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LIS2004 Strategies for Online Research | Prof. Machado Dillon

This guide contains resources for students of Prof. Machado Dillon's LIS2004 course.

LIS2004 Lesson 3

Learning Outcomes

After completing this module, you will be able to:

  • Recognize the purpose of selecting a research topic is to learn new information, solve problems, answer questions, and/or generate new ideas
  • Explore and organize concepts related to a research topic
  • Formulate a research question of an appropriate scope for the assignment
  • Generate keywords and synonyms based on a research question

Information Literacy Competencies

You will apply and learn about information literacy competencies while completing this learning module.

  • The primary competency related to this module is Searching as Strategic Exploration
  • The primary knowledge practice is to determine the initial scope of the task required to meet [your] information needs


Whether you are searching for traditional print library resources or using electronic, online resources, the development of a search strategy is essential.  A search strategy is simply a plan for conducting your information search.

This is the general overview of an effective search strategy:

  • Start with a general topic
  • List all the concepts and themes related to the topic using a concept map
  • Focus the topic so that it is appropriate for the assignment – you may need to narrow or broaden your topic
  • Develop a guiding research question
  • Create and refine keywords and synonyms based on your research question

Online search tools and resources appear and disappear daily, but the strategies and processes of searching for information remain constant.

While this module focuses on developing search strategies for the open online environment (such as websites found via Google or Bing), you will find that these same strategies are transferable to other research tools, such as subscription library databases, which we will explore in greater detail in Module 5.

What is Research?

What Are the Steps to a Good Research Study?

Research is a part of life. In fact, you conduct research daily. You look things up whenever you want a hotel or a good restaurant in a new city, or a recipe for cookies you’d like to make for a party. Sometimes you use Google for answers, and other times you ask people to help you answer your question. At times you might need to visit specific websites to find good information on the kind of used car you should buy or tickets to a sporting event or concert you hope to attend. All of this is part of research at its most basic level—asking a question and then answering it. Research can be defined as an activity that produces new knowledge. However, it is not timeless. Questions change, and so do answers. New questions bring new light to bear on any topic or issue. For example, consider the way we have controlled the use of pesticides. Over time, we moved from acceptance to shock and now horror at some of the side effects. It is new information on pesticides that has influenced our change in thinking. And the reason we know this information is that someone did the research and then communicated it to our community through newscasts, newspapers, online sites, and so forth.

We often accept ideas as fact. For instance, how do we come to believe such things as “Three out of four dentists recommend . . . ” or “McDonald’s french fries are preferred three to one over . . .”? Or that heroin is addictive, or that putting infants in car seats prevents fatal injuries, or that drinking while pregnant can be harmful? It is important to know that these statements are the result of questions that led to serious research. Understanding the methods used to do research will help us understand how we come to know what we know. In cases such as these, someone was interested in knowing the answer to a particular question, planned a research study, and then published the findings. When people do this kind of research, their purpose is not only to find an answer but also to communicate what they found to the rest of us. They are communicating new knowledge.

Research is exploration and the search for possible answers to questions. Most students think research is about finding answers, but it is more about the questions we ask that lead us to the answers. Good research starts with good questions. Researchers ask themselves a question, create a possible answer in the form of a hypothesis, and then begin a process of gathering information with a methodology. If we understand how important questions are to doing research, we are then better able to determine the credibility and validity of the information sources we use. When evaluating sources, we can ask: Why should I believe this author? What does she know that makes her someone I should pay attention to? And when deciding on credibility, we can ask: What did the author do to convince me his answer is the correct one? Did the evidence really match the question the author was asking? Thus, information literacy is the ability to evaluate sources on the basis of what questions were asked, determine if those are the best questions to ask, assess whether the answers offered really answer the questions, and decide if the author is prepared to answer those questions well. Remember the literacies that Howard Rheingold suggested in the “Communicating” chapter. Using these as guides leads us to mindfully explore the vast array of information available to us. And when we do so, we won’t find ourselves taking information at face value and passing it on as though it were valid, like some of the “fake news” that is prevalent today.

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Selecting a Research Topic

First of all, you need a topic. This is often the most difficult part of the whole process. So begin by thinking of something that is really interesting to you. Let’s take music for an example. You need to ask some questions about music to start the process. Some examples of questions are:

  • What does music mean?

  • What is the function of music?

  • What is the value of music?

  • What is the significance of music?

  • How is music made?

  • What causes music to happen?

