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ENGL 100 University Writing

steps in the research process; define and narrow a topic; gather background information; develop a question and thesis; find and evaluate sources; cite sources; write paper

Research - Topics & Keywords

Writing an essay requires you to answer a research question.

How does _____ contribute to _____?  What is the impact of ____ on ____? (What is the impact of childhood poverty on mental health in adulthood? Can frequent social media use make you more narcissistic?  Does participation in community programs reduce depression amongst teens?)

How you choose to answer your research question is up to you, but your response to the question should be backed by research that shows evidence to support or oppose the views being expressed.

Searching successfully requires you to carefully consider the words and phrases most likely to be associated with your topic. Before you begin your search for information, take time to brainstorm the keywords you will include as your search terms. Keep in mind that the language that might first come to mind for you in exploring a topic may differ from the language used by experts in their published research, so it is important to consider synonyms or terms related to your topic.

Example Research Question: Does increased use of social media by teenagers lead to narcissistic personalities?

Rather than type our entire research question into a tool like OCtopus, we should instead consider how to represent our topic in a way the search tools are more likely to understand. The table below illustrates how a question might be broken down into its most important subjects or ideas. When working with ideas that may be represented by more than one word or phrase, we can use OR to indicate to the search that we are interested in seeing results that include at least one of the terms.

Subject A: Social Media Subject B: Narcissism Subject C: Teenagers

"social media" OR Instagram

narcissism OR vanity OR egotistical teenage OR youth OR adolescent
Writing a research essay is similar to telling a fact-based story. Think to yourself:

What do I want to tell my reader? A thesis should tell the purpose of the paper.

You would never build a house without a blue-print, so why would you write an essay without one? Build the scaffolding before filling in the details. Break out topics and sections first so you know where your paper is going, and you know your research needs. 

Identify your keywords before searching. Use a thesaurus to come up with synonyms for the same word to expand search results.

Find a good article? Check the citations or reference list and search OCtopus to find the articles used by the author.


  • Use KEYWORDS, avoid phrases that include filler words such as, of, the, it, if, are.
  • Words that contain multiple concepts require quotation marks to be processed as a PHRASE. For example, "climate change", "child welfare".
  • AND, OR, and NOT will improve your search results. These are BOOLEAN operators that search tools understand, and are useful in targeting your results to those likely to be relevant to your research question.


Try using one to four important words or phrases which describe your topic.

Tip: use quotation marks around phrases, for example

"social media"

Try using alternative words or phrases:

  • synonyms
  • broader or more general terms 
  • narrower or more specific terms
  • related terms

Ideas for Topics: Controversial Issues

Try the following sources if you're looking for controversial issues for possible topics:

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