4 Identifying a Topic

In This Chapter

Learning Objectives

  • Learn strategies for identifying a research topic
  • Locate sources that provide an overview of your topic


A research topic isn’t something you have to pull out of thin air. Rather you should read about your topic, see what ideas are most interesting to you, and respond to them. Reading overview sources is a good way to get the big picture and decrease the likelihood that you will overlook a major part of the conversation.

“Coming Up” with a Topic

There really isn’t a part of research called “coming up with a topic.” It isn’t an activity that you can separate from “reading about a topic” or “writing some thoughts down about a topic.” You may already know quite a lot about your topic, but brainstorming as though the perfect topic and question are already in your head waiting to come out can be stressful and, as we saw in the last chapter, this can be a recipe for motivated reasoning and reinforcing our existing beliefs. We need to get a sense of the variety of issues and perspectives relevant to a topic before we can make a good decision about what to focus on.

So if you are the kind of person who struggles to pull a topic out of thin air, you can stop worrying about that now. In this chapter we propose a different strategy: read some introductory material on your topic, write down what captures your attention, and then connect it to what you care about. Even if you don’t struggle with brainstorming topics, try this approach and see how it compares.


Again, coming up with a topic cannot be separated from reading. How will you know what interests you most about a topic if you haven’t been exposed to all the different facets of it? Why just choose the first thing that comes to mind when you could explore the topic and find a direction that connects meaningfully to your own life, one that you maybe didn’t know existed?

Start by reading the material that your instructor provides. (Sometimes your instructor won’t provide any, or it won’t spark any ideas for you. That’s ok. We’ll cover how to find your own introduction to a topic in a minute.)

There are many different kinds of reading, and they are all ok. You may do a lot of skimming when first learning about a topic. You may skim most of an article or chapter and then find one section that really grabs you, then slow down and read that more carefully. You may skim a source once and decide to try something else, or you may decide it’s worth a second closer reading. (You might be surprised at what it’s possible to miss when you only read something once.)

Sometimes you will find yourself reading something that does not spark any interesting questions, where you don’t find any interesting ideas to collect. That’s ok, just move on to the next reading.

Remember, scholarship is a conversation. Most ideas don’t just pop out of thin air. Ideas come from your brain responding to other ideas. While we usually talk about reading texts, there’s no reason you can’t get ideas from “reading” another format. Ideas can come from a conversation, a podcast, a video, an image or an infographic.

Finding Introductory Reading

Maybe your instructor has provided you with some preliminary readings or maybe you’ve found some readings on your own that piqued your interest. Great!  Start with those. But if you find yourself in a situation where you need to get started on your own, here are a few suggestions.

Look for something written for a popular audience. Some sources, like academic, peer-reviewed articles and some books are written for an expert audience. They may assume that readers already know quite a lot about a topic and use specialized vocabulary that most people aren’t familiar with. Other sources are written with a popular audience in mind, meaning they don’t assume the audience has specialized knowledge and they don’t use highly specialized vocabulary without explaining it. Works created for a popular audience include newspaper and magazine articles, some books, and a ton of videos, blogs, and podcasts.

Look for a topic overview, a source that provides an overall summary. Even if something is written for a popular audience, it may only address a small slice of a topic. Having a small scope (doesn’t make a source bad, but it might not be the right source to read first.  It’s a very different thing to read a source that represents one viewpoint about one aspect of a topic than it is to read a source that synthesizes all the major viewpoints and aspects of a topic into one relatively short reading. It’s actually very difficult to write a good overview of a topic since it requires awareness of all the voices in a conversation around a topic.

Happily, there is one type of source that is both written for a popular audience and written for the specific purpose of providing an overview of a topic. Encyclopedias. These things are way more awesome than you ever thought and there are way more different kinds that you may have ever realized.


You probably already knew that Wikipedia is an example of an encyclopedia. It is written at a level everyone can understand and aims to provide an overview of all significant topics. In the past you may have been discouraged from using Wikipedia in your research, but usually what your teachers were trying to convey is that your research shouldn’t end with Wikipedia. It shouldn’t be your only source because entries (especially those on less popular or more obscure topics) are subject to vandalism and inaccuracies.

