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Engineering -- Civil Engineering - CIVE 400 - Capstone Course Research

Finding a Research Topic

Most research starts off by finding a topic that interests you most.

Want to find a good topic for your research?

  • You can use key encyclopedias and dictionaries that can help you find current topics of interest.
  • Talking to your professor or your TA about your topic of interest will be beneficial in finding out if you can further study that topic.
  • Once you have determined your topic of interest, write it down in a sentence format.

Concepts and Keywords

Once you have determined your topic, you will need to develop the question or questions that your research will try to answer. One of the best ways to identify potential research questions is to identify concepts or keywords pertaining to your topic. These keywords will guide you to develop a search strategy. 

Key steps to follow while developing your topic:

  • Brainstorm concepts and keywords
  • Ask yourself if these concepts are too broad or too narrow
  • Write down a list of related terms or synonyms
  • Develop a Concept Map (A concept map is a brainstorming tool used to help you generate ideas and think about the relationships among these ideas).

Concept mapping or "clustering" "is a spatial technique that generates associations and seeks connections among them.  You begin by writing a work or phrase in the middle of a blank page and circling it.  As associations occur to you, you write them down and circle them, connecting them by a line to the work/phrase that gave rise to the association.  As you continue this process beyond the first words/phrases surrounding the original word/phrase, you will develop larger clusters in some places than in other.  The well-developed clusters may suggest the most promising ways to develop your topic" Henderson, Eric. (2012) The active reader: Strategies for academic reading and writing (2nd ed.) Don Mills, Canada: Oxford, p 73.

Choosing Keywords to narrow or broaden your topic

If your topic is too broad, you may want to narrow it topic by identifying keywords that will limit your search by Age, Sex, Gender, Geographic Information, etc. If your topic is too narrow however, you may want to use broader headings and generalize them.


For example: What is the environmental impact of the disposal of plastic bottles?

Thanks to LMU/LA for content:

Using the keywords from your search strategy, use the "Find Books" and "Find Articles" tabs to search for scholarly resources.

  • If you are looking for books, search the library catalogue to find new and current material on your subject
  • If you are looking for articles, search the multi-disciplinary databases or specific databases in your subject area to conduct your search
  • Distinguish between primary and secondary sources

Tips on searching:

  • Use key boolean operators like "AND" (to combine terms), "OR" (to distinguish between related terms or synonyms), "NOT" (to omit a term)
  • Use parentheses (), called "nesting," to combine more concepts. For example: (teenagers OR adolescents) AND (beliefs OR attitudes) AND alcohol
  • Shorten, or truncate, a keyword by using symbols such as "*" or "?". For example, canad* will retrieve results for the words Canada, Canadian and Canadians
  • Use quotation marks to search two or more search terms as a phrase (e.g., climate change-use quotation marks (" ") around the whole phrase "climate change") to ensure the words are searched for together as a phrase

Tips for evaluating search results:

Doing research to find resources for your paper will take time.  While it is tempting to use only the first few resources you find, they may not necessarily be the best resources for your purposes, so it is important to evaluate the resources as you find them.  Doing this will help you to determine whether or not you need to find more resources, or if you can stop searching and move on to the next stage of the writing process.

Reading abstracts is a quick way to determine the quality or usefulness of a resource. Most databases you search will provide abstracts along with the title of the work, the author(s), and the publisher.

The four main points you want to think about when evaluating an article are:

  1. Authority – Who is the author? Do they have valid credentials? Look at the first few pages of an article or book to see who the author is and with which institution they are affiliated. Googling authors’ names is an easy way to find what else they have published to get a better sense of their credentials/authority.
  2. Purpose – Who is the intended audience? What is the intended purpose of the publication?  To sway opinion?  To report out on a study they did?  Does the purpose of the resource suit your research?
  3. Content – How well does the resource address your topic? If it only partially addresses your topic, you may need to find additional resources.
  4. Currency – When was the work published? Look at the year when the item was published. Sometimes older material is too out of date.  If you want to find literature published within the last 5-10 years, look for a date limiter option in the database you are searching.  This is a common feature of most databases to help you refine your search results.

Taken from Psychology 201 libguide by Jessica Mussell

A citation, or reference, is the quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing of someone else's work, used as a basis for your own ideas and research.

  • A citation also refers to the information about a source, such as title, author, date, etc., which gives credit to the original author and shows readers where to find the original work.
  • Citations follow a standardized format from a guide such as IEEE style guide.

Research Question exercises

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