Skip to main content

Research Help: Background Research

Background Research


Why is background research important?

  • Learn more about a topic and its subtopics (use later for developing and narrowing a research topic)
  • Learn the specific vocabulary of a topic (use later as KEYWORDS in database searching)
  • Learn what kinds and how many sources are available on a topic (use later for broadening or narrowing a research question)


  • Wikipedia
  • Google
  • Discovery (the search box on the library homepage)
  • Academic Search Complete (general database)

These sources may inform you but may not ever make it into your final paper (and that is OK!).  However, if you do use them, you must cite!

8 Steps to Defining a Viable Research or Paper Problem

Undergraduate Research Program                                                                                                                              Dr. Sara Sewell
Workshop: Defining a Problem                                                                                                                                   

8 Steps to Defining a Viable Research or Paper Problem


1. Determine general topic. This could be defined by the course, assignment, or prompt. Tailor the problem to something that interests you.




2. Consider basic knowledge questions. What information do you already know? What would you like to learn about? What do you need to know to get sufficient information to make preliminary decisions about focus?




3. Consult texts. Let texts help you to identify and define potential problems to investigate. If you’re conducting research, examine the scholarly literature. What do scholars know about the subject? What kinds of questions have they asked? What kinds of problems have been left underexplored?



4. Move from a topic to specific questions. Brainstorm possible questions or problems that interest you.





5. Consider the list of questions that you’ve generated. Narrow the list down to 1-3 questions that interest you.





6. Consider practical matters:

a.         Do you have sufficient time to study these questions?

b.         Do you have the sources & resources to investigate these questions?

c.What does the scholarly literature say about these questions? Have these problems been investigated already? Have related problems been investigated? Have you identified a scholarly model or theory that could help you?


7. Select 1 specific question or problem to investigate. Remember that the best research/papers do less and do it well. Go deep, rather than broad. Consult scholarly databases for examples of appropriately focused research problems.






8. Develop a list of sub-questions and related questions. Which specific questions will you need to address to examine your research problem? Build this list as you research and write.