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Information literacy: Defining your topic

Defining your topic

After the orientation phase (Orientation on your topic) you will have a clearer picture of the scope of your topic, for example:

  • who are the key people?
  • to which location and period does the topic relate?
  • who are the main authors?

To define your subject as clearly as possible (and to write a good essay) you need a clear research question and a clear approach or angle. This will enable you to make a selection from all the literature available on a subject. Formulating a good research question requires a great deal of thought and time. Still, it is absolutely rewarding to take your time for this part of the research process since your research question is the foundation for your research. In addition, a clear research question will also save time, becauses it enables you to tackle your research in a focused manner.

Generally, academic research results in an academic text, i.e. an article or a paper. A good text has a clear angle; the perspective from which the topic is approached. This angle helps the author to select material and to write a coherent text.

For more information on formulating a research question and deciding on an approach, go to the Academic Communication Skills portal of the University of Groningen Language Centre.

Making a search more specific: example

This example shows how you can make a subject more specific.

  • Initial subject (including what, where, when): industrialization in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century.
  • The subject is still too broad and gives too many hits. Make the place and period more specific: the rise of industry in the second half of the nineteenth century in the province of Groningen.
  • This subject can be made even more specific (topic, place, period): the rise of the strawboard industry in East Groningen between 1870-1900.
  • Finally, make the subject and area even more specific: social circumstances of unskilled workers in the strawboard industry in Oude Pekela and Nieuwe Pekela from 1870-1900.

What is your own role?

In most cases, it will not be possible to find literature that gives a precise answer to your research question. You will have to use the literature you find to make connections and arrive at the answers yourself, backing them up with arguments.