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Selecting a Research Topic: Background information & facts

Tips on how to select and refine your research topic.

What to look for

Background information can help you prepare for further research by explaining all the issues related to your topic, especially when you're investigating a field that's unfamiliar to you. Tips:

  • Check for background information in: dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopedias.
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  • Look for facts in: statistical guides, almanacs, biographical sources, or handbooks.
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  • Collect keywords or important terms, concepts and author names to use when searching databases.
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  • Start thinking in broad terms, then narrow down your topic. 
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  • Look at bibliographies to guide you to other sources of information (books, articles, etc.)
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 See also:

General sources

Below is a selection of online reference sources.  Find more in Vera.

Subject-specific sources

Below is a selection of online reference sources.  Find more in Vera.

About Wikipedia

You're probably already familiar with Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia.  The reference sources listed on this page are similar to Wikipedia, with some differences that you should be aware of, including:

  • Wikipedia is part of the free web, so anyone with an Internet connection can access it seamlessly.
  • Reference sources are generally part of the fee-based web, which means they require a subscription to access the content, making the information in them very valuable.  The fee-based sources listed here are paid for by the MIT Libraries.
  • "Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world.  Anyone with Internet access can make changes to Wikipedia articles."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
  • Reference sources are written collectively by experts in the fields they cover - some are researchers, some are professors, but all have qualifications of a professional nature.
  • Wikipedia contains encyclopedia-like articles on almost anything, making it a general or multidisciplinary source of information.
  • Reference sources are sometimes general in nature, but often cover one subject area in depth, so you can choose a source that focuses on the discipline you're researching more extensively.
  • Wikipedia has a set of editing policies and guidelines that authors should follow when writing or editing articles.
  • Reference sources are edited and vetted for accuracy, currency, and authority by the source's editorial board (often a group of researchers in the field).  

Wikipedia can be a good source to begin with.  However, you should balance what you find there with information from other reference sources as well.  And make sure you evaluate information you find from the Wikipedia or any other source.

If you have questions about the kind of information you find, please Ask Us.  Library staff are happy to help you find quality information on any topic you're researching.