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Information Literacy: Literature Reviews

Step 3: Topic

Determining and refining your topic is research!

A good way to start is to first visualize your topic as a Venn diagram. This works whether you have a complex topic and are not sure how you will cover every aspect of it, or whether you have a very broad concept, but aren't sure how to narrow. Think of each circle or bubble in a Venn diagram as different facets or aspects or pieces of your topic. Read through the box below for an example. 

After you finish reading the box below, move to the box ACTIVITY: Venn diagram of your topic.

After completing the Venn diagram activity, move to STEP 4: Subject Headings

Map your topic to a Venn diagram

Sometimes your topic starts fairly broad, like "Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality".

Clearly two search terms are:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Spirituality

Venn diagram of two terms

But this is not yet a research topic. What about these terms do you want to learn? When you try to refine a topic consider:

  • How your terms could relate to each other.
    • How spirituality impacts the success of those in Alcoholics Anonymous?
    • How being involved in Alcoholics Anonymous changes someone's ideas of spirituality?
  • What population
    • Recovering alcoholics?
    • Society's perceptions of alcoholics?
    • Therapists' perceptions of recovering alcoholics?
    • Therapists' perceptions of spirituality?
    • Specific demographic? (gender/age/ethnicity/sexual orientation/etc.)
  • How does this topic relate to your program?
    • Consider treatment outcomes, theories, techniques

​From these two terms, here's an example of a full topic:

  • "What are therapists' attitudes towards Alcoholics Anonymous and spirituality?"

We could think of "therapists' attitudes" as a third circle in the Venn diagram, but sometimes it's helpful to break it down further into "therapists", "attitudes":

Venn diagram with 4 topics

Look at the small intersection point between all the topics. That small space is YOUR TOPIC. It's very likely there are not many articles written about that exact topic. That's why it's helpful to visualize your topic by separating the facets. 

Next, think of other terms for each of the circles or bubbles. Think of both narrower & broader terms. So your diagram might look something like this:

Add more terms for each Venn diagram bubble

Most topics can be visualized with only 3-4 bubbles. However, some will get more complex, especially for dissertations, and might need 5-6. if you only have 1-2 bubbles, it is not yet a topic. If you have 18 bubbles, you have a bit of a mess, as that would be unwieldy for a single topic.

To learn how to apply these terms in a database, see the next few tabs on this guide about choosing a database & using subject headings. To learn how to narrow/expand your results by combining these terms effectively, see the tab on combining terms.

ACTIVITY: Venn diagram of your topic

In the Handout "Entering the Scholarly Conversation", use a pencil to create your own Venn diagram. 

  • First, think of all the main concepts that comprise your topic. 
  • If you only have a very broad interest, consider how you could refine it. Ask yourself:
    • How does this interest relate to my future career?
    • What do I want to know about this interest? Do I want to learn about diagnosing/assessing or perhaps about treatment or about co-morbidity or causes?
    • Do I want to know how this relates to a particular group of people? To a particular diagnosis? To a particular type of treatment?
  • Break your topic into 3-5 bubbles
    • Each bubble should be able to be reviewed separately, even if you are not interested in the bubble's concept on its own, but only insofar as it relates to other bubbles in your topic. 
      • Example: You might be interested in the population of African American women and are not interested in African American men, nor in white women. However, you should have two bubbles: "African American" and "women". That way, if there are not many resources which deal with your topic in relationship to this population, you can show how the topic impacts African Americans & how it impacts women. Then, discuss the lack of research on African American women and your topic.
      • Example: If you are interested in homeless youth, you will want to break that into two bubbles: "homeless or housing insecure" and "youth". 
    • Try not to have a bubble that's too vague such as "causes" or "effects". Instead, consider what some of those might be. If you aren't sure yet, don't worry - I encourage you to adapt the Venn diagram as you start finding resources.
    • Too many bubbles? if you have 6, that's probably fine. But if you find you have 10, you might want to consider which aspects are most important to you. Sometimes when we have too many facets, it means we haven't narrowed enough & we're actually looking at 2 or 3 different research topics/papers.
  • Once you have your bubbles, write all the ways you could narrow/expand those terms.
    • Example: If you're interested in Psychology graduate students, consider if you would be willing to find materials on counseling graduate students and/or psychology undergraduate students, or even to medical students. Remember, broadening how you search for resources does not change your actual study! I am not suggesting broadening your topic, but just what you discuss in your literature review. Consider how to narrow, too! Perhaps you're you could narrow by PsyD or PhD, or MA, MS.
    • Example: if one bubble is addictions, consider what you mean by addictions. Are you willing to take resources on any addictions (internet, porn, video games, gambling) or only substance abuse? Are you interested in legal or illegal substances? Add some narrower terms for specific addictions. 

If you want any help with this activity, I highly recommend you make a reference appointment with me, Frances Brady. You can cook an appointment through the link below.