The easiest way to come up with questions regarding whatever topic you choose is to start with basic questioning words: whowhatwhywhenwherehowmightcouldcanshouldwillmustdid, and so forth. You can ask better questions, and this will help you narrow down your hypothesis. For instance, why does music change over time? Who will play this music? How did this music come about? Why should we listen to this music?

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You should also have a clear idea of your topic and the kinds of information you will need before attempting to search for open online resources.

(3:10, Creative Commons License)

Still not sure where to begin? To identify a research topic, try:

  • Suggested topics from instructors, texts, or readings

  • Your own business or personal interest area

  • Browsing the following websites and your library’s subscription databases. The websites are geared toward college students so they’ll be especially helpful for your assignment.

College Library Databases

MDC Learning Resources:

Opposing Viewpoints in Context

SIRS Researcher

Issues and Controversies

CQ Researcher Plus Archive

To log on you will need:

  • MDC Username
  • Password
Focusing Your Topic

When writing a paper, you should focus on narrowing your topic as much as possible. Start off by asking yourself these questions. What do I already know? What do I think I know? What do I need to know?

A concept map can help you organize concepts central to your research topic. Here are a few examples:

Main Topic with corresponding Key Concepts Main Topic: Childhood Obesity, Key Concepts: Parent Responsibility, Issue in Adulthood, Holistic Approach, Diet and Exercise, Medical Treatment, School Responsibility

Branching out from the topic (if religions promote peace, why do so many world conflicts revolve around religion?) bubble are general keywords (Christianity, Islam, war, peace, etc.), people or groups (Gandhi, media, ISIS, Taliban, etc.), specific locations or events (Middle East, Syria, genocide, etc.), additional keywords (Muslim, Native Americans, Jew, etc.)

Stating Your Topic as a Research Question

To state your topic as a Research Question

  1. Start with your topic: e.g. Climate Change
  2. List all the concepts and themes related to the topic using a concept map.
  3. Generate a research question using an idea from your concept map, e.g., Why is climate change such a controversial topic?

Here is a concept map in action:

Branching out from the topic bubble are general keywords, people or groups, specific locations or events, additional keywords

Branching out from the topic (why is climate change such a controversial topic?) bubble are general keywords (climate change, pollution, epa, etc.), people or groups (politicians, Americans, scientists, etc.), specific locations or events (United States, UN Conference, etc.), additional keywords (oil, carbon footprint, global warming, etc.)


Developing a Research Question

How to develop and narrow a topic by creating a research question.

(5:07, Creative Commons License)

Developing a Research Question

What is a research question and how to choose a topic?

(4:33, Creative Commons License)

Formulating Your Thesis


Scholars use information to answer one or more questions inspired by a topic of interest. Usually, a scholarly question identifies a problem and a solution. Such questions are usually written in the form of a hypothesis, which is a statement about the relationship between two things that identifies both a problem and an answer or solution. An example of a hypothesis would be: Different genres of music have an effect on the mood of the people listening to them. The questions asked to get to this hypothesis might be: Does music have an effect on mood? Do people listen to music to make them feel better? What kind of music is used as a way to energize the listener? Is there one type of music that is better than others for calming someone down?

Your hypothesis must reflect what is known about a research topic in such a way that your research project will add new knowledge and insight to what is already known. In order to arrive at a hypothesis that achieves this goal, you must learn as much as possible about your topic so you can narrow down your hypotheses to what you don’t know. Then your research project will produce new knowledge. Your hypothesis is about what you don’t know. However, you might find that you can’t prove your hypothesis. You might find evidence that contradicts it, and you will have to reflect on why your hypothesis might have been wrong.

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Turning your Research Question into a Thesis Statement

Your research question helped you brainstorm and explore your topic in order to learn a little bit more about it. An open-ended research question cannot be answered yes or no.

My sample topic: Why is Climate Change such a controversial topic?

The thesis statement should answer your research question in two parts: WHAT and WHY.

WHAT? Climate change controversy (What claim are you making about your topic?)

WHY? Predicting weather, opposing views, and media coverage (Why should we care about your claim? Why is it important?)

Thesis: Climate Change inspires controversy because of the uncertainty of predicting future weather patterns, debate between scientists and politicians, and the biased reporting from the news media.


In this module, you have learned how to:

  1. Recognize the purpose of selecting a research topic is to learn new information, solve problems, answer questions, and/or generate new ideas

  2. Explore and organize concepts related to a research topic

  3. Formulate a research question of an appropriate scope for the assignment

  4. Generate keywords and synonyms based on a research question