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Research Guides

English 102 Library Instruction: Topic/Terms

Finding A Topic

If you don't know what topic to research, here are some databases that might give you some ideas.  You can browse their topic lists.

Refining Your Topic

Once you have a topic idea, you will want to begin to refine it into a question that can be successfully researched.  You may need to do some reading or searching to gain enough basic knowledge about your topic to begin to refine it.  Here are links to some other tips for improving your topic.

Commonly Used Boolean Operators

What are Boolean Operators?

Boolean operators are used in search engines in databases and on the web to define relationships between words and groups of words.  They can help you refine your search to find the best possible results. 

AND Use AND to retrieve both search terms
OR Use OR to retrieve either search term(s)
NOT Use NOT to exclude search term(s)
" " Use " " to keep the order of words intact
( ) Use ( ) to phrase search; this organizes the order of relationships in your search
* Use * to the end of a term to search all ending of the root word, e.g. govern* retrieves government, government, govern, governs, governor 
? Use ? to find alternate spellings, e.g. wom?n retrieves woman or women 

Tips for searching within search engines:

  • Searching is not case sensitive
  • Most search engines do not search punctuation or certain words, e.g. the, a, of, by
Visit Boolean Searching for more information.

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is a creative and visual way to help you explore and refine your topic.  It can also help you determine subtopics and to brainstorm search terms.  Click on the link below to learn about concept mapping.

Learn about concept mapping through this step-by-step explanation.


Handout for creating your own concept map

Turning Your Research Question into a Search Strategy

To successfully search for information on your topic, it is best to determine the main concepts and then find keywords for those concepts. The keywords can become your search words.  In general, you should search library databases with 2-3 keywords, rather than your whole topic question or a sentence.  

For example, your research question is "Does fracking cause water pollution?" First underline the keywords as shown.

Then begin generating synonyms and related words to help you develop a search strategy.

fracking water pollution
hydraulic fracturing underground water contamination
drilling for natural gas aquifers toxins
natural gas wells wells carcinogens
directional drilling domestic water supply flammable water


In many databases, you could start your search by typing fracking water pollution and it would automatically turn that search into: 

fracking AND water AND pollution 

This is a search using Boolean logic


A more advanced Boolean search could be done like this:

(fracking OR "hydraulic fracturing") AND (water OR aquifer* OR wells) AND (pollut* OR contaminat* OR carcinogen*)

In this example the * will also find different endings for the words, such as aquifers, pollution, pollute, contaminate, contamination, carcinogens, and carcinogenic.

Here are some more tips for choosing keywords.

You can also find additional keywords by searching your topic in a database, finding a relevant item and noting the terms used in the description of that item. 

Building Keywords (from Northwestern U)

Choosing search terms: keywords

How Library Stuff works: choosing keywords

Boolean logic