But using Wikipedia for preliminary research is perfectly acceptable. The introduction paragraphs, the table of contents, and any sidebars can be very helpful in putting your topic into context and letting you know about specific issues within that topic. It can be a great source of search terms, and the References and Further reading sections can lead you to other useful and relevant sources.

There is reason to be cautious about the information you find on Wikipedia. There is no one editor with responsibility or control over all of the content. No one is carefully selecting subject experts to be involved in the creation of Wikipedia entries. No one’s professional reputation depends on making sure the information is accurate and that nothing is left out. Wikipedia’s editors are volunteers, and generally they do take the work they do seriously, but the creation process is fundamentally different than other encyclopedias and can reflect the biases of the contributors.

Subject Encyclopedias

The most famous encyclopedias, like the Encyclopedia Britannica, are general encyclopedias that try to summarize literally all of human knowledge into one set of books. Cool idea, but for our purposes, there is a different kind of encyclopedia that is more useful: subject encyclopedias. These are created to provide overviews of all the topics in a certain area or discipline. For example:

Each one has been crafted by experts in that particular field with the express purpose of providing an overview. But these overviews can be more targeted and more in depth than what you get in a general encyclopedia or in Wikipedia. There are literally thousands of subject encyclopedias. Some are available in print at the library and some are available online. You can search within many of the library’s online encyclopedias at one time by using the Gale Ebooks search. For example, if I try searching there for articles about work some of the results are:

  • Work (7 pages) in the Encyclopedia of Human Development
  • Work (4 pages) in the Encyclopedia of Religion
  • Work Time (10 pages) in the Encyclopedia of European Social History
  • Work Life Balance (3 pages) in the Encyclopedia of Small Businesses
  • Work and Family (10 pages) in the

In each of these cases we have an article of ten pages or less that we know will attempt to summarize the whole topic. In other types of sources, like magazine or journal articles, you could easily read ten pages and get only one perspective on the topic. This is a major strength of starting with an encyclopedia: they are intentionally created to synthesize a variety of perspectives on the topic. Also, depending on which encyclopedia you choose, you can explore different aspects of your topic. It’s not hard to imagine that the first two articles listed above will have different emphases even though they have the same title.

As with Wikipedia, subject encyclopedias are a start; they aren’t going to be the only sources you consult. Also like Wikipedia, most encyclopedia articles list other sources at the end to lead you to more information. In subject encyclopedias, these tend to be very carefully curated lists of the most important works on the subject.

Take Notes and Write About Your Ideas[1]

The important thing is to jot down some notes as you read; this is how you can turn your reading into topic ideas. Think of it as collecting the most interesting information from whatever you are reading. Always read with a pen in your hand or a file open to capture some notes. Don’t overthink this part, just make a note whenever something seems interesting or makes you think of a new idea or connection.

After you’ve read some introductory material and gathered some notes, try writing about them. Writing is really just a way of thinking. Try doing a free write about how the ideas you gathered connect to your interests, to your life, or to something that you think is important. After you’ve read a source, try asking yourself these questions about it:

  • What is missing?
  • What else could be relevant to this?
  • How does it connect to ideas I had from another reading?
  • What is the difference between this and [some other thing]?
  • What is this idea similar to?
  • How does this relate to what I already thought about this topic?
  • Are these two ideas contradictory or do they complement each other?
  • How is does this connect to my life or interests?

If there are questions that you come up with that you can’t resolve, it might be time to do some research on those particular questions. In the next couple chapters we’ll talk about ways to find a wider variety of sources related to your particular questions.


“It would be quite sad if we did not change our interests during research.” ~Sonke Ahrens[2]

The ideas in this chapter are meant to help you find a topic to learn more about, to help you get started. You will likely choose more in-depth sources as you progress. But it is also likely that you will continue to use the same steps of searching, reading, and writing/thinking over and over again, even as you move past the preliminary research. Iteration is the repetition of a process in order to move toward a particular goal. You will iterate through your research process. With each iteration you will focus on a different or narrower piece of your topic.

The scope of your research refers to what part of your topic you choose to focus on. Over time, the scope of your project is likely to get smaller and more specific. It’s tempting at first to choose a broad scope, assuming that that will make it easier to find information. However, the reality is that the more narrowly defined the scope of your project is, the easier it will be to learn what you need to know.

For example, you may start out with the topic of occupations burnout. This is a big problem that could be made more manageable by focusing on:

  • a particular demographic (young or older workers, men or women)
  • a particular location (a particular country, your home state, etc.)
  • a single industry (service workers, medical professionals, etc.)

Less frequently, you may have to expand the scope of your project. Both narrowing and broadening the scope of your research is okay. The point is that with every iteration, we increase our understanding of the topic and move closer to identifying and implementing a realistic project.

When we talk about “research” in these chapters, we mean the kind of research that involves learning from existing sources of information, rather than the kind of research that involves generating new knowledge through experimentation. But there are some similarities between these two activities: both of them are about increasing our understanding of the world and both benefit from iteration. In the video below (5 minutes,) Matt Andrews discusses how he uses iteration to develop solutions to problems he identifies in his work on international development. As you watch, consider what iterative steps you might take to learn about your topic. Are there ways you could learn about your topic other than internet or library research?



Reflection & Discussion Question 1: Wiki vs Subject Encyclopedias

Read the article Can You Trust Wikipedia? (approximately 10 minute read) where 7 subject experts review Wikipedia articles about their areas of interest.

Next, use the online and print resources available at your library to identify a subject encyclopedia entry on an aspect of your topic, (don’t be afraid to ask a librarian for help.) Then try to find a Wikipedia entry on the same topic. Once you have done this, read them both.

  • What differences did you notice between the two articles?
  • Did you notice any of the kinds of errors or problems in the Wikipedia entry that were mentioned in the article?
  • Which one had the better list of references at the end?  What made it better?

Reflection & Discussion Question 2: Bias in Wikipedia

Wikipedia is created through numerous additions, edits, and conversations. Have you ever noticed the Talk tab at the top of each Wikipedia entry?  This is where you can see the behind the scenes conversation between all the people who have edited the entry. One criticism of Wikipedia is that it is often the loudest, most persistent voices, with the most free time that get to keep their edits up.

This is only one way that bias can show up in Wikipedia. Review the Wikipedia article on Systemic Bias to get a sense of other ways the perspectives offered by Wikipedia may be unbalanced.

  • Locate a Wikipedia entry on a contentious issue and click on the Talk tab at the top of the screen, (you may need to click “Archives” to see older discussions.)  Read through some of the conversations you find there. What did you notice about the conversations?
  • Of the forms of bias mentioned in the Wikipedia article above, which do think are most problematic and why?

Reflection & Discussion Question 3: Iteration & Research

Above we mentioned that there are two different kinds of research, one that relates to finding and learning from information sources that already exist, and one that relates to generating new knowledge, often through experimentation, data collection and analysis. In the video above Matt Andrews discusses iteration as a method for solving problems.  Andrews says:

“You try something, you learn from the thing. You trying something else…you learn from that…and over time you come up with a solution.”

The “thing” could be reading a source, but it could also be conversations with people or groups, or gathering your own data.

  • When is “library” research useful and when is “experimental” research useful? Should one come before the other, or should they be used together? To what extent is the distinction between them a useful one?
  • What will your next iteration look like to improve your understanding of your topic? What specific steps will you take? Will it involve source-based research or experimentation?


  1. The content in this section is adapted from Sonke Ahrens 2017 book, How to Take Smart Notes
  2. Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. p138
  3. Icons from the Noun Project: Search by DinosoftLab, open-book by bainy, note by DinosoftLab, think by StringLabs


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Researching Wicked Problems by Christin Wixson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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