND" will narrow your search by only giving you results that include all the words in your search string.
    • Example: SAT "AND" high school seniors would only return results with both keywords in the title, abstract, and subject headings.
  • Using "OR" will broaden your search by giving you search results each search term and the shared results.
    • Example: SAT "OR" Standardized tests will return results including SAT or standardized tests and results that use both terms​

TIP: Use "AND" to connect different concepts from your research question and "OR" to connect keywords for the same concept.

Visualization for how using "and" and "or" to connect keywords changes your search results.

Selecting Scholarly Articles

Many times you will be asked to find scholarly articles when you are completing a class assignment. Here are some ways to identify a scholarly journal article. 

  • Scholarly ArticlesInfographic describing popular, trade, and scholarly articles and their differences. Link to larger image.
    • Authors are experts/authorities in their fields.
    • Authors cite their sources in endnotes, footnotes, or bibliographies.
    • Articles must go through a peer-review process (experts in the discipline evaluate each author's work before any articles are published).
    • Articles are usually reports on scholarly research and use jargon from the discipline.
    • Articles are typically five or more pages in length. 
    • Individual journal issues have little or no advertising. Illustrations usually take the form of charts and graphs.
  • Popular Magazines
    • Authors are magazine staff members/regular columnists or free lance writers.
    • Authors often mention sources, but rarely cite them.
    • Individual issues contain numerous advertisements.
    • There is no peer review process.
    • Articles are meant to inform and entertain.
    • Illustrations are numerous and colorful.
    • Articles are typically fairly short  and language is geared to the general adult audience.

Click on the image at the right for more information on scholarly vs. popular articles.

You may also be asked to use empirical articles or primary research - but what do these terms mean?

  • Types of Scholarly Articles
    • Empirical Articles - original research is conducted and the article is a formalized write-up of that research (also called primary research)
    • Theoretical Articles - contribute to the theoretical foundations of a field by forming a new theory or exploring theories in a new way
    • Review Article - called a literature or systematic review and is written to bring together and summarize the results or conclusions from multiple empirical and theoretical articles
    • Gray Literature - informally published scholarly work that is often available online and in specialized resources

Click the image for larger version.