Preliminary Research

You may need to do preliminary research to find or refine a topic. Some early reading can help you narrow your focus, establish research questions, and avoid the frustration of directionless research. Ignore the instinct to begin your preliminary research by blindly typing in key words in an online search engine. Here’s a list of some places to start:  

  • Begin with course materials. The syllabus, required or recommended readings, textbooks and lecture notes will often provide ideas for a topic and will also frame a topic within the major themes of your courses.

  • Explore the library’s web site for comprehensive lists of reliable online and print reference works, often sorted by discipline (look for the Subject Guide or Resource Guide). Encyclopaedias, biographical dictionaries, bibliographies, discipline-specific dictionaries, and introductory texts can often answer basic (what, when, who, where, or how) questions.
  • It's okay to look outside the academy. During the early stages of research, you may find benefit in the use of Wikipedia, other encyclopedias or Google, all of which may offer a general introduction to an unfamiliar topic. Use caution, and be sure that only material from your scholarly research, not Wikipedia, is cited in your paper. The same is true for most reference books and text books that you may read during the early stages of research.  What does the Trent University library say about Wikipedia?

The materials found during the preliminary research stage can give you a sense of the range of possible topics as they identify main concepts, key terminology, and important literature on the topic. Preliminary research also helps you understand a possible topic's larger context.


A Plan Establishes Research Goals and Clarifies Direction

Without a plan (consisting of a good, narrowed topic, and a working thesis), research is overwhelming and frustrating. Directionless, you may gather too many sources, take too many notes on too many ideas, and lose your focus. A clear direction and plan for research helps you assess the quality and relevance of sources. You will avoid reading unnecessary sources and prevent any mid-project topic changes.